The first-time ACC Coastal Division winners instead have been dissecting each play from the blowout as part of their preparation for No. 9 Florida on Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., the next step in what Cavaliers Coach Bronco Mendenhall refers to as “unbroken growth.”
“Our loss to Clemson was falling forward,” Mendenhall said. “I put it in the same category as our first game against Virginia Tech down there [a 34-31 loss in overtime in November 2018], our loss to Navy in the bowl game [in 2017] and now that one. I view those as critical moments in the program. I hate the losses, but I love the learning. I put those three together, and some of the most impactful things that have happened since I’ve been the coach at U-Va., with the potential to help us go to places we couldn’t have as early without being in those, as painful as they are.”
The Cavaliers (9-4) are making their first New Year’s Six bowl appearance since the start of the CFP in 2014 with much at stake, including an opportunity to match the 1989 team for the most victories in a season in school history.
A victory would also deliver Virginia consecutive bowl wins for the first time since 2002 and 2003, providing another accolade to end the careers of a handful of notable seniors who endured a 2-10 record when Mendenhall took over a wayward program in 2016.
Since then, Mendenhall has transformed the Cavaliers in large part by upgrading at quarterback, most notably adding Bryce Perkins. In two seasons as the starter, Perkins has 17 wins, the second-highest total for a quarterback in program history behind Shawn Moore (25).
“It sets us up to be one of the best teams in U-Va. history,” Perkins said. “It’s a testament to our hard work throughout the summer, our hard work and transition from last year to this year, and the culture and the players who built and kind of set the platform when they first got here. A lot of these guys were on the two-win team and kind of see the transition and how it came from not a bowl game to three bowl games in a row.”
Perkins owns the school’s single-season record for total offense (3,960), breaking the mark he set last year after transferring from Arizona Western, a community college. The dual-threat senior began his career at Arizona State in 2015 and missed the next year with the Sun Devils because of a broken neck.
Perkins needs 335 yards of total offense — he is averaging 304.6 this season — against the Gators (10-2) to become Virginia’s career leader and break Moore’s record set from 1987 to 1990.
Perkins’s 3,215 passing yards this year are the most in one season at Virginia, and with 5,895 in his career, he ranks third all-time at the school in that category, trailing Matt Schaub (7,502) and Moore (6,629).
“What we did not see on the recruiting film is how committed he is to the process,” Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “What you don’t see on the film is his ability to lead others in the process and, dang, did he overachieve in that realm.”
One of Perkins’s most impressive performances this season came against Clemson, which entered the weekend leading major college football in total defense, allowing 244.7 yards per game.
The Cavaliers rolled up 387 yards, with Perkins accounting for all but 63, in the ACC title game, and they draw another marquee defense Monday night in Florida, which permits 299 yards per game, ranking ninth in the country.
Over the past three games, the Gators are giving up an average of 7.7 points, and twice in that span they held an opponent without a touchdown. Florida has three shutouts this season and allowed six points or fewer two other times under second-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
“For any big football fan, college football fan, you know about the Orange Bowl,” said Virginia senior defensive end Eli Hanback, who is set to play in his school-record 52nd game. “This is a New Year’s Six. There’s been national championships played here. I mean, this is, when you talk about bowl games, this is as big as it gets, really.
“So for me personally, and I think for any real football fan, this is a big deal, and it’s a big deal for us. I know the magnitude of this game, and I know the magnitude of our opponent.”