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Florida vs. Virginia, Tuesday Morning Post: A fitting farewell

Florida didn’t blow out Virginia on Monday. It’s okay to not extrapolate wildly from that.

Capital One Orange Bowl - Virginia v Florida Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

It’s been a minute since the last one of these. But I couldn’t in good conscience not write up a takeaways post from Florida’s Orange Bowl win over Virginia, right?

I want to be very clear about one thing up top: I think bowl games outside the College Football Playoff are exhibitions in which teams’ play is less reflective of current or future prospects than most. Counterintuitively, I really think it’s the aberrational performances of bowl season — like, I dunno, scoring zero points in a 14-0 loss to Louisiana Tech, or whatever some team is going to do in a 20-point blowout we haven’t yet seen to plant its flag in the 2020 preseason top 10 — that have the most predictive value, as those outliers seem to me most likely to reflect major problems in preparation or an especially well-oiled machine. (One such result: Florida trampling Michigan last year in a game that the Gators clearly considered a big game worth being all the way up for.)

With that caveat written out, though, here are my Tuesday morning takeaways from this game, which, as always, come with the other caveat of deliberately not having given it or comprehensive highlights from it a second viewing.

Lamical Perine authored a fitting farewell

I was a little bummed that Florida’s flurry of touchdowns for seniors on Senior Night — pretty clearly scripted by Dan Mullen, because Florida got to pick and choose who scored against Florida State this year — did not include one for Lamical Perine, maybe the most beloved of them all. And I wasn’t the only person to notice that he didn’t get to touch the new blue paint in The Swamp.

On Monday night, Perine made sure he wouldn’t go another game without a trip to the house by cribbing his second carry, then added two more scores and what could’ve been a fantastic fourth on arguably his best night as a Gator.

Perine ran for a career-high 138 yards and two touchdowns and caught five passes for 43 yards and another score in the 36-28 win, and he deserves most of the credit for those totals: He burned Virginia’s entire defense on his 61-yard touchdown run, and defeated and evaded tackles on the other two. He was a menace in open space, a reminder that seemingly middling SEC skill-position players really are often a tier removed from middling ACC defenders, and finally seemed like the guy that we all hoped he would be in a senior year that was mostly spent running behind a waterlogged line.

Perine mustered brilliance in fits and starts despite that line, with his touchdown streak against Auburn — again, nearly entirely his own creation — standing as the biggest and best play of Florida’s whole season. But he also finished the night at 676 rushing yards on the year — 160 fewer than the 826 he had on two fewer carries a year ago.

He’s still in rare air when it comes to Florida running backs — he’s eighth in career rushing yards, having edged out both Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey last night, is one of very few in program history with four 400-yard campaigns at 4.0 YPC or better, and I imagine he’s one of very few with 2,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards, considering that Jeff Demps missed one of those plateaus — and yet it feels like he could’ve or should’ve had gaudier numbers, if not for being part of two Jim McElwain seasons and a campaign in which Florida shifted its balance heavily towards the pass.

Perine fit all of those offenses, though, developing into an all-around, every-down threat who could pick up blitzes or motion out for screens. He’s been through a lot and held his head high, working more like the kid who took a bus to Gainesville to work out for an offer than the star he became. The NFL team that picks him in this year’s draft — probably later than we’d hope, given the fungibility of running backs — is going to get a player who can be a star and be a workhorse.

And you can be sure Gator Nation will be cheering for Lamical Perine wherever he goes.

But for one night, he was the biggest star in the biggest game on TV, the Orange Bowl MVP thanks to an evening of indomitability. Perine deserved that, too — to show the world he is as good as we’ve known him to be for a long time.

Florida kind of needed that star turn

One thing that’s nice about having a running back go off for three touchdowns and what was a toe or two away from being a fourth is that it provides a steady supply of points over the course of a night.

In a bit of a surprise, Florida needed them.

This wasn’t the runaway that it could have been after Perine’s first score and a quick three-and-out, nor the shootout that seemed possible (and that ESPN’s booth was openly rooting for) after Virginia responded to those two Florida-favoring events by snagging a pick on a poor ball from Kyle Trask and immediately bombing the Florida secondary by finding the guy matched up against Trey Dean and throwing to him. Virginia’s other pre-halftime touchdown came on a seven-minute drive covering nearly the length of the field and only produced six points because of an unreal play by Bryce Perkins and a similarly great catch from Hasise Dubois.

And though Perkins didn’t do much damage with his legs as a runner (14 carries, 24 rushing yards), his ability to extend plays had Florida playing soft zones designed to limit that damage, which in turn created the space underneath where he operated surgically (328 passing yards, four TDs) all night. The Cavaliers had just three receptions of more than 23 yards — despite clearly having receivers open deep on a regular basis — and only went three-and-out three times, managing to stay on the field with dink-and-dunk stuff.

And, well: Fine? Florida gave up three red zone touchdowns because of an irreproducible play, an Emory and Henry look, and a throw to the perimeter with seconds left and a two-touchdown lead, which was unusual for this defense. But that defense didn’t have CJ Henderson and wasn’t rushing its typical stationary target, and Virginia was clearly emptying its bag (including on a tackle-eligible play that was called back because it was wholly illegal) to stay in the game.

Status of Emory Jones shaping up as offseason’s A1 story

Let’s update something from earlier this year.

In 2018, Justin Fields went 27-for-39 for 328 yards and four touchdowns and had 42 carries for 266 yards and four touchdowns for Georgia.

In 2019, Emory Jones went 25-for-38 for 267 yards and three touchdowns and had 42 carries for 256 yards and four touchdowns for Florida.

The way Georgia used Fields in 2018 (as a true freshman) was cited by many as a miscue by Kirby Smart that helped usher Fields out the door. The way Florida used Jones in 2018 — when he had even fewer touches, and was redshirted — was cited by Dan Mullen as a reason that he stayed with the Gators. The way Florida used Jones in 2019 was eerily similar to how Georgia used Fields in 2018.

And that could be a problem.

Jones is obviously inked in as no worse than Florida’s backup in 2020, and even with Trask pretty safely installed in front of him, I think he can count on being a significant part of the team next fall, as the Gators will very likely try to redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson like they did Jones. But Jones still hasn’t thrown more than eight passes in any game, and has been treated like freshman Tim Tebow in his deployment — except that 2007 Tebow threw the ball about as often as Jones did in 2019, but ran it almost twice as much.

And what Trask did on Monday night should put to bed the possibility that rational Florida fans go through this offseason thinking he’s an infallible signal-caller on an obvious trajectory toward for Heisman contention or a championship campaign. It’s probably fair to be reasonably optimistic about Trask’s 2020, much like many — myself included — were about Feleipe Franks’s 2019: There’s been significant growth and some very good play, and the ceiling could well be garnering awards consideration and piloting Florida to the College Football Playoff, but it’s also possible that stagnation or regression could happen.

But crucially, Franks was a better athlete and more versatile runner than Trask, and did more to preserve the QB run concepts that are core to Mullen’s offense; if Franks was around, it made more sense for Jones to not be used as a change-up. Trask being Florida’s QB shrank the playbook, but it also somehow shrank Jones’s role.

And no matter how many Trask partisans stamp him as Florida’s best QB since Tebow — arguably true! — it will also be possible in 2020 that he’s still not good enough at his peak to get Florida to the College Football Playoff ... and, simultaneously, that Florida will have a QB on the roster who could play that well at his own peak, thanks to a different skill set. What Jones did on Monday night as a runner was just the latest instance of him being effective in that role; what he’s done as a passer is show glimpses of being good.

What he could do by combining good-to-great aptitude for both could exceed what Trask does by being a very good passer and a merely adequate runner.

But Franks getting hurt sideswiped the most likely Franks succession plan — Franks going pro as QB1, followed by Jones beating out Trask in a level-pegging quarterback competition this spring — and Trask is now the entrenched starter, very likely to beat out Jones in any QB competition. And Jones, now likely no better than a backup for a third straight year, both hasn’t been given a big enough role as of yet to make his return a fait accompli and could well read the way things have shaken out to date to be something other than a fair shake — which means his status could, and maybe should, be something to watch all the way until fall practice.

Was there a way to head this off entirely? Short of throwing caution to the wind and playing Jones as soon as Franks got hurt, probably not. And I think that path would have led Florida to more losses than it sustained this season, as Jones would have been developing while also being ask to go win games, something the more experienced and polished Trask didn’t really need to do. I don’t fault Mullen for choosing the route to an 11-win season.

Still, though, the question for Florida this offseason is whether the Gators will get enough at quarterback to contend for the championships that the program must contend for to progress from its current plateau. And whatever you think of Florida’s current options at the position, it’s hard to think that the Gators would be better off in the near future with Trask alone as an experienced option than with Trask and Jones together in the QB room.

Florida should have done a better job of making sure that the latter prospect was more likely this season. Its top task this offseason may be ensuring it comes to pass.

Other notes

  • Florida’s reborn running game wasn’t just about Perine’s performance: Trask, Jones, and Dameon Pierce all ended up over 30 yards individually, and came up just short of 100 yards collectively. And Florida’s run blocking looked better this night than most, with some new offensive line combinations — and the increasing integration of the hulking Ethan White — appearing to clear lanes. If that continues to improve this offseason and allows Florida to ultimately marry a running game that can go for 200 yards in any given game to a strong passing attack, it will likely again have one of the nation’s better offenses.
  • Kadarius Toney, in maybe his final game as a Gator: Two touches, zero net yards. Trevon Grimes, in maybe his final game as a Gator: One catch, seven yards. I don’t think either guy is a lock — or even a lean — to go pro, but Florida not force-feeding either the ball this evening suggests coddling draft-eligible players by making them focal points of their offense wasn’t the Gators’ top priority.
  • Of course, it also helped that Van Jefferson had a career night, with six catches for a collegiate-best 129 yards. Like Perine, Jefferson’s a pro whose value will exceed his pre-Draft hype, and it was good to see one last excellent game from him.
  • I’m pretty ready to see the assortment of young talent on defense, especially since Florida’s McElwain-era holdovers have seemingly all peaked or moved on. 2020 should give us a lot more Kaiir Elam and Mohamoud Diabate, and a lot less of Trey Dean at corner and the revolving door of lopsided play at safety. Florida will also be replacing both sides of its pass-rush package, without the beloved Jonathan Greenard and the star-crossed Jabari Zuniga, and will be replacing captain and bulldog David Reese inside. But defensive recruiting has ticked up under Mullen (and Grantham, et al.), and it’s possible and maybe probable that Grantham’s pressure-heavy scheme will be best executed with better talent. We’ll see.
  • Evan McPherson is the most accurate field goal kicker in Florida history to date and is likely to finish no worst than third on Florida’s career list in terms of makes. If he misses any one of the three field goals he had in this game, Virginia’s late chances might have been a bit more threatening. I’m glad he didn’t.
  • Finally, I found it deeply amusing that Joe Reed, the nation’s best kick returner coming into this game, was outdone by Tyrie Cleveland, who is not even a particularly good kick returner. Strong work by Florida’s coverage team there.