Cavs try to take next step vs. Ga­tors

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - By STEVEN WINE AP Sports Writer

MI­AMI >> Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia ju­nior Charles Snow­den re­calls that when he first ar­rived on cam­pus, new ac­quain­tances were dis­ap­pointed to learn he was a line­backer rather than a power for­ward.

“I was 6-7 and 190 pounds, real skinny,” Snow­den said. “And peo­ple would say, ‘Are you on the bas­ket­ball team?’” “‘No, I’m on the foot­ball team.’” “‘Oh.’” As in, “Oh, that’s too bad.” But now that the Cava­liers (94, No. 24 CFP) are about to play No. 6-ranked Florida in the Or­ange Bowl, strangers are ex­cited to meet a foot­ball player, Snow­den said.

“That’s a twist, and it’s pretty cool,” he said. “I love it.”

Vir­ginia’s trip to the Or­ange Bowl shows how far the pro­gram has come, and Mon­day night’s game will of­fer a gauge of where it might be headed.

“We un­der­stand the his­tory Vir­ginia has had,” Snow­den said.

“We were not a big name in col­lege sports, so we hear a lot of what peo­ple say. A lot of us just kind of laughed it off. If I had heard the name Vir­ginia a cou­ple years ago, I’d have prob­a­bly had the same re­ac­tion. So we’re go­ing to go out there and prove it’s a new team and a new era.”

The Ga­tors (10-2, No. 9 CFP) are on the rise, too. A vic­tory would clinch Florida’s first 11-win sea­son since 2012.

“We don’t get to play again un­til Septem­ber,” coach Dan Mullen said. “That’s a long time to sit around. So if you have the op­por­tu­nity to fin­ish the sea­son with a win, I think it re­ally kind of bolts you into the next sea­son.”


The Cava­liers are mak­ing their Or­ange Bowl de­but, and a win would be the big­gest bowl vic­tory in school his­tory. They would crack the AP Top 25 and fin­ish the sea­son ranked for the first time since 2004.

“This is the next step for our pro­gram, and we can’t wait to cap­i­tal­ize,” coach Bronco Men­den­hall said. “We are a pro­gram that is de­vel­op­ing, ris­ing, grow­ing and be­com­ing.”

Foot­ball still doesn’t match the pop­u­lar­ity of a bas­ket­ball team that won the na­tional cham­pi­onship in April, but Men­den­hall has re­vived a pro­gram that went 2-10 in his first sea­son in 2016. This year the Cava­liers ended a streak of 15 con­sec­u­tive losses to ri­val Vir­ginia Tech and earned their third con­sec­u­tive bowl berth.

The Ga­tors, how­ever, are 14 1/2-point fa­vorites. A win would give them a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive Top 10 fin­ish un­der sec­ond-year coach Mullen, who has quickly re­turned Florida to supremacy in the foot­ball­crazed Sun­shine State.

“That’s re­ally huge for us,” quar­ter­back Kyle Trask said. “Coach Mullen’s thing is that’s how it should be. That’s the Ga­tors stan­dard. We need to be the best team in the state ev­ery sin­gle year. This past cou­ple of years is let­ting every­body know Florida is back on the map like it should be.”


The lightly re­cruited Trask came off the bench to lead a come­back vic­tory at Kentucky in Septem­ber. The next week he made his first start since he was a high school fresh­man, and he quickly be­came the trig­ger­man for a po­tent of­fense.

The ju­nior’s passer rat­ing of 159.24 is the high­est at Florida since Tim Te­bow led the na­tion at 164.2 in 2009. Cen­ter Nick Buchanan at­tributes Trask’s sur­pris­ing suc­cess to hard work that dates to when both were fresh­men.

“One of the first times I saw him, I was at one of the dorms com­ing in, and it’s like mid­night,” Buchanan re­called. “I see Kyle and I’m like, ‘What you do­ing, bro?’ He’s like, ‘I just went on a two-mile jog.’ I’m like, ‘What?!’

“This kid is crazy. It’s amaz­ing to see that work ethic. All he does is come to work. It’s amaz­ing to see him come and lead­ing us to vic­tory week after week.”


The Cava­liers, who gave up 62 points to Clem­son in their At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence ti­tle game loss, now face the chal­lenge of deal­ing with Florida’s deep re­ceiv­ing corps.

For the first time since 1993, four Ga­tors have at least 35 catches and four touch­downs. The 150-yard re­ceiv­ing mark for the sea­son has been sur­passed by nine play­ers, the most at Florida since at least 1990.

“One of the first things that jumps off the film when you study Florida’s of­fense is just how many re­ally good ath­letes are in space, and how fre­quently the ball is de­liv­ered ac­cu­rately and ef­fec­tively in well-de­signed plays,” Men­den­hall said. “It’ll be a chal­lenge for us and will re­quire a lot of in­no­va­tion, a lot of coach­ing on our part to try to neu­tral­ize that.”


Nei­ther team has an Al­lAmer­i­can, but two of the na­tion’s best pass rushes will be on dis­play.

Florida’s 46 sacks rank fifth. Vir­ginia ranks sixth with a school-record 45 sacks, and blitzes on almost ev­ery play.

“It’s about switch­ing up the pat­terns and be­ing able to get the O-line a lit­tle bit twisted up,” line­backer Zane Zandier said. “It has been big for us this year.”


Now that Mullen is the first Ga­tors coach to win at least 10 games in each of his first two sea­sons, spec­u­la­tion has be­gun re­gard­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of an NFL team lur­ing him away.

“Those are nice com­pli­ments,” Mullen said Sun­day. “In the coach­ing pro­fes­sion, a lot of times they’re mak­ing com­ments on you one way or the other, right? They ei­ther need to get rid of you, or you’re go­ing some­where else. So it’s al­ways bet­ter to be on the lat­ter of those two.”


Vir­ginia Cava­liers head coach Bronco Men­den­hall, left, and Florida Ga­tors head coach Dan Mullen, right, pose for a pho­to­graph dur­ing a news con­fer­ence for the Or­ange Bowl NCAA col­lege foot­ball game, Sun­day, Dec. 29, 2019, in Fort Laud­erdale, Fla. Florida plays Vir­ginia in the Or­ange Bowl on Dec. 30.

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