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Game Preview:
Miami at Virginia Tech
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/29/01

Saturday, December 1st, 2001, 1:00
TV:
ABC (national)
Brad Nessler, Bob Griese, Lynn Swann
Click here for Blacksburg Weather
Saturday forecast (as of 10:30 am, 11/29/01):
Partly cloudy and high of 62 degrees

It's amazing how the focus of this game has changed as the season wore on. It went from being the Big East Championship Game at one point to being a chance for the Gator Bowl-bound Hokies to knock off the number one team in the country.

More precisely, it is a chance for the Hokies to knock off one of the best teams in college football in the last ten years. There have been some dominant teams in the last decade -- mid-90's Nebraska and Florida teams, and the 1999 FSU Seminoles, to name a few -- and the 2001 version of the Miami Hurricanes can be ranked right up there with the best of them.

Back in the off-season, the ABC bigwigs looked into their crystal ball and arranged a December 1 matchup between the Hokies and Canes as the defacto Big East championship, scheduling it as a marquee game the same day as the SEC and Big 12 championship games. It was what Hokie fans had wanted, after all those years of Miami/Syracuse being scheduled as the marquee season-ending Big East matchup.

And as recently as October 13th, while the Hokies were whipping the Boston College Eagles, it looked like ABC had made the right choice. But then Syracuse came to Blacksburg, and then the Hokies went to Pitt, and the next thing you knew, Tech was headed for a third-place Big East finish and had accepted a Gator Bowl bid before the Miami game had even been played.

The upside of Tech's mini-collapse and their fall from the top of the Big East is that it takes the pressure off this game. The Hokies have nothing to lose, their bowl bid is sewn up, and they can just go out, have fun, and try to do what no other Tech team has ever done -- beat number one. The Hurricanes, on the other hand, have everything to lose: a Rose Bowl bid and a shot at the national championship.

The problem for the Hokies is that the Hurricanes are perfectly equipped -- perfectly -- to handle all the pressure.

Miami Fast Facts

Miami is 10-0, 6-0 in the Big East. They have outscored their opponents 449-79, an average of 45-8 per game. And they haven't played a slouch schedule, either, with a docket that includes Penn State, Florida State, Boston College, Syracuse, and Washington, whom they've defeated by a combined score of 224-48 (an average of 45-10). Here's a look at their season thus far.

Date Venue Result
Sept. 1 road Miami (Fla.) 33, Penn State 7
Sept. 8 home Miami (Fla.) 61, Rutgers 0
Sept. 27 road Miami (Fla.) 43, Pittsburgh 21
Oct. 6 home Miami (Fla.) 38, Troy State 7
Oct. 13 road Miami (Fla.) 49, Florida State 27
Oct. 25 home Miami (Fla.) 45, West Virginia 3
Nov. 3 home Miami (Fla.) 38, Temple 0
Nov. 10 road Miami (Fla.) 18, Boston College 7
Nov. 17 home Miami (Fla.) 59, Syracuse 0
Nov. 24 home Miami (Fla.) 65, Washington 7

Last season, Miami was 11-1 in the regular season and 7-0 in the Big East. They trounced Florida 37-20 in the Sugar Bowl. Miami was ranked preseason #9 by Athlon Magazine this year and #3 by The Sporting News. Athlon also picked Tech at #3 and tabbed the Hokies to win the Big East.

Head Coach: Larry Coker is in his first year as head coach at Miami. Prior to becoming Miamiís 19th head football coach, Coker served under Butch Davis as the Hurricanesí offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach since Davisí first season at UM in 1995. Cokerís hiring marked the first time in 25 years that the University of Miami elevated a current assistant to its head coach. Coker, 54 years old, has also pulled assistant coaching positions at Ohio State (1993-1994), Oklahoma (1990-1992), Oklahoma State (1983-1989), and Tulsa (1979-1982).

The Last Time: The Hurricanes whipped Tech 41-21 last season at the Orange Bowl in Miami. Miami jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead and built it to 28-0 at the end of the third quarter before the Hokies made it respectable with three fourth-quarter touchdowns. Tech played without Michael Vick for most of the game (although the badly hobbled Vick did play about one quarter), as well as Andre Davis. The Hokies also had injuries in the defensive secondary and had to start true freshman Eric Green against the likes of Santana Moss. Miami took advantage, scoring on passing plays of 42, 44, and 80 yards and rushing plays of 17 and 50 yards. They also got a 44-yard interception return from Edward Reed for a touchdown.

Depth Chart: Miami currently starts 5 players on offense and 6 players on defense who started last year. Both specialists (punting and placekicking) are juniors and returning starters. The figure of 5 for the offense is a bit misleading, because it doesn't include three players -- Jeremy Shockey, Clinton Portis, and Najeh Davenport -- who have received extensive playing time in their careers but are not listed as "returning starters." The Hurricanes are especially deep and experienced along the offensive line (three seniors and two juniors) and in the defensive backfield (three seniors and a junior).

Best Offensive Players: All of them. Seriously. Okay, let's start with the offensive line, ranked the #1 O-line in the country by The Sporting News. That's accurate. They have only allowed 3 sacks all season long, and senior tackles Bryant McKinnie and Joaquin Gonzalez are first team and third team Football News All-Americans, respectively. Football News also named McKinnie (6-9, 336) their Big East Player of the Year. Read that again, folks: not offensive player of the year, not offensive lineman of the year, not Big East first team -- the Big East Player of the Year. It may be decades before you ever see anyone name an offensive lineman the league player of the year again.

Once you get beyond the offensive line (which no pass rusher ever does), there's quarterback Ken Dorsey, the 11th-ranked passer in the country, also known as The Man Whose Uniform Never Gets Dirty. Dorsey is 163-274 (59.5%) for 2417 yards, 22 TD's, and 9 INT's. The 9 interceptions are a surprise, seeing how Dorsey almost never gets pressured, and he only threw 7 picks last year in 362 attempts. 4 of the interceptions came in one game, against Boston College.

Then there's running back Clinton Portis (186 rushes, 1076 yds, 5.8 ypc, 9 TD's, 10 catches, 90 yards, 1 TD), fullback Najeh Davenport (22 carries, 47 yards, 3 TD's, 12 receptions, 172 yards, 2 TD's), and tight end Jeremy Shockey (36 catches, 459 yards, 6 TD's). Miami's best wideout is Andre Johnson, with 36 catches (tied for Shockey for the team lead) for 671 yards (18.6 ypc), and 10 TD's.

Best Defensive Players: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma has done a good job replacing the departed Dan Morgan, leading the team in tackles with 67. But the real story for the Canes is the senior-laden defensive secondary, where safety Ed Reed (39 tackles, 7 interceptions) is a first team Football News All-American. Miami has 23 interceptions overall, good for second in the country behind Maryland's 24 (and the Terps have played all 11 games -- sidenote: the Hokies are tied for 6th in interceptions with 19).

Miami has gotten surprising production from their defensive line, which was seen as one of the weak links in the defense before the season started. The Canes D-line does not feature dominating players like former Miami stars Warren Sapp and Russell Maryland, but their 2nd- and 4th-leading tacklers are on the line: tackles Matt Walters (56 tackles) and William Joseph (53 tackles). The Hurricanes have 34 sacks, led by Joseph with 9 and defensive end Jamaal Green with 6.

Miami is 6th in the nation in total defense (273.2 yards per game) and 2nd in the country in pass defense (143.9 yards per game). If there is a weakness in their defense, it's their rush defense, where they are 37th in the country at 129.3 yards per game and have been a little soft up the middle at times. More on that later.

Special Teams: Junior punter Freddie Capshaw averages 42.0 yards per kick and is one of ten finalists for the Ray Guy Award, which goes to the nation's top punter. Junior placekicker Todd Seivers is 17-21 on field goals, including 5-7 from 40 yards and beyond, with a long of 48 yards.

Offensive Philosophy: I've long admired the Canes offense, which uses every weapon at its disposal: the running game, the passing game to the wideouts, throwing to the tight end, and throwing to the backs out of the backfield. Many teams pay lip-service to playing a "pro-style" offense, but Miami truly does. Coker was much-maligned by Cane fans for being conservative back when he was UM's offensive coordinator, but I've never agreed with that assessment.

Miami utilizes the passing game, but they don't ignore the running game. They have run 381 times against 296 passes, and they have over 2100 yards rushing (210.2 yards per game, tops in the Big East).

For the most part, they'll run a two-back offense, with one tight end and two wideouts, a very standard formation.

Defensive Philosophy: Miami runs a 4-3 and will play man-to-man with their corners and get great run support and pass coverage support from their safeties. Reed's team-leading 7 interceptions tell you that he's good at reading quarterbacks, so Grant Noel will have to be sharp and careful.

By my calculations, the Cane linebackers only have 2 of their 34 sacks, so by that measure, they don't appear to blitz frequently. They'll contain with the line, play man-to-man, and keep the plays short with their athleticism. Again, if they're soft anywhere, it's against the run up the middle. Like most fast teams, your best chance for success is to run straight at them, not to the corners.

The Lowdown

Miami is certainly loaded at all positions, except perhaps at defensive line and wide receiver. This is not to knock the players there, it's just to point out that they're not the strongest units on the team.

Virginia Tech can lose this game many ways: by getting stuffed in their running game, not executing in the passing game, throwing interceptions, giving up big plays on defense, and coughing up one or more special teams scores. Pick your poison -- Syracuse and Washington, whom the Canes clobbered by a combined score of 124-7 in their last two games, picked every which way they could think of to get hammered.

But there is only one way Tech can win this game: with strong defense and special teams, combined with opportunistic play by the offense. Fortunately, that's how this team is structured to play.

Many Hokie fans are advocating that Tech blitz Ken Dorsey to pressure him, because once his feet start moving, his effectiveness as a quarterback goes waaaaay down. While that's correct, blitzing Dorsey comes with a high price. I've seen the Miami offensive line and running backs pick up 6-7 man rushes effortlessly, leaving Dorsey plenty of time to pick a target.

The problem with Miami's offense is their utilization of the backs and tight end in the passing game. They don't necessarily need them to help out on blitz blocking, so they're free to release into the secondary. They clear out the corners and safeties with 2-3 wideouts, and then they come at the linebackers with Shockey, Portis, and Davenport. If you start blitzing those linebackers, or your Rover, you might wind up with them just colliding with that Miami offensive line, and then the tight end or running back is out in the pass pattern, all by himself. It has happened time and time again this season.

Boston College was the most successful team against Miami this year. They dropped 8 back in coverage and rushed 3 for most of the game, and they were lucky, in that Dorsey had a bad day, throwing 4 interceptions. They very nearly beat the Canes, whom they have always matched up well with (Miami rarely blows BC out, with the exception of a 52-6 spanking they laid on them in 2000).

So what is Bud Foster going to do? Blitz and hope for the best? Or pull a BC and drop most of his defense back into coverage? While Shockey, Portis, and Davenport are dangerous in the passing game, the Hokies might have enough talent at the cornerback positions to neutralize the Miami wideouts, who are not yet as good as the Miami wide receivers of the past. If Tech can cover well enough, it will come down to stopping Miami's running game.

Offensively, if you think you've seen a lot of up-the-middle so far from Tech, I think you're going to see more. Whereas the plan of attack on UVa was to run to the corners (which Kevin Jones did, even when the play was called up the middle), that is not the way to attack Miami's defense. Never has been, never will be.

On BeamerBall.com, offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle talked about "finding some creases" and running the ball "up inside." So he's planning on attacking the Miami defense straight on. He also talked about mixing things up, so we'll see how much the Hokies throw, and where.

Because of the speed, talent, and experience among Miami's defensive backs, there is more pressure on Grant Noel than ever before to deliver the ball quickly, to the right spot, and to not get duped by Ed Reed, in particular, laying back and tricking him into throwing a pick.

Intangibles favor the Hokies. This game was going to be "The Brawl for it All," but it's now just a fun diversion for the Hokies on their way to the Gator Bowl. For the first time since perhaps 1998, the Hokies have much to gain with a win, but nothing to lose with a loss.

Tech is playing in front of a home crowd that will be less tense than the last time they saw their Hokies in Lane Stadium, on Oct. 27th against Syracuse. The fans who like to imbibe will only be two sheets into the wind instead of their usual three, due to the 1:00 pm start. But as a whole, Hokie fans should be fired up and ready to make noise, and the majority of their support will be positive, I think, instead of frantic, worried, or critical. The atmosphere will be different than what you're used to seeing in the high-pressure games of the last three seasons.

Prediction

Can the Hokies win this game? Sure they can, primarily by not making mistakes, by taking advantage of any opportunities presented to them, and by not letting things snowball early, as Penn State, Syracuse, and Washington all did.

But the odds are clearly with the Canes on this one. They're rolling, confident, and talented.

Whatever happens, it should be fun.

Miami 35, Virginia Tech 17.

          

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