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Game Preview: #14 Virginia Tech at #1 Miami
by Jeff Ouellet, 12/5/02

Saturday, December 7th, 2002, 1:00 Eastern

TV: ABC (national)

Saturday forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):
(as of 3:30 pm, 12/5/02; see the link to the right for current forecast):
Mostly clear. Isolated showers. Highs in the mid 70s.

Click here for TechSideline.com's VT/Miami roster card


Miami Preview
by Jeff Ouellet

Although it seems a shame to interrupt all this talk about the Hokiesí bowl destination, on a whim I decided to check the schedule. Lo and behold, it appears that VT has a game against the University of Miami on Saturday in the Orange Bowl. A little over a month ago, this game was the focus of running commentary by national pundits, but now even Hokie fans seem a little distracted.

So, I will try to grab your attention by introducing you to the Miami Hurricanes. They are 11-0 overall, 6-0 in conference, currently ranked #1 in the nation. They are the reigning national champions. They have won 33 consecutive games, the 7th longest streak in the history of college football and the most since Toledo ripped off 35 straight from 1969-1971 (umm, Toledo?).

Miamiís Head Coach, Larry Coker, has never lost a game as a head coach. His record is 23-0. Prior to the season, former Miami coach and current Cleveland Browns boss Butch Davis said that these Hurricanes had between 40-45 legitimate NFL prospects on their roster. Miamiís quarterback is 37-1 in the games he has started Ė heís not even winning 98% of his starts, so itís a shock that he is a Heisman and Davey OíBrien (best QB in the country) candidate. Miami may have the best running back in the nation, and 11 months ago he was not even their likely starter. Miami has a sophomore backup defensive tackle that may be taken in the first half of the first round this year.

Against this juggernaut we have our beloved fourteenth ranked Virginia Tech Hokies, 9-3 overall, 3-3 in conference, battered and bruised as they are from a tough November. With that being said, the Hokies have some positives going into their toughest road trip in years (perhaps ever). VT comes into this game with some momentum, as the Hokies had a solid performance against the University of Virginia, and there are indications that some of VTís key personnel will be in better shape for the game in the Orange Bowl.

I also wouldnít underestimate the psychological impact of VT being the proverbial hunter here. For the first time since perhaps Texas A & M, VT is playing a game they arenít expected to win, and they really have nothing to lose. Miami is the team with everything on the line on Saturday. Another psychological edge is that VT is not intimidated by Miami. The Hokies may lose Ė perhaps even lose badly Ė but it wonít be because they are scared to compete with the Canes.

The Triplets, College Style Ė Dorsey, McGahee and Johnson

Much like the Dallas Cowboy dynasty in the 1990ís in the NFL, Miami has skill position players that give them unparalleled offensive explosiveness when compared to their peers. Miamiís offense is averaging 40.6 points per game against a tough schedule, and they have a very nice mix of run (187 yards per game) and pass (281 yards per game). On an average play, Miami gains 6.9 yards. The Canes gain 5.5 yards per rush attempt, and their average pass completion goes for a whopping 15.5 yards.

The ringleader is 6-5, 200-pound SR QB Ken Dorsey. You already know all about Dorsey, but I will review his statistics anyway Ė 252 yards passing per game, a 24-9 touchdown to interception ratio, and he completes 55% of his throws. Dorsey is an intelligent quarterback who goes through progressions well. He has too many weapons to allow him to stand in the pocket and throw, so conventional wisdom says to pressure him and force him to move. Dorsey does not have good mobility, but pressuring him is a lot easier said than done. VT did manage to disrupt his rhythm last year in a narrow defeat at Lane.

Miamiís running attack is spearheaded by stud 6-1, 220-pound R-SO Willis McGahee. McGahee already owns the best single season rushing total ever by a Hurricane. McGahee has 1,481 total rushing yards with a 6.6 per carry average and 21 touchdowns. McGahee also is Miamiís fourth leading receiver with 22 catches. He averages an astounding 15 yards per catch, so watch him out of the backfield. Perhaps the best endorsement of his talent came from Coker when he said McGahee was further along as a running back at the same stage than Edgerrin James and probable NFL offensive rookie of the year Clinton Portis.

McGahee recently indicated he would probably come back to UM next season. Donít bet on it Ė most experts believe he will declare for the draft early and he projects as possibly the first back off the board. Many Miami folks will tell you a healthy Frank Gore (a sophomore recovering from knee surgery) is at least as good, if not better, than McGahee. Great Ė McGahee is good enough to possibly be the best back in the upcoming NFL draft, yet he might be #2 on his own team. Ugh.

The backup tailback now is 6-2, 210-pound Jarrett Payton, son of the great Walter Payton. He recently ascended to the role when backup TB Jason Geathers moved back to WR before the Syracuse game. Payton had 11 carries for 51 yards against the Cuse. The UM fullback is R-FR Quadtrine Hill, 6-2, 210, a former Hokie recruiting target that doesnít see the ball much.

At wide receiver, 6-3, 212-pound JR Andre Johnson leads the way with 42 catches for 845 yards. He averages 20.1 yards per catch with eight touchdowns on the year, and is third in the Big East in catches per game. He caught 181 yards worth of passes last week against Syracuse (tough year for the Orange d-backs). Johnson also projects as a first round pick in the next NFL draft in what is shaping up to be the best WR class in recent memory.

Miamiís other starting WR, Kevin Beard, is out for the season with a knee injury, which likely is part of the reason behind moving Geathers. Taking Beardís place in the starting lineup is 5-9, 165-pound R-FR and human blur Roscoe Parrish. Remember Santana Moss? Ė this kid is supposedly faster. 6-0, 170-pound SR Ethnic Sands is a solid backup who sees a lot of time. Geathers, a junior, is a bit of a wildcard Ė heís big at 6-3, 210 and obviously has great running ability (398 rushing yards on the year, a 5.9 per carry average). I suspect the Canes will try to get him involved in the short passing game with the expectation that he can break a tackle from a defensive back.

Miamiís tight end is 6-5, 230-pound SO Kellen Winslow, Jr. He is their leading receiver with 44 catches and he is second overall in the Big East in catches per game. He has a solid per-catch average, 13.2 yards, and 6 touchdowns on the year. In a nutshell, heís a beast in the passing game. Every year I say Miamiís tight end canít get better, but Iíve been saying that from Bubba Franks to Jeremy Shockey to Winslow. Whatís left Ė are they going to genetically engineer a combination of Mike Ditka and Ozzie Newsome? I think VT will treat him like they treated Shockey last year and try to put a defensive back on him whenever possible. He is simply too fast for a linebacker to handle on a regular basis.

The Canes only returned two starters on the offensive line this year, 6-2, 289-pound SR C Brett Romberg and 6-6, 318-pound SR OG Sherko Haki-Rasouli, so there was some expectation of a decline. No such luck. Romberg is a fantastic center, and he is a finalist for both the Outland Award (top interior linemen) and Remington Award (top center). Heís one of the best in the nation at his position. The other line starters have stepped in and been impressive: 6-6, 316-pound SO OT Carlos Joseph, 6-5, 330-pound JR OT Vernon Carey, and 6-5, 280-pound SO OG Chris Myers. Miami has given up 11, yes 11, sacks on the season. They have handled the loss of former starting tackles McKinnie and Gonzalez better than anyone could have expected.

Whoís Number Two?

It is absolutely, positively beyond debate that the best defensive line in college football resides in Miami. These guys are two deep at every position, and when I say two deep I mean two deep. Of Miamiís top 14 tacklers, 8 are defensive linemen.

Miami plays a base 4-3, and defensive coordinator and former Miami player Randy Shannon is pretty simple in his schemes. He doesnít bring guys up into the box or blitz a whole lot, so what you see is what you get, but that has been more than enough in most games. The scheme does place a lot of pressure on the defensive line to hold gaps, and for the linebackers to fill holes against good running backs who often are already running downhill.

The chink in Miamiís armor is their rush defense. They yield 3.8 yards per carry, and while that hardly could be considered a weakness, they have been vulnerable to good rushing teams. The three games where they legitimately had concerns of losing in the second half Ė Pitt, WVU and FSU Ė the Canes opponent had success running the ball and controlling the clock. Pitt had 194 rushing yards and held the ball for 39 minutes, WVU had 363 rushing yards and held the ball for 32 minutes, and FSU had 296 rushing yards and held the ball for 34 minutes.

I understood FSUís success running the ball, as UM had a young secondary, so Shannon was understandably reluctant to bring extra men into the box. However, the fact that he didnít do it against WVU baffles me, because they donít have a big threat on the outside and WVU obviously could run the ball very well. So, I am inclined to say that Shannon is going to stick to his philosophy regardless of the opponent.

Remember last year too - the Hokies had as many interceptions as completions on the day, but Kevin Jones still had a spectacular game. If Miami plays the Hokies straight up, I think both Lee Suggs and Kevin will have a chance to make some plays one-on-one against the Miami linebackers and safeties.

As for Miamiís pass defense, they have four new starters in the defensive backfield,but despite that, they lead the nation by surrendering only 114.7 passing yards per game. They also have given up only six passing touchdowns on the year. Part of the success of the pass defense is Miamiís outstanding pass rush, as they have 41 sacks on the year and 150 quarterback hurries. Quarterback hurries are an amorphous statistic, admittedly, but Miamiís opponents have only passed 305 times on the year and the Canes have 150 quarterback hurries. Ouch. The Canes basically treat opposing quarterbacks like piŮatas, and they donít blitz much to do it.

As for the personnel, the two leading tacklers are Miamiís stud JR linebackers. 6-2, 220-pound MLB Jonathan Vilma is a force that leads the Canes with 106 tackles, followed closely by former prep national defensive player of the year 6-3, 243-pound OLB D.J. Williams. Williams has 94 tackles, 12 of them for losses, and four sacks. He is the most likely of all the linebackers to blitz because of his athleticism. Williams began his career at fullback, including two starts his true freshman year, but easily made the transition back to linebacker (as a segue, with VTís linebacker woes in the wake of Vegas Robinsonís injury, there have been lots of what ifs about recruiting and personnel losses, but I offer this one Ė what if Jake Houseright had redshirted and stayed healthy, as that would have given Tech a 6-3, 240-pound R-SR in the middle, allowing Baaque to stay at Backer and sub for Vegas). The third linebacker, 6-3, 220-pound R-FR Roger McIntosh, has only 30 tackles but is learning the system. He will be big-time soon enough.

In the secondary, Miami had to replace three guys who were first round draft picks. So what do they do Ė lead the nation in pass defense through 11 games. The corners are 6-1, 200-pound SO Antrel Rolle and 6-0, 170-pound R-FR Kelly Jennings. The guys who have made the most plays statistically are the safeties: 6-3, 220-pound jumbo SO FS Sean Taylor with 63 tackles, third on the team, a team high 13 passes defensed, and two interceptions; and 5-11, 193-pound JR SS Maurice Sikes, who leads the team with three interceptions and has 62 tackles, fourth on the team.

As for the defensive line, it doesnít really matter who starts Ė they all make plays. The biggest name is 6-5, 280-pound SR William Joseph who leads the team with 14 tackles for losses and also has a team high 29 QB hurries. Joseph is a first round draft pick. 6-5, 262-pound SR DT Matt Walters leads all Miami defensive linemen in tackles with 56, and he also has 19 quarterback hurries on the year. Backing up those two at defensive tackle is 6-2, 346-pound R-SO Vince Wilfork (40 tackles, 10.5 tackles for losses, 6 sacks) who appears likely to declare for the NFL draft and is so highly regarded by scouts that he might be the first defensive tackle selected overall, even though he doesnít start for the Canes. Donít forget about former blue chip stud recruit Orien Harris, a 6-4, 294-pound R-FR, as he has 29 tackles on the year.

As for the defensive ends, 6-2, 260-pound SR Jerome McDougle came into this year projecting as a first round pick, but he hasnít had quite the year expected with "only" 46 tackles, 10 tackles for losses, 5 sacks, and 20 quarterback hurries. The other defensive ends include 6-3, 253-pound SR Jamaal Green, who has 8 sacks, 6-4, 262-pound SR Andrew Williams, who has 4 sacks, and 6-4, 253-pound SR Cornelius Green who has 6 sacks.

Of the eight players primarily in the rotation, six are seniors so Miamiís defensive line has experience. The depth is necessary, because Miamiís offense scores so quickly that the defense is on the field a lot. The Canes are last in the conference in time of possession.

Special Teams

Make no doubt about it, VT needs to win this battle in a big way. Miami has two solid SR kickers. PK Todd Seivers is only 12-20 on field goals, so you might think he is average. Those stats are very deceptive, though, as he hasnít missed from inside 20 yards (3-3), heís solid from 30-39 (5-7), and even good from 40-49 (3-6). His stats are artificially deflated by a 1-4 performance outside 50 yards.

Miami punter Freddie Capshaw has a 40.6 per punt average, with the net punting gain on the year being 34 yards for the Canes. However, it is worth noting that Miami has had five kicks blocked this year. Capshaw has had three punts blocked entirely, and a fourth punt partially blocked this year. The Hokies got a big punt block last year in Blacksburg, and I have every reason to believe they will try to duplicate that success.

Miamiís return guys are not statistically as good as they normally are. Parrish is lightning fast and averages 11.5 per punt return, but he hasnít taken one to the house yet. Geathers is the leading kickoff return guy with a 21.7 average.

The Hokies cannot hope to win this game without significant gains in the "hidden yardage" statistic emphasized so much by Coach Beamer.

Anatomy of an Upset

Now that I have told you how good Miami is, I imagine you want some thoughts on how to beat them. Goliath can be beaten, and here are some of the things I think the Hokies must do to prevail.

Bring back Michael Vick. That is pretty much all Iíve got.

Just kidding. In my opinion, the biggest key for VT is that they must run the ball effectively. If VT doesnít get at least 200 yards on the ground, they wonít win. The offensive line absolutely, positively has to play their best game of the year. Running does three very important things: (1) it gives Tech's best offensive threats, the tailbacks, the ball against what is statistically Miamiís weakness; (2) it keeps the VT defense off the field; and (3) it will help avoid placing Bryan Randall in 3rd and long, a down where lots of very bad things can happen given Miamiís pass rush.

Tech needs to have Randall throw on second and three, not third and eight. The Hokies simply wonít convert third downs in long yardage situations, and, worse than that, negative plays in the form of turnovers, sacks and penalties will result.

Second, Tech needs to win special teams. I believe they will need at least one "non-traditional" (defense/special teams) score in order to win this game. VT needs a big day from Vinnie Burns and both return men, Lee Suggs and DeAngelo Hall. I view field goal kicking as irrelevant unless the game goes into the fourth quarter with things being tight, because settling for field goals wonít win this game. The Hokies need to get the ball in the end zone when they get the opportunity, if VT is to have any chance to win.

Third, Tech has to put eight guys in the box to try to manage the running game, and at the same time limit the big plays in the passing game. Itís a foregone conclusion that Miami is going to be able to run the ball on the Hokies. VT canít, to paraphrase ESPN's Dan Patrick, stop them Ė they can only hope to contain them. Miami has an outstanding offensive line, led by Romberg, and he will be starting against two freshmen at defensive tackle. If Miami makes a concerted effort to run the ball, I cannot see VT holding Miami to less than 200 yards on the ground. However, VT cannot allow Miami to run for much more than 200 yards if the Hokies are to have any chance to win. That means the Tech players in the box have to be aggressive and need to tackle better than they have done recently.

With respect to the passing game, VT has to limit big plays as they did last year. The Hokies need a big effort from the corners on Miamiís wide receivers, and a Herculean effort from whoever covers Winslow and McGahee. The Hokies defensive backs and linebackers did an excellent job in coverage last week against Virginia, and they will need to duplicate the effort for VT to win.

Fourth, the Hokies cannot make mistakes in the form of turnovers or penalties. They are not good enough to give away yards to this team and still win. Miami does get penalized a lot, to the tune of 86.4 yards per game, and VT needs to capitalize when they make those mistakes. It would help if Miami turned the ball over, but thatís something beyond the Hokiesí control.

Finally, Bryan Randall has to play well. There are times in a game that you need to be willing to fall on the sword, and times where you need to raise the white flag, and it is extraordinarily difficult to make those split-second decisions when you are being chased by angry 300 pound men. Nonetheless, for VT to prevail, he is going to have to have an impeccable game from a decision-making perspective.

A related corollary to the above is that it is incumbent on the coaching staff and offensive line to put Bryan in a position to succeed, but ultimately he needs to execute on third down by making some key conversions and avoiding costly mistakes.

The Lowdown

The Hurricanes are an exceptional team, and it is going to take a significant effort to defeat them. However, I still donít think they are quite what they were last year Ė losing five first round draft picks and a second rounder will do that. VTís has a puncherís chance in this game, but they need to play well early. If Miami gets up early, things could get ugly quickly as the Canes feed off success (much like the Hokies do).

I think the Hokies will focus early in the game on running the ball and do it with a degree of success. Unfortunately, I donít think the defense can hold up all game against an offense that is loaded with future NFL players. I am obviously hoping for the upset as it might be the biggest win in the history of the program, but I think we will have to wait until next year when Miami visits Lane Stadium again.

Prediction: Miami 38, VT 24

Will Stewart's Take: There's not a whole lot you can add to what Jeff said, except this: Miami can't win forever. They haven't lost since September 9th, 2000, when they traveled out west to take on the Washington Huskies and lost, 34-29, on a day when the Canes lost three fumbles and had 9 penalties. That was a long time ago. Can Virginia Tech end the streak?

Earlier this week, I was watching an ESPN Classic replay of the 1997 VT/Miami game, one that the Hokies won 27-25 in Lane Stadium. Back then, the Hokies were capable of dominating the Canes on the line of scrimmage, which is exactly what they did that night. The problem is, the Hokies can't do that anymore, and that more than anything stands in their way of winning this game.

Like Jeff, I think the Hokies can have some success running the football and scoring some points. But holding down a gifted opponent like the Canes for 60 minutes takes dominating line play, which the Hokies were capable of during their five-game winning streak over the Canes from 1995-1999.

But these days, the Canes hold the edge on both the offensive and defensive lines, and that makes upsetting them at home particularly difficult, or nearly impossible. Yes, upsets have been known to happen when you least expect them, but that doesn't mean I'm going to pick Tech to win.

Will's Prediction: Miami 35, Virginia Tech 14.

          

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