Coming off an emotional victory against their
in-state rivals from Charlottesville, the Hokies head to the heat and humidity
of South Florida looking to ride a wave of momentum to victory over the Miami
Hurricanes and a berth in the Sugar Bowl. The Hokies have won six of the last
nine meetings against mighty Miami, including last year's blowout against the
#2-ranked Canes in Blacksburg.
The stakes are higher this year and the Canes are
looking for a little payback, but the Hokies are playing their best football in
five years. They go to Florida brimming with confidence and a seven game winning
streak. The Canes are coming off their best performance of the year and a two
week break to prepare for the Hokies. It feels like a classic, and if the
breakdown of the Xís and Oís means anything, it will be a classic.
I was tempted to include special teams keys this
week, but I didnít want to change the format and jinx the streak. Suffice it
to say that there are some dangerous fellows running around in the kicking game
this week and a big play or two is highly possible. As usual, Iím going to set
all of that aside and focus solely on the offensive and defensive keys.
Letís get to itÖ.
Defense vs. Miami Offense
Miami has a balanced offense with weapons at all
the skill positions, including fullback and tight end. They donít do anything
fancy scheme-wise; instead, they put athletes all over the field and then look
to attack the mismatches. With Roscoe Parrish, Lance Leggett, Sinorice Moss,
Darnell Jenkins and the return of Ryan Moore, the Canes have a lot of weapons at
wide receiver to mix and match against Techís coverage schemes. Physically,
this group is a difficult matchup Ė they have size, speed, quickness and great
athletic ability. But they also have been inconsistent on occasion, missing on
some big play opportunities with imprecise route running and dropped passes.
While Techís offensive success this season can
be traced to the emergence of QB Bryan Randall, the same can be said of Miami
and QB Brock Berlin. Like Randall, Berlin is playing with poise and confidence
and his decision making has improved significantly since last season. He is not
the same QB that the Hokies saw in Blacksburg last year, and as a result the
Hokie defense will have to game plan a little differently for the Canes this
Last year, the Tech defense crowded the line of
scrimmage, played aggressive on the edges, and blitzed Berlin into several big
mistakes in the passing game. Berlinís improved play combined with better
offensive balance makes such a game plan very risky this season, as NC State and
Wake Forest both discovered.
Look for Techís defense to rewind the tape from
their first game of the season and install a game plan that closely matches the
plan for USC. Pre-snap, the base defense will be more 2-deep shell with Rover
James Griffin aligned more often as a strong safety. He will move up on occasion
to get into 8-man fronts, but only when specific formations and game situations
dictate. From the 2-deep base, Tech will mix it up showing a lot of zones, man
free and 3-deep, man under coverages with a priority on neutralizing Miamiís
big play offense.
Key #1: Withstand 1st Quarter Assault
Bad blood, hostile crowd, BCS bowl game on the
line, senior day for the Canes Ė the emotions will be running high. Expect
Miami to take some home run shots early, looking to grab the momentum, get a
quick lead and put the Tech defense back on its heels. The last two Tech/Miami
games at the Orange Bowl turned into offensive shootouts with the Canes striking
early and often. Techís first priority on defense is to prevent a repeat
performance and keep the game from getting away from them in the first quarter.
For Tech to survive the early onslaught attempts,
they must keep their emotions in check, stay under control, and take care of
their individual assignments. Discipline and concentration is critical -- they
cannot afford to give up big plays nor commit big penalties. The defensive line
has to get penetration and the corners have to keep the wide receivers in front
of them. The linebackers and safeties need to protect against being overly
aggressive, focus on their keys and not get caught by Miamiís play action
Look for Tech to test Berlinís willingness to
check down to underneath receivers by backing corners Eric Green and Jimmy
Williams into 3-deep coverage with the linebackers and free safety playing man
underneath. Vinnie Fuller is still dealing with a bum shoulder, so look for the
Canes to go after him when they get him matched in man coverage against TE Kevin
It will be interesting to see how long it takes
Miami to get Devin Hester involved on offense. When heís in there, look for
Tech to walk Griffin up into an 8-man front to widen the defense horizontally
against the run and into underneath zones against the pass with Griffin and Whip
LB James Anderson dropping out into flats. Hester will be the fastest player on
the field, but Techís defense has enough team speed to keep him bottled up.
Techís defense has played well all season, so
the Canes will have to come out on fire to catch the Hokies early. If Tech can
choke off the early attack, build defensive momentum and get the game into a
battle of the trenches, then the game will be in Techís favor.
Key #2: Break Berlinís Rhythm
Brock Berlin has become a more consistent,
predictable QB this year, but he still is very much a streaky player. When he
gets in a good rhythm, he is extremely hard to stop. He is much more effective
passer out of the shotgun, but he has made significant improvement coming out
from under center.
Tech must give Berlin a lot of different things
to look at by mixing coverages with the same personnel groups. Creating
confusion, forcing check downs, and getting pressure up the middle (more on that
later) are the best ways to break Berlinís rhythm and force some errant
Berlin has certain tendencies, one of which is to
immediately check down to the hot route receiver on the same side when he reads
pressure off the edge. Tech will be careful with blitzes in this game, but look
for the defense to work those tendencies by doing some things with robber
coverages, bringing a single blitzer off the edge and jumping the hot route with
a roaming safety or corner.
Key #3: Pressure from Defensive Line
of the primary factors in Techís success on defense this season has been the
ability of the defensive line to get consistent pressure. It takes on added
importance in this game against the Canes and their big play passing attack. The
Hokies have to be able to get pressure on Berlin without relying on the blitz.
Getting pressure while playing 2-deep and 3-deep coverages will keep Berlin off
balance, force the Canes to drive the ball, and prevent the wide receivers from
making big plays down the field.
Berlinís effectiveness is reduced significantly
when he has to move his feet and leave the pocket. Tech will look to get
pressure up the middle, both from the defensive tackles and from the defensive
ends through line stunts. Jim Davis has been making plays inside all season and
he will be a major factor in this game. It will be key for him to get
penetration and bring inside pressure against Berlin.
One key to Davisí success this year has been
the play of Jonathan Lewis. Lewis has drawn a number of double teams, freeing
Davis to use his quickness to beat interior linemen one on one. Davis and Lewis
against the Miami guards is a good matchup for Tech, depending on how effective
Lewis is with a cast on his hand. The injury to Lewis could be a major factor in
how Miami chooses to execute their protection schemes inside. If Lewis struggles
with his injured hand, Miami will look to single block him (or his replacement)
while double teaming Davis with a guard/center or guard/tackle combination.
Should Miamiís offensive line neutralize Davis
and successfully block Techís other DT one on one, then look for the Hokies to
run stunts with Darryl Tapp and/or bring an inside linebacker on a delayed blitz
through the center of the line. That will be a risky approach because it will
commit one of the Tech safeties to man coverage, giving Miami single coverage
outside for one of their big play wide receivers against either Eric Green or
Jimmy Williams. Tech is willing to take that chance on occasion, but they want
to control the circumstances and not get forced into it due to lack of pressure
from the defensive line.
Key #4: Contain Slot Receivers
Against Techís base defensive personnel, Miami
will play a lot of three WR sets and look to get a big play from either Roscoe
Parrish or Sinorice Moss in the slot. With quickness and speed, both will
present matchup problems for Tech Whip LB James Anderson in man under coverages.
Tech will counter by mixing coverages and playing a good bit of zone underneath,
but that will open up some things in the middle of the field for tight ends
Kevin Everett and Greg Olsen (who may not play due to an injury).
I expect Tech to play a lot of 3-deep coverages
in this game to prevent the big play and to minimize matchup problems against
the slot receivers. Against that coverage, Miami will look to run dig routes
with the slot and outside receiver from the same side to get the safety
committed over the top while the underneath receiver digs inside against man
under coverage. Thatís a midrange opportunity in the passing game, but itís
a good defense against the home run play.
Techís safeties have to guard against getting
fooled by play action, allowing Parrish/Moss to spring free down the middle of
the field with Anderson trailing the play. USC hit a big play in the slot to WR
Steve Smith against that very coverage. Tech was in 3-deep coverage, which was
the correct defense, but the play hit big for USC because the safety bit up on
play action, allowing the slot receiver to get behind him. Miami has the QB and
big play receivers to execute that play as well as USC, so the Tech safeties
must stay disciplined against play action, particularly when they are the last
line of defense in 2-deep or 3-deep coverage.
Based on down and distance, look for Tech to go
to their nickel package often in this game to get better matchups against the
slot receivers. Roland Minor will take the outside receiver with Eric Green or
Jimmy Williams dropping down against the slot. It will be interesting to see if
Tech stays with base personnel or goes to nickel personnel on run/pass option
downs. It will be just as interesting to see if Miami foregoes the pass and runs
Frank Gore or Quad Hill against Techís nickel defense.
If Tech does a good job defending the slot, then
the primary emphasis of the passing game moves to Miamiís outside receivers
against Jimmy Williams and Eric Green. Miami wonít back away from those
matchups, but Techís defense should feel fairly confident about its chances
should the game go in that direction.
Key #5: Play Physical, Secure Gaps and Tackle
Here I am on the last key and I havenít talked
much at all about Frank Gore, Tyrone Moss and the Miami running game. I have
talked a lot about defending Brock Berlin and the big play passing game, but the
Miami offense truly is about balance. Their late season surge coincides with
Goreís return to form and has forced defenses to respect the running game just
as much as the passing game.
Without exception, Techís first priority on
defense is to stop the run. Normally, Bud Foster will do that by crowding the
line of scrimmage with a variety of 8-man fronts and run blitzes, forcing the
offense to put the ball in the hands of the quarterback. Unfortunately, that
plan isnít going to work against the Canes because the Brock Berlin of 2004 is
more than capable of beating an 8-man front defense by throwing the ball.
Once again, the key for Tech will be to mix
defensive sets. Giving Berlin various looks is key to breaking his rhythm, but
itís just as key to mix defenses against Gore and the run blocking schemes.
Look for the Hokies to have a lot of movement along the defensive front with the
intent to confuse Miamiís young guards, while making it more difficult for
fullback Talib Humphrey to get isolated against his primary key. Miami has fast
players all over the field, but Techís speed and quickness on defense will be
most effective against the Canes running game.
Tech will be in a 7-man front a lot in this game,
so it will be critical for the defensive line to play physical and get
penetration. The linebackers have to play just as physical, secure their gaps
and get off blocks. Vince Hall has emerged at Mike LB and is no longer playing
like a freshman. He will have a lot of opportunities in this game to get his
hands on Frank Gore and Tyrone Moss; when he does, he needs to do what heís
done all year Ė wrap up and get them on the ground.
James Griffin and Vinnie Fuller will have to come
up in run support to force and secure the cutback lanes. With Miamiís
firepower outside, a big play in the run game will almost certainly lead to
points. Unlike UVa, it will be difficult for the Hokies to have an extra
defender unaccounted for in the run game. Tech will have to play this game a
little more honest, which puts a higher emphasis on getting off blocks, playing
responsibilities, securing gaps and tackling well. For the most part, Techís
defense has tackled well all year and that must continue against Miami. Against
this offense, the Hokies cannot afford to give up a lot of yardage after first
Offense vs. Miami Defense
As with their offense, Miami doesnít do a lot
of fancy things with their defense. They play a straight 4-3 with basic fronts
and a lot of man coverage in the secondary. They depend on their players to use
superior athletic ability to win their individual matchups and make plays on the
ball, both against the run and the pass.
This year, due to attrition and injuries, the
Miami defense hasnít been as strong as in past years. They have had to use a
lot of young, inexperienced players and the results have been mixed. They have
particularly vulnerable to the run and that is an area that Tech will look to
exploit in this game. Fortunately for Miami, DT Santonio Thomas returns this
week after missing several games with a knee injury. He is their best run
stopper up front and his return will have an impact; how much will depend on the
number of snaps he is able to take.
Techís offense has continued to get better with
each game and heads into Miami this week with a lot of confidence. Itís no
secret that Bryan Randallís growth at QB has keyed the emergence of the
Going down to Miami to play the Canes for a bid
to the Sugar Bowl is about as challenging as it can get in college football. The
coaches know the importance of facing such a challenge with an experienced,
confident quarterback and thatís what the Hokies have right now in Bryan
Key #1: Run, Randall, Run
For years, one of the best weapons against Miamiís
defense has been a mobile, strong running quarterback. Their man coverage
schemes leave a lot of open lanes for a quarterback to exploit and a strong
runner like Bryan Randall will be difficult for Miamiís defense to contain.
Look for the Hokies to get Randall off and
running early in this game. They will run him inside on QB draws and outside on
options and shotgun misdirection. He will have the freedom to pull it down and
scramble on passing plays. Miami doesnít play much zone, if at all, so they
make look to assign a spy to shadow Randall. USC adjusted to Randallís running
ability by widening their fronts, playing containment, and forcing Randall back
into the defensive pursuit. That worked well for USC because they had the
players inside at linebacker and along the defensive line to neutralize Techís
interior blocking and shut down a running game missing Mike Imoh and a healthy
Cedric Humes. Miami doesnít have that type of defensive strength up the
middle, so if they employ similar techniques to contain Randall, then the Tech
offensive line should get a good push inside and Imoh/Humes will have a lot of
room to maneuver.
To win, the Hokies will need to have more rushing
yards than the Canes, with Randall contributing significantly to the total. He
has the chance to have a big day running the ball and the Hokies have to be
willing to turn him loose. Miamiís speed will close on him quickly, so he has
to keep his head up, run without hesitation, and protect the ball at all costs.
Key #2: Inside / Outside Run Balance
Staying with the running game, the Hokies will
look to work the inside of Miamiís defense with their power running game and
then work the edges of the defense with a series of options, pitches,
misdirection and zone stretch plays. The option will really test the discipline
of Miamiís young defense, particularly with a strong runner like Bryan Randall
pulling the trigger. It requires the defense to play assignment football against
specific players, regardless of who has the ball. That is different from how a
defense normally plays and itís a difficult adjustment for a young defense
that hasnít seen a lot of option offense.
option play also depends on successful blocks by the wide receivers. Native
Floridian David Clowney has been one of Techís best blocking wide receivers
this season. Look for Clowney to get the opportunity to spring an option for a
big play with a crack back block against Miamiís middle linebacker.
Moving inside, look for Tech to run a series of
isolation plays to test the strength and toughness of Miamiís middle defense.
Tech has used a lot of 2-TE formations this season, but look for the fullback to
have a bigger role against the Canes. When Miami splits the defensive ends wide,
look for the Hokies to run isolations off-tackle to the strong side of the
formation, getting fullback Jesse Allen isolated on Miamiís freshman
linebacker Jon Beason. Off of that, look for Tech to slide Allen into the flat
off play action. That should be particularly effective in the red zone against a
defense that can be overly aggressive around the goal line.
Establishing a successful balance in the run game
will eventually get the Miami safeties to work their way up toward the line of
scrimmage in run support. Thatís a trend that the offensive coaches will be
looking for as the trigger to take some shots outside with the young wide
receivers against the Miami corners.
Key #3: Be Willing to Challenge the Man Coverage
In recent games against the Canes, Techís
offense has been very reluctant to attack Miamiís defense by the pass with
future NFL first rounds picks Phillip Buchanon, Mike Rumph, Ed Reed, and Sean
Taylor roaming around in the secondary. The 2004 Hurricanes have good talent in
the secondary, but they are not at the same level as those past teams.
The best player is senior cornerback Antrel Rolle,
best known to Tech fans as the Canes player that was ejected along with DeAngelo
Hall in last yearís game in Blacksburg. Rolle is considered a lock to be Miamiís
next first round NFL draft pick, but his play this year has been a little
inconsistent. Tech cannot be afraid to test him with the young wide receivers.
Rolle and fellow corner Kelly Jennings like to
play a lot of press man. Since the debacle against NC State, Techís wide
receivers have made a lot of progress getting off the line against aggressive
corners. Since that time, Bryan Randall also has developed a lot of confidence
in those young receivers, so when he gets a shot, look for Randall to throw it
out there for the wide receivers to make a play. I donít think passes to the
wide receivers will be as critical as it was last week against UVa, but Randall
and the receivers have progressed to a level such that the coaches will not
hesitate to look in that direction when needed.
Key #4: Occupy Safeties with the Tight Ends
for Tech to work the tight ends in various ways from a series of formations.
Miami safeties Greg Threat and Brandon Meriweather are athletic, but they arenít
very big. Instead of running up the seams, look for the Tech tight ends to
release outside the hash marks, forcing the Miami safeties to run further in
pursuit, while protecting the football with the big bodies and passing angle.
Play action bootlegs or rollouts are effective weapons against the Miami
defense, particularly from an offense that has a strong running quarterback and
experienced, pass-catching tight ends. Randall with a run/pass option off the
bootleg will be a good play for Hokies, even with the speed that Miami has on
Releasing the tight ends and showing a
willingness to throw the ball to them will set up some opportunities for the
wide receivers, especially in three WR formations. Tech will want to take
advantage of those opportunities on early downs when Miami is in base personnel.
The Canes will play a lot of nickel and dime packages when the percentages
indicate pass. Donít be surprised to see Tech play ďbackwardsĒ a little in
this game by passing the ball on running downs against base personnel and
running the ball on passing downs against nickel or dime personnel.
Key #5: Overcome the Big Injury
Depth along the offensive line has been a concern
all season. Until this week, there have been no injuries of significance up
front. Unfortunately, left tackle Jimmy Martin, considered by many to be Techís
best offensive lineman, has a badly sprained ankle and may not be able to play
against the Canes. His absence could be a significant factor in this game, both
in pass protection and in creating lanes for Bryan Randall to run.
If Martin canít go, it looks like the start
will go to Reggie Butler. Butler has plenty of experience logging a lot of
playing time at guard this season, but he is not the pass protector that Martin
is. Miami will certainly look to increase the pressure on Randallís blind side
if Martin is out. Butler (and backup Brandon Gore) will have to step up and do
the job against Miamiís much quicker and more athletic defensive ends. How
they perform will dictate what the Hokies can do running the ball to the left
side of the formation and passing the ball from the pocket. The primary concern
is a turnover that results from a blind side hit. If Butler struggles, look for
Tech to slide a back over or use a TE to help with blind side protection.
This one is for all the ACC marbles, so I am
expecting both teams to play hard and play well. Both teams have hit their
stride in recent weeks, so both will come in with confidence. Miami will be
looking for a shootout and Tech will be looking for the defense to dictate.
I think Bryan Randall is the wild card in this
game. For Tech to win, he has to have a big game running and throwing the ball.
Having such a game is well within reason. He is a great running quarterback
facing a defense that absolutely hates running quarterbacks. Miami will have to
play a little out of their comfort zone to account for Randall and that will
only open up some good opportunities for the Tech passing game.
In the end, it comes down to execution. Miami has
been the more erratic team and Tech has been the more consistent team,
particularly on defense. If Tech can survive the early tidal wave and keep it
close in the first quarter, then Tech will have a great shot at walking out of
the Orange Bowl as sole champions of the ACC. Tech is the more physical team, so
I like the Hokies chances if the game is close in the fourth quarter.
One other thingÖ.Tech needs to play their
normal game on kickoffs and punts. This game is for the championship. Play
smart, but donít play scared.