Revisiting the Keys: Miami
by Raleigh Hokie, 12/8/04

Refusing to be intimidated by the Orange Bowl and Hurricane rhetoric, the Hokies went into Miami, tightened their chin straps, and came away as sole champions of the ACC. A national television audience watched as the Hokies dictated play behind a dominating defense and an opportunistic offense. It was classic physical Virginia Tech football, giving the Hokies their seventh win in the last ten games against the Canes.

Miami walked off their home field thoroughly confused by what had just happened. Their high powered offense had been shut down and had it not been for turnovers and a blocked punt, they would have been shutout as well. The Canes defense had one of their better games of the season, but two time consuming drives and one very big play were enough to get them beat.

To the casual observer it wasnít pretty, but the Hokies couldnít have cared less how it looked -- this was football, not art class.

Tech Defense vs. Miami Offense

Miamiís offense came into this game hot, confident and on a mission to pay back the Tech defense for the embarrassment a year ago in Lane Stadium. However, they walked off the field dazed and confused, and once again dominated by the boys from Blacksburg. It was one of the great efforts by a Tech defense in the Beamer era, punctuated by holding the high-powered Canes offense to three first downs and a total of 55 yards on 33 plays in the second half.

It would have been interesting to witness the film review by the Miami coaches and players over the last couple of days. I can see the head man Larry Coker, Miamiís offensive coordinator under Butch Davis, standing in front of the screen, stopping the tape, and asking one simple questionÖ.Ēhow can a defense that blitzed us into submission last year completely turnaround a game plan and dominate us again this year by hardly blitzing at all?Ē

Iíll address that question over the next few paragraphs, while reviewing each of the defensive keys. And while the Miami brain trust tries to sort our their issues, the Tech defense can look ahead to the Sugar Bowl with confidence knowing they have the ability to challenge Auburnís offense in a variety of ways.

Key #1: Withstand 1st Quarter Assault

Miami started off hot, grabbing field position by the throat and hitting the Hokies defense with two plays that immediately put their offense in the red zone. It looked like the Canes were headed for an early score, but a personal foul penalty against center Joel Rodriquez nearly pushed them back to midfield. The penalty derailed that initial thrust and allowed the Tech defense to get their feet under them. Assault #1 Ė thwarted.

It didnít take long for Miamiís offense to show one of their main weaknesses. Going in, it was clear Techís defense was going to test the patience of the Canes offense by baiting them into trying some deep shots into double coverage. The 4th and short call on Miamiís second possession was a bad play all the way around for Miami Ė the call was bad, the read was bad, and the result was bad. Brock Berlin saw Vinnie Fuller back deep as a single safety, yet he thought he had single coverage outside on a one man route with Roscoe Parrish against Eric Green. Berlin probably thought he could catch Fuller with play action, but the Tech safety completely ignored it and got over in plenty of time to assist Green in coverage. As it turned out, Fuller could have jumped the play action because Green made an incredible athletic play, going up in front of Parrish to snatch the ball with one hand for the interception.

Running a one-man route on 4th down against Eric Green not only showed impatience, but it showed arrogance on the part of the Miami coaching staff. Not having a check down option was a statement by Miami that Green couldnít defend Parrish down the field, whether he was in good coverage or not. Green proved them to be incorrect in that assessment. Assault #2 Ė thwarted.

The first quarter ended scoreless, but the Tech offense was about to polish off an 80 yard drive with the TD pass from Bryan Randall to Jeff King at the beginning of the second quarter. At that point, everyone on the Miami sideline knew they were in for a dog fight; their expectations of grabbing the momentum and sprinting out to an early lead foiled by their own mistakes, impatience and underestimation of the Tech defense.

Key #2: Break Berlinís Rhythm

Mission accomplished. Brock Berlin came in as a hot quarterback; a senior in his final home game in the Orange Bowl. He played more like a freshman, totally perplexed by the Tech defense. Berlin was never comfortable and the Miami offense never developed any rhythm. Consistent pressure from the defensive line kept him from getting set in the pocket, resulting in bad reads and poor passes.

The Hokies kept Berlin's feet moving and confused him with a variety of coverages. The Tech defense showed many of the same looks they had used all season, but the Miami offense seemed puzzled throughout much of the game. It was almost as if the Canes only used last years Tech/Miami game film as the basis for their game plan. Iím sure thatís not the case, but thatís how it looked. They prepared for blitzes, but instead got a heavy dose of four man pressure with a lot of zone looks behind it.

On the TV broadcast, ABC analyst Gary Danielson mentioned several times that Techís defense was running a gimmick coverage, with Jimmy Williams in man coverage on one side while the rest of the linebackers and secondary played zone in the middle and on the wide side of the field. In reality, Techís defense didnít run any gimmicks. They showed a mix of man, combination and zone coverages (same as they had done all year), with an emphasis on two primary sets based on one of two personnel groups.

With their base personnel, the coverage was a combination of man and zone. Both corners played man most of the time outside and the linebackers and safeties played zone underneath and over the top. The best option for Miami against that coverage was out in the flats or in the middle, underneath the Tech linebackers. Miami went to both with success early in the game, but as the game moved along, Berlin became impatient (just as the Tech defense expected) and started throwing the ball into the teeth of the coverage.

Tech also used a lot of dime personnel in this game, particularly in the 2nd half when Miami went to a ďhurry upĒ style of offense with Berlin exclusively in the shotgun. Miami went to a three WR set, with one TE and one RB. Tech countered with six defensive backs (Green, Williams, Fuller, Griffin, Minor and Daniels) and one linebacker (Adibi). Tech went to full man coverage with Green, Williams, and Minor on the three WRís, Fuller on the tight end, and Adibi on the running back. Daniels played centerfield as a single deep safety, while Griffin aligned underneath Daniels in robber coverage. That is a very difficult coverage to pass against, but Miami and Brock Berlin kept trying with no success.

Against the dime set, the Canes should have run Frank Gore or used some screen passes to him. Against man coverage, a good screen could have broken for a big play. They had plenty of time and they were only down six points, but once again their impatience played right into the hands of Bud Fosterís defense. By the time they figured out what Tech was doing with the dime package, Foster crossed them up and went back to base personnel and a mixture of zone coverages. On their final possession, Miami expected to see Tech in a dime look again, but Foster confused them one last time by going with his base defense.

Key #3: Pressure from Defensive Line

The play up front has been one of the primary reasons for the turnaround on defense this season. Jonathan Lewis got himself into the best shape of his life over the summer and he has been a force inside all season. The move of Jim Davis to defensive tackle accomplished two things Ė it put a quick, disruptive playmaker inside and it allowed the coaches to get their four best linemen on the field at the same time. The outstanding play of the defensive line has allowed the coaches to do a lot of different things in coverage without worrying about blitzing to get pressure.

Against Miami, the foursome of Lewis, Davis, Darryl Tapp and Noland Burchette created matchup problems all game against the Canes offensive line. Like many prior teams, the Canes underestimated the speed and quickness of the Tech defensive line. Often, they tried to block Lewis and Davis one on one with their young guards. They wanted to get their backs and TEís released into the passing game, but that left their tackles matched up one on one against Tapp and Burchette. The results were predictable Ė the Tech defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage and got consistent penetration against the Miami running game and enough pressure to keep Berlin from getting comfortable in the passing game.

One other factor in the excellent play of the defensive line was that they were able to stay fresh in the heat and humidity of Miami. A big part of that was due to the time of possession dominance by the Hokies in the second quarter. The Tech offense ran off the final 7+ minutes of the half on the drive for the go-ahead field goal by Brandon Pace. Looking at that quarter overall, the Tech defense was on the field for a total of just eight plays. Amazing. So while the defensive line gets a lot of credit for their play in this game, it would be an incomplete analysis without acknowledging the outstanding job of clock and ball control by the Tech offense.

While discussing the play of the defensive linemen, I have to comment on the play of Noland Burchette on special teams. With a 1:20 to go in the game, Tech had to punt one more time to the dangerous Devin Hester. Unlike a couple of earlier punts, Hester got his hands on this one in the middle of the field. He went right expecting to outrun the containment, but Noland Burchette ran with him stride for stride and pulled him to the ground. It was a great play by a defensive end against one of the fastest players in college football.

A defense with the type of speed that Tech has this year is very, very difficult to beat when they can get consistent penetration and pressure from the defensive line, allowing them to always drop seven into coverage. Looking ahead to the Sugar Bowl, the most important matchup of the game will be Techís defensive line against Auburnís offensive line. That matchup will get a lot of focus and attention over the next few weeks.

Key #4: Contain Slot Receivers

None of the Miami wide receivers made an impact in this game. Like Berlin, they were confused by the Tech defense, particularly the stemming outside by the corners. Danielson used the term ďpress, bailĒ and it is a common technique used by defensive backs to disguise coverages. It was nothing new for the Tech defense, but it kept the Miami receivers off balance throughout the game.

As the game moved along, it was clear the Miami receivers were getting more and more frustrated by the Tech defense. The mounting frustration was apparent by the body language of both Roscoe Parrish and Sinorice Moss, two Miami receivers that were looking to make big plays in this game. Both were completely shut down by the Tech defense.

The stemming, mixed coverages, and nickel/dime packages all worked perfectly because of outstanding execution, particularly by the corners Eric Green and Jimmy Williams. Both likely played their best game of the season and I say ďlikelyĒ only because much of what they did wasnít covered by the TV cameras and I didnít see the game in person. But itís clear that both were true ďshutdownĒ corners in the passing game and both were physical in run support. Their ability to single-handedly control the outside allowed the linebackers and safeties to focus between the hashes and bottle up the TEís and slot receivers.

Key #5: Play Physical, Secure Gaps and Tackle

Bill Roth asked Frank Beamer why the Hokies have so much success against Miami, while every other team struggles against them. In my opinion, itís because Tech has been the more physical team. And they were again on Saturday.

After holding off Miamiís fast break offense in the first quarter, the Tech defense took control of the game by physically winning their individual battles at the point of attack. Gap control was precise with the linebackers accounting for 70% of the tackles. Vince Hall, Mikal Baaqee and Xavier Adibi all played well inside, winning most of their individual battles against the Miami line, fullbacks and tight ends. James Anderson has played his best two games back to back against UVa and Miami and Aaron Rouse is right there with him to form quite a duo at Whip LB.

Looking ahead, the Whip LB will play a major role in the Sugar Bowl, both in run containment against QB Jason Campbell and in pass coverage against RB Ronnie Brown. Those matchups will be covered in detail as part of the Sugar Bowl keys.

Tech Offense vs. Miami Defense

With the exception of two big turnovers, this was an efficient performance by the Tech offense. Two first half drives not only led to 10 points, but they chewed up the clock, keeping the Tech defense fresh and Miamiís offense off the field.

Miami blitzed their linebackers and safeties a lot in this game and it gave the Hokies some problems. They sold out on several occasions, playing Cover-0 (man to man with no safety help), while bringing pressure from both sides and up the middle. But the Tech offense stayed with the plan and didnít panic. It was a nice job by the coaches and Bryan Randall to stay poised and not try to force anything against a defense that was playing fast. Sometimes, patience and game management are overlooked when analyzing the play of an offense, but both were vital in this game. Bryan Stinespring and the rest of the offensive coaches knew that the Tech defense was controlling things on their side, so it was critical for the offense to protect field position, stay physical with the run game, and take shots when the opportunities were there.

Key #1: Run, Run, Randall

Key #2: Inside / Outside Run Balance

I combined the review of these two keys because they were so intertwined in this game.

Miamiís game plan was focused on stopping Bryan Randall, keeping linebackers shadowed on him when he wanted to run and blitzing him continuously when he wanted to pass. That opened up some opportunities in the running game that Cedric Humes was able to exploit.

I thought Miamiís defense did a nice job of containing Randall. They kept their linebackers moving forward to close down running lanes for Randall, at the expense of giving up some openings in the passing game for the Tech tight ends. Still, Randall broke off one big 35 yard run that reversed field position in the second half and, although Tech didnít get any points out of that drive, it ultimately led to the opportunity for Randall to hit Royal for the winning touchdown.

Some of what Tech wanted to do with Randall on the edge was impacted by the losses of Jimmy Martin at tackle, Josh Hyman at WR and Mike Imoh at tailback. On running downs, Miami was run blitzing their outside linebackers into the guard/tackle gaps. Tech may have had some success running more option against that tendency, but with the personnel they had on the field, they decided to seal down with the tackles or tight ends and run directly at the defensive front, allowing Cedric Humes to take it up inside off tackle or cut it outside based on his read of the seal block on the defensive end.

Lastly, I want to point out the outstanding play of James Miller and Jon Dunn on the right side of Techís offensive line. Tech had a lot of success running Humes a lot to the right side of the line, particularly in the second half. With 9:00 minutes to go in the game, Humes broke off a big 29 yard run to once again reverse the field position. James Millerís block on MLB Leon Williams sprung Humes for the big play. With just over four minutes to go, with Tech looking to melt off the clock, Humes broke a tough seven yarder for big first down at midfield. The key to that play was a double block by Jon Dunn, first sealing down on DE Bryan Pata followed by a kick-out block on MLB Leon Williams.

Key #3: Be Willing to Challenge the Man Coverage

Tech wanted to take more shots down the field against the Miami corners, but the pressure and protection breakdowns limited those opportunities. They finally got what they wanted in the fourth quarter in a tie game with plus field position. Itís already been documented that Tech wanted to test the lateral speed of Antrel Rolle in man coverage against Eddie Royal. On the touchdown pass, Tech ran a simple over/under crossing pattern with the slot receiver chipping the inside defender and then having the outside receiver run under the coverage with inside leverage. Josh Morgan got the chip on Rolle, Royal cleared underneath, and Randall made a perfect pass for the TD. Two true freshmen wide receivers executed a play perfectly to beat an All-American senior corner, one that many feel will be a top ten pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

As Miami does a post mortem on their season, one of the first things they need to evaluate is their defensive scheme. Their insistence on man-to-man coverages puts a lot of pressure on their linebackers and defensive backs. Tech was able to defeat man coverage with their tight ends and wide receivers throughout the game. After reviewing the film, Iím sure the Miami coaches are trying to figure out why they didnít offer a scholarship to Florida native David Clowney. Clowney has really matured as a football player this season and, barring injury, itís going to be hard to keep him off the field going forward.

Key #4: Occupy Safeties with the Tight Ends

Outside of Eddie Royalís touchdown, the biggest catch of the game belonged to Jeff King, working in man coverage against Miami safety Greg Threat. Everyone has talked about the catch and how important it was, so Iíll avoid getting repetitive here. Instead, Iíll use that play as a prime example of the high level of confidence that Bryan Randall and the offensive coaches have in the tight ends this year. Going in, Miami certainly thought they would have the advantage with Threat matched up on King. However, the Tech offense had confidence in that matchup as well and they went to it in crunch time.

On a related note, some people have asked me to explain how a tight end can be an ineligible receiver. Jared Mazzetta was penalized as an ineligible receiver in the fourth quarter on a pass to tight end Jeff King. For a tight end to be an eligible receiver, he has to be the last guy aligned on the line of scrimmage (i.e., any receivers outside of him have to be aligned at least one step off the line of scrimmage). On that particular play, Eddie Royal incorrectly aligned on the line of scrimmage outside of Mazzetta, effectively ďcovering upĒ Mazzetta and making him an ineligible receiver. Mazzetta released down the field and, even though the pass didnít go to him, the play became a penalty as soon as Bryan Randall threw the ball beyond the line of scrimmage.

Key #5: Overcome the Big Injury

The loss of Jimmy Martin was evident on a few plays, both in the running game and in the passing game. To compensate, the Tech offense did a good job minimizing the impact of his loss by using more straight-ahead power running plays and by using more play action and quick passes. Most of Miamiís five sacks came to Randallís blind side, where Martin would have been playing. However, only two of the sacks were attributed to breakdowns along the offensive line. The others were due to mistakes in the protection calls, with Miami bringing more rushers than could be blocked by the particular protection or by incorrect sight adjusts by Bryan Randall.

Looking ahead, the Hokies really need to get Jimmy Martin healthy for the Sugar Bowl. A month should give him enough time to get the ankle feeling better. Depth up front has been a season-long concern, so having a healthy offensive line will be critical for the matchup with Auburn.

Conclusion

With eight straight wins, the outright ACC title and a trip to the Sugar Bowl, it is safe to say that the 2004 Hokies far exceeded the expectations of all the college football experts. After two difficult seasons, the coaches and players have to be feeling so proud about how they performed this year. As a fan, I certainly feel proud for them. Itís been fun to be along for the ride.

Next upÖ..New Orleans and the undefeated Auburn Tigers. What a great way to finish off a great season!

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