Virginia vs. Virginia Tech: A Clash of Epic Proportions
I’m anticipating this weekend’s match up between the 16th ranked Virginia Cavaliers and the 8th ranked Virginia Tech Hokies more than any other Virginia football game I’ve watched in my 17 years of following the program. My beloved Virginia Cavaliers not only have a chance to claim bragging rights in the heated in-state rivalry but they also have a chance to punch their plane ticket to Jacksonville, Florida for the 2007 ACC Championship game against Boston College. Ever since the ACC lobbied to bring in the likes of Boston College, Virginia Tech, and Miami to give the conference enough teams to crown a conference champion in a title game, this is the stuff I dreamed of. The first ACC title game was played on December 3rd, 2005 and it makes me smile to say that the day of playing for a shot to go the ACC Championship game has arrived for my Virginia Cavaliers.
My 24th birthday is this Friday, November 23rd and let me tell you that there would be no better birthday gift in the world than for the Cavaliers to defeat the Hokies on Saturday in Scott Stadium. This is one of the biggest games in school history for the Virginia Cavalier football program and Charlottesville is buzzing with excitement and for good reason. The heated in-state rivalry has never had this much at stake, the Commonwealth Cup and the ACC Coastal Division Championship. There is a tremendous amount on the line in this game, but at the same time, I’m trying not to build the game up too much in my mind. Even if Virginia loses on Saturday, the “Cardiac Cavaliers” have had a magical season that I’ll never forget, winning an NCAA record five games by two points or less. That being said, now that they have had such a rare opportunity placed at their feet, the Cavaliers need to take advantage of it.
The game features two top 16 teams(BCS) with identical records. They both have impressive 9-2 overall records and 6-1 ACC records. Virginia’s two losses happened against Wyoming(23-3) and N.C. State(29-24), whereas Virginia Tech’s two losses happened against LSU(48-7) and Boston College(14-10). These teams are very similar, make no mistake about it. They both also had their most impressive performances of the season against the Miami Hurricanes. The Cavaliers got the better part of the Canes as they closed the door on the Orange Bowl in “stunningly one sided fashion” as one article so eloquently put it, 48-0. The Hokies on the other hand, well they thrashed the ‘Canes at home in Blacksburg, 44-14. It’s safe to say that the Miami Hurricanes will want to forget most of the 2007 college football season, especially their two outings against the teams from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Now it’s time to get down to business and break down this match up with an in-depth scouting report of both teams.
16th ranked Virginia Cavaliers
The Cavaliers have been far from the most dominant offensive team in the country this season, as a matter of fact if you look at the numbers you would be downright puzzled to see Virginia in the position that it is currently in. The Cavaliers are in the bottom half of the NCAA in nearly every major offensive category, passing offense(73rd), rushing offense(88th), total offense(99th), and scoring offense(80th). What those stats will fail to tell you, though, is that the Cavaliers have displayed the ability to make the big plays when they desperately needed them, time-and-time again this season.
A huge part of that has been the centerpiece of the Cavalier offensive attack, sophomore quarterback Jameel Sewell. The Richmond native has overcome a disastrous outing against Wyoming and has proven to have an uncanny knack to make big plays with his arm and at times, his legs. He’s rushed for over 200 yards this season, which is not great, but certainly not bad either. Sewell has displayed masterful performances in the fourth quarter. He engineered four game-winning drives against the likes of Middle Tennessee State, Connecticut, Maryland, and Wake Forest. In the fourth quarter of those games, he’s posted highly efficient numbers, completing 17 of his 20 passes for 199 yards. Sewell is nifty in the pocket and has displayed the ability to improvise and escape pressure, although he is not a “dynamic dual threat”. He can get 10-15 yards when he needs to and he is not slow by any means, but don’t look for Sewell to rip off any 60-yard, 70-yard runs any time soon. His ability to improvise and elude pressure will be needed against a Virginia Tech defensive line that is excellent at getting pressure on the quarterback. The Virginia Tech defense is ranked 7th in the nation in sacks, racking up 3.27 sacks a game.
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh deserves a ton of credit for packaging the playbook around Sewell’s strengths and weaknesses. There are plenty of weaknesses in Sewell’s game and his biggest is his inability to attack the field vertically. Jameel Sewell simply cannot complete throws more than 20 yards down the field. His deep ball usually sails on him and makes it more likely that it will be intercepted by a safety or corner. Sewell’s strengths as a quarterback lie in his ability to carry out excellent ball fakes; he’s excellent at running play action and running the bootleg to his throwing(left) side. His best passes are the shortest passes and are usually no longer than 15 yards. His greatest strength is his ability to throw the screen passes, shovel passes, swing passes, and passes to the tight ends. His favorite targets are the tight ends and running backs and it shouldn’t be a surprise that Virginia’s top three receivers are either tight ends(Jon Stupar, Tom Santi) or a running back(Mikell Simpson). If Mike Groh knows what is good for him, he’ll stick to what got the Cavaliers in this position and keep the playbook conservative on Saturday with screens, shovel passes, swing passes, and passes to the tight ends.
Speaking of Mikell Simpson, he’s one of the biggest pieces of Virginia’s offensive attack. Simpson, a redshirt sophomore, exploded onto the scene with his 271 all-purpose yards against the Maryland Terrapins and hasn’t looked back since. Simpson is an all-purpose back with phenomenal hands and is excellent at executing screens and shovel passes. This year he has hauled in 32 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown. He has an excellent “north-south” that allows him to gain yardage between the tackles. Simpson’s running style is so effortless that he seems to glide along the field. He’s only seen serious minutes in four games this season, but the Pennsylvania native has rushed 77 times for 319 yards and 6 touchdowns. If the Cavaliers want to prevail on Saturday, they are definitely going to need a solid performance from Mikell Simpson, also known as “Juice” to his teammates. Two other running backs you are likely to see on Saturday are redshirt freshman Keith Payne and junior Andrew Pearman. The duo have combined for 92 carries, shredding opposing defenses for 360 yards and two touchdowns. Payne is more of a punishing tailback who can pound the rock between the tackles, whereas Pearman is a faster version of his brother, former Cavalier great Alvin. Pearman is extremely good at moving in space and is excellent at catching screen passes and swing passes in the flat.
Virginia’s screens will be tough to stop because they have one of the best pulling guards in the country in All-ACC offensive lineman Branden Albert. The 6’7, 315 pound behemoth excels in moving in space and flattening defenders on screen passes with tremendous ease. Ian-Yates Cunningham is Virginia’s other guard who like Albert, excels in getting out in space and flattening defenders. The rest of Virginia’s offensive linemen are very talented players with tons of experience. From tackle to tackle, Virginia’s offensive line has 126 career starts between them, a very impressive feat. The play of Virginia’s offensive line will play a very large role in determining the outcome of this game.
Perhaps the most daunting assignments for Virginia’s offensive line will be accounting for the linebacking duo that I think is the best in all of college football: Virginia Tech’s Xavier Adibi and Vince Hall. Hall and Adibi should both be first round selections in the 2008 NFL Draft, because their playmaking ability is unmatched. Hall is faster than Adibi, but Adibi is apparently the best open-field tackler on the Hokie defensive unit. Both linebackers have posted first-team All-ACC honors and they will likely land on some All-American lists as well. In 11 games, Adibi has racked up 94 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 1 inteception, and 5 pass breakups. Maybe even more amazing are Vince Hall’s numbers, which have come in 7 games because he had to sit out due to a broken wrist. He’s tallied 74 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and 3 pass breakups. Both players must be accounted for at all times and trust me, they’ll wreak havoc on the Cavalier offense if they aren’t.
Jon Stupar, Tom Santi, and John Philips are Virginia’s three tight ends that have carried on the Virginia Cavaliers’ tradition as “Tight End U.” The Cavaliers passing attack features two of the best tight ends in college football in Tom Santi and Jon Stupar. This season the trio has combined to haul in 80 passes for 858 yards and 6 touchdowns.. Stupar is more of a possession tight end and is not excellent after the catch. Santi is probably the most talented of the trio and has the ability to gain yards after the catch. Phillips is the youngest of the trio and while he still has some improvements to make, has shown great promise and potential. Their production on Saturday will be very critical in stretching the Hokie pass defense, which ranks 27th in the nation in that category. Look for the tight ends to be a huge factor on Saturday, especially in one of the Cavaliers “bread-and-butter” plays, the play-action bootleg to the left side of the field to the tight ends.
The closest thing to a deep threat the Cavaliers have is receiver Maurice “Mo” Covington. While Covington might not be the most dangerous receiver in the world, he has still hauled in 19 passes for 236 yards and 2 touchdowns. The few passes that he has caught have been very important ones. Covington has displayed the ability in the past few weeks to elude tackles after the catch and escape to the end zone, something he did against both Wake Forest and Miami. The Cavaliers “secret weapon” is perhaps the most versatile athlete in the game on Saturday. That man of course is former Virginia High School football legend and current receiver/punt returner/placeholder/cornerback Vic Hall. He was one of the most decorated signal-callers in Virginia High School football history and broke Ronald Curry’s record for total yardage in a career. He racked up 13, 770 yards of total offense during his career for the Gretna Hawks en route to leading his team to back-to-back state titles his junior and senior seasons.
While Hall is a dangerous asset on the football field because he can play so many different positions, one position he should not be playing is cornerback. He has struggled mightily this season, because he’s terrible at tackling and lacks the instincts for a great cover corner. It’s not his fault, because he is playing out of position and needs to be on the offensive side of the ball more, as evidenced by his playmaking ability in the Connecticut and Pittsburgh games. Hall completed a reverse pass of 35 yards to receiver Chris Gorham in the Uconn game and he’s racked up 218 yards off punt returns this season. He ripped off a huge punt return against Pittsburgh and even rushed for a touchdown when he faked a field goal, scooted to the left side of the field and found the end zone. Hall is excellent at improvising in the open field and makes defenders miss with ease. He’s probably the most dangerous playmaker on the entire Virginia roster, because when the rock is in his hands, he has a chance to take it the distance every time. Offensively, the man can do-it-all folks! If there is a trick play on Saturday, it is very likely that Hall will be involved and look for him on special teams in a variety of positions, holder and returner. Another “special teams demon” for the Cavaliers is speedy fullback Josh Zidenburg, who blocked a punt in the Miami game. Zidenburg has three blocked punts for his career and must be accounted for on all punts by the Hokies. He’s also a tremendous kick returner and boasts a dazzling 24.2 yard average per kick return. That’s good enough for the best mark on the team.
Staton Jobe and freshman Dontrelle Inman are two more receivers you’ll likely see on Saturday for the Cavaliers. Jobe is one of the fastest players on the Cavalier roster and has good, but not great hands. He’s hauled in 13 catches for 134 yards and 1 touchdown so far this season. Inman has tremendous potential and dazzled coaches and teammates with his play in fall camp. He’s snagged 15 passes for 170 yards this season for the Cavaliers.
Virginia’s receivers will have to find openings in a secondary that has been very unforgiving this season. Hokie cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Victor “Macho” Harris might be the best cornerback duo in the ACC. Harris has posted a team-leading 11 pass breakups and 5 interceptions. Those are simply stunning numbers, even more so when you look at the fact that he’s a sophomore.
Speaking of Special teams, the Cavaliers special teams unit features the nation’s fourth ranked punter, Ryan Weigand. The ball has seemed to rocket off Weigand’s foot this season and it has been the first season in a long time the Cavaliers have had a reliable punter. He’s been launching the ball, averaging 45.86 yards per punt. Look for place kicker Chris Gould to enter when the Cavaliers need a punt pinned inside the 20-yard line, as he’s been used in rare occasions just for that purpose this season. Kicker Chris Gould is a reliable, but not super kicker for the Cavaliers. This year he’s nailed 15 of his 19 field goal attempts and connected on 29 of his 31 extra point attempts.
8th ranked Virginia Tech Hokies
Perhaps the most dangerous player on either roster is the Hokies’ prized freshman quarterback, Tyrod Taylor from the Hampton Crabbers in Hampton, Virginia. Taylor was all-world out of high school and has put together a dazzling display of throws and runs that reminds me of a combination of Mike Vick’s running style with former OSU Buckeye Troy Smith’s ability to throw on the run. This season the man tabbed as “The Prodigy” by Virginia Tech linebacker Vince Hall has completed 64 of his 119 attempts for 849 yards, while throwing five touchdowns and two interceptions. He suffered a bruise to his side when a Miami defender drilled him with a helmet in the side. If he’s not 100 percent, it will likely hinder Virginia Tech’s offense greatly, because having Taylor under center is their best chance at winning this game, because he poses so many match up problems.
The Hokies’ other option at quarterback is much-maligned Sean Glennon, who has demonstrated his propensity to turn the ball over and make terrible decisions with the football. If you need some video evidence of this, please go back and watch the Hokies’ second half meltdown last season in the 2006 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl in which Virginia Tech blew a 21-3 half time lead and eventually lost to Georgia 31-24. Glennon was the man that fueled the Bulldogs comeback, because he threw three interceptions in the 4th quarter. Glennon still makes mistakes, he just hasn’t had the opportunity to make as many this season because he’s been benched several games for Tyrod Taylor. This season Glennon has completed 99 of his 161 passes for 1,202 yards, while throwing seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. If you’re a Hokie fan, you certainly don’t want Glennon in the game on Saturday, because he’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Taylor’s ability to elude defenders in the open field will be called upon Saturday, because the Hokies’ offensive line unit is one of the most atrocious in all of college football, allowing a mind-boggling 39 sacks. That’s not good news when your offensive line is going up against two of the best defensive ends in college football. Virginia’s pair of defensive ends could be called the best in the country. All-American defensive end Chris Long has played like a man possessed this season, harassing quarterbacks left and right. Long has earned his All-American status this year and then some by posting hair-raising numbers: 69 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 7 pass breakups, and one interception. Those numbers are exactly the reason why Long is an automatic lock to be a top 5 selection in the 2008 NFL Draft. Sophomore Jeffrey Fitzgerald has the potential to be the greatest defensive end in Virginia football history and has snagged two interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown. He’s also racked up 9.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. So clearly, Virginia Tech’s offensive line is going to have to have an “out of body” experience if they want to protect their quarterback against two of the nation’s best defensive ends. The Cavalier defensive unit has recorded an eye-gouging 34 sacks this season and will look to feast upon the porous Hokie offensive line.
The Hokies’ rushing attack is of course spearheaded by running back Brandon Ore, who has had a disappointing season after rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2006. There were reports that he showed up to fall camp overweight and out of shape, so the Virginia Tech coaches buried him on the depth chart, but he slowly earned his starting job back. He has rushed 194 times this season for an underachieving 674 yards and 8 touchdowns. His longest run this season has been 34 yards. Another man who you’ll see carry the mail for the Hokies is running back Kenny Lewis, Jr. He has 52 attempts for 176 yards this season and 4 touchdowns.
Virginia Tech’s most dangerous receiver(Justin Harper) might be their best friend on Saturday as they try and attack a suspect Virginia Cavalier secondary. Harper has hauled in 33 catches for 538 yards and 4 touchdowns this season. The Hokies have other top playmakers to stretch the Cavalier secondary in receiver Josh Morgan and Eddie Royal. Tight ends Greg Boone and Andre Smith also provide receiving options for the Hokie signal-callers. Those tight ends will have to force Virginia’s linebackers, like Jon Copper to cover them instead of keying in on Taylor. Copper is a film maniac who studies the game tremendously and it has paid off as he leads his team in tackles for the second straight season. He’s one of the most underrated players in America. Copper, a power lifter, has tallied an eye-brow raising 92 tackles and 3 sacks this season. Linebacker Clint Sintim is another one of the Cavaliers’ best defensive players, posting 5 sacks on the season for the Cavaliers, tying him for second on the team in that category.
The Cavaliers have been blowtorched by two of the ACC’s top quarterbacks in T.J. Yates of UNC and Daniel Evans of N.C. State and haven’t been tested by another quarterback since then. Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner likely would’ve had more passing yards had Wake’s coaches decided to let him pass more in the first half, but for some puzzling reason they decided to run it. The Cavaliers’ pass defense might be ranked in the top 25 in the country, but don’t be fooled. The Cavaliers were torched by T.J. Yates of UNC as defender after defender missed several open field tackles. Cavalier cornerbacks Chris Cook and Ras-I Dowling will be crucial in slowing the Hokies’ passing attack, because they are Virginia’s finest cover corners. Dowling will likely end up being the best cover corner in Virginia football history before he finishes up in Charlottesville. The stud freshman had 5 pass breakups and an interception against N.C. State, but it wasn’t quite enough as he still got beat on a few perfectly placed balls by Daniel Evans. If the Hokies know what is good for them, they will go to the air early and often on Saturday, because that is their greatest chance to make big plays. If they get a match up with cornerback Vic Hall, they better attack him, because he’s the weak link of the Cavalier secondary.
On special teams’ perhaps the games most dynamic special teams’ player will be receiver Eddie Royal of Virginia Tech. Royal is one of the most dangerous punt returners in the ACC, but he’s often as dangerous to his team as he is to opposing teams, because of his tendency to fumble the ball. He averages 15.82 yards per return and is ranked 8th nationally in that category. He also leads the team in all-purpose yardage, averaging 97 yards per game. Virginia’s gunners on the punt coverage unit will be sure to close on Royal quickly, or else he could make them pay dearly.
Jud Dunleavy is a solid kicker for the Hokies, connecting on 17 of his 20 attempts and making 35 of his 37 extra points. Brent Bowden is the punter for the Hokies, averaging 42.1 yards per punt, ranking him 24th in that category nationally.
The trophy for the Commonwealth Cup: The winner of the game will be awarded the Commonwealth Cup, which currently resides in Blacksburg, Virginia. The cup, made of marble cherry, is four feet tall and weighs more than 100 pounds. The top of the Cup is silver-plated with the names of the two schools. The trophy was first awarded to the winner of the rivalry in 1996.
My Prediction: On paper, this game would definitely go to the Hokies for a few reasons. One of the biggest would be because of their tremendous linebacking corps’ led by the likes of Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi. Not only that, their cornerback duo of Brandon Flowers and Victor “Macho” Harris is just devastating. The Cavaliers might have Chris Cook and Ras-I Dowling and they are very talented, but not as good as the Hokies’ duo. The Cavaliers have the most effective quarterback, the most talented offensive line, and the most talented tight end unit in the game. The running back battle would likely have to go to the Hokies, but by a slim margin, because Mikell “Juice” Simpson is the better all-purpose back. Had Simpson played as much as Brandon Ore, he would have likely put up much better numbers than his Virginia Tech counterpart. In the battle of the X-factors, I would have to give Virginia’s Vic Hall the edge, simply because he can do so many things. The Cavaliers can use him on a variety of trick plays and he also can touch the rock on punt returns. Since he has the ball in his hands during field goals, he adds a new dimension to the Cavaliers’ special teams unit that the Hokies simply cannot match. Sure, Royal might gain more yards, but his problem of fumbling negates that advantage.
The Hokies might have a slight edge on paper, but I think the 16th ranked Virginia Cavaliers are a team of destiny. This season they have proven their doubters wrong at nearly every stage, with a combination of clutch plays and luck fueling their success this season. I think you’re going to see Jameel Sewell have an excellent game, as long as Mike Groh keeps calling the plays that he’s best at running, the screen passes to Simpson, the play-action bootlegs to Santi and Stupar, and the shovel passes. I think the Cavaliers will do just that and stick what got them in this position in the first place. Sure, the Virginia Tech defense is very good, elite is a matter of fact. There are certain plays in this world if you run them effectively and efficiently, they simply cannot be stopped. Heath Miller in the 2003 contest against Virginia Tech had 11 catches against the Hokie defense. Surely, the Hokies had to know the Cavaliers were going to Miller, because he was the greatest tight end in ACC history. But he simply could not be stopped because of his amazing ability to always find the seam in the defense.
The Cavaliers realistically could only run around five plays on Saturday and still win. Coaches have watched Mike Groh chop down the playbook for Sewell to his “bread-and-butter” the screen passes, the shovel passes, the play-action bootlegs to the tight ends, yet they still haven’t been able to stop it. Nick Nolte once said in Blue Chips, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it!”
The Virginia defense is very talented too and I think you’re going to see their talented pair of defensive ends(Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald) exploit the weakest link in the entire game, the Virginia Tech offensive line. Tyrod Taylor is extremely dangerous in the open field, but he’ll be running for life with the likes of Chris Long, Jeffrey Fitzgerald, and Clint Sintim chasing after him. The Virginia Tech offense will likely be able to exploit a suspect Virginia secondary, but in the end, it won’t be enough. On Saturday, November 24th, Jameel Sewell, Mikell Simpson, and company will bring me a belated birthday gift and not only claim state supremacy in the in-state rivalry but also punch their tickets to Jacksonville, Florida for the 2007 ACC Championship game against the Boston College Eagles. The ACC Coastal Division Championship will be the cherry on top of an already magical 2007 campaign for the 16th ranked “Cardiac Cavaliers.”
Predicted Score: Cavaliers 24, Hokies 20
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