December 11, 2007

Breaking down Al Groh's Virginia squad

The marquee matchup in the 2008 Gator Bowl will obviously be the clash between Texas Tech's remorseless offense and the University of Virginia's relentless defense. The media will spill much ink and exhale even more hot methane talking about Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell pitting their skills against Virginia's All American defensive end, Chris Long.

And truth be told, there's a good deal of sense in that setup.

Virginia's strength is clearly on the defensive side of the ball. Long is the headliner and he's also a head-knocker. The son of Oakland Raider great Howie Long recently picked up the Hendricks Award, which is bestowed upon the best defensive end in the nation. Long the Younger is #3 in NCAA division one in sacks with 14, and #8 in tackles for a loss with 19. He's quick, strong, plays with great effort and is a leader. This future first round draft pick will get his licks in against anybody.

Long's primary helpmate in the pressure department is outside linebacker Clint Sintim. The six-foot-three 250-pound bruiser has registered eight sacks on the season and a full 17 quarterback hurries. Inside 'backer Jon Copper leads the Cavaliers in tackles with 103. Cornerback Ras-I Dowling may be the Cavs' most talented defensive back. He has a pair of interceptions and seven pass breakups.

Statistically, the Cavaliers are very solid on defense. They are #17 in the nation in total defense allowing 323 yards per game. Even more impressive, they rank #13 in scoring defense, allowing only 13 points per contest. Unsurprisingly, Virginia is the seventh best sacking defense in the nation with 3.33 a game.

Significantly, however, pass defense is not a particular strength. The Cavaliers are a very respectable, but not mind-blowing #33 nationally in pass defense, allowing 210 yards per game, and are only 69th nationally in interceptions, with .92 a game. The Red Raiders have not faced a better pass rush this season, but they have seen better back sevens in coverage.

Offensively, Virginia may not have the horses to keep up with Tech. Moreover, they will not present anything terribly strange and exotic according to interim defensive coordinator, Ruffin McNeill.

"Offensively, they'll spread it out like we've seen in the Big 12. Their quarterback is left-handed, he's mobile. We've seen mobile quarterbacks all year long. And they'll have really big offensive linemen."

McNeill was not quaking in his Tony Lamas when he said the above. Nor should he have been. The Cavs are #86 nationally in scoring offense with 24 points per contest, #100 in total offense with 329 yards per game, and #93 in rushing offense with 126 yards on the ground per contest. They also allow 2.5 sacks a game, which is #92 nationally.

Virginia can be fairly efficient, however. They convert 40% of their third downs, which is 58th best nationally, and are #44 in red zone conversions.

Cedric Peerman, all 195 pounds of him, is Virgina's leading rusher with 585 yards on the season and 5.2 yards per carry. Quarterback Jameel Sewell is the team's third most effective rusher with 241 yards.

Sewell's passing skills are unlikely to wow Red Raider fans accustomed to watching the Air Raid in action. Sewell completes 59% of his passes, and has only two more touchdowns (11) than interceptions (9). He has thrown for 2,098 yards at 175 yards per contest.

Tight end Tom Santi may be the most dangerous weapon in Virginia's passing arsenal. The Second Team All ACC pick has 33 catches for 402 yards on the season to go along with three touchdown receptions. Mikell Simpson leads the team with 38 receptions, but averages only 9.6 yards per catch.

In short, if Tech's defense can put forward one of its better efforts, the Red Raiders may leave the Cavs choking on their dust.

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