Story by Chris Graham
How do you stop a team that scores 42 points a game and racks up 476 yards a game through the air?
“It’s going to be a challenge. And I’ve never shied away from a challenge,” Virginia linebacker Clint Sintim said of the challenge that awaits the Cavaliers next week in the Gator Bowl when UVa. (9-3) faces off with Texas Tech (8-4) in the Jan. 1 game in Jacksonville.
“It’s exciting. I mean, it’s going to be a little different, but football’s not the same everywhere you go. So it’s going to be exciting to see how it fares. I can’t wait to play them,” Sintim said.
Challenge is the word of the week leading up to the Gator Bowl – Virginia’s first New Year’s Day bowl game since the 1994 Carquest Bowl. UVa. coach Al Groh is equating the task awaiting his ‘Hoos to the one that they faced in the 2005 Music City Bowl against run-happy Minnesota.
“They were the number-two rushing team in the country – and they were second or third in the country in rushing attempts. This team is first in the country in passing attempts,” Groh said of the comparison of the 2005 Golden Gophers and the 2007 Red Raiders.
“It’s a little bit different in that it wasn’t necessarily a run-and-chase-the-ball game, but the theory of those teams is you just keep running and running and running and pound them and pound them and pound them, and after a while, they just break. And so part of the preparation for the game was preparation for that particular style of play – both mentally and physically. We thought we needed to have very physical preparations for that game, so we were used to getting hit. Now we’re in a different type of game, but we’ll have a similar approach. Just the specifics of how we try to get them ready for that will be a little different,” Groh said.
The game plan would seem to be obvious – get to Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell, who threw for 5,298 yards and 45 touchdowns in the ’07 regular season, early and often. Except that the Red Raider offensive line gave up 12 – count them, 12 – sacks all season.
“And the numbers don’t lie – because they’ve included teams like Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas A&M, Colorado and others. And those are pretty good teams,” Groh said of that astounding figure.
“Pin your ears back and then change direction – turn and chase the ball,” Groh said of the defensive approach that he is selling to his front seven, which recorded 40 sacks in the 2007 regular season, but figures to be involved in the game plan in different ways next week.
“It has to be a mindset involved in that – that this is a lot different than the deep drop, sit back there,” Groh said. “We’ve certainly seen – we’ve had a number of players, and the player that we’ve all seen the most, Chris Long, get a number of sacks this year just by being relentless. You know, he finally hunted the player down. That’s a little more difficult to do when the ball is out of there. And you can expect when there are 65, 66 passes in a game, not all of them are intended to take as shots. Some of them are, it’s first-and-10, what they’re looking for is second-and-five. That’s what the play’s intended for, that’s how quickly the ball is gone.”
Groh isn’t tipping his hand as to how he’ll try to defend against Texas Tech’s spread – be it to use his base 3-4 or to change the base to a nickel or dime that operates out of a standard 4-3.
“I’m sure that’s a question that people are waiting to hear the answer to from Charlottesville to Lubbock,” the coach said in response to a question to that effect at a press conference last week.
What is clear is that Groh and defensive coordinator Mike London have something special in mind for Texas Tech freshman wideout Michael Crabtree – who caught 125 balls for 1,861 yards and 21 touchdowns in the ’07 regular season.
“What is striking about him is his explosiveness, in two ways. One, his quick acceleration after the catch. He can really kick it down to a gear – and that becomes apparent because in line with what we were talking about just a second ago, there are so many of these plays that are just designed to quick get the ball to somebody who can do something with it right now. Their toss play is literally that way instead of, say, the conventional I-formation toss it to the tailback. It happens that quickly. He’s got that type of skill to do that with it,” Groh said. “And then his ability to jump on the run – which is not only very impressive, but consistent with the fact that in researching him and talking to people down in that area of the country, that he was a very highly regarded basketball player. And he tells the story of a couple of occasions where Coach Knight (Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight) was sitting up in the stands watching him play basketball. And he’s someone who’s got a fairly good eye for talent.
“Those coaches who I’ve talked to down there in that conference, one coach’s quote was, After you watch the tape, however good you think he is, he’s better,” Groh said.
“We’re going to have a number of different groups available – but there will certainly be times in the game where we’ll have to try to match the personnel that they have in the game,” Groh said, getting about as specific as he would before the game about his defensive game plan.
“One coach that we talked to said his plan was to put the best basketball players on the field that he had,” Groh said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.