Sabre Roundtable: Gator Bowl Thoughts

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Virginia fans can read or watch more from the roundtable panelists. Make sure to check out the Sabre EDGE, WCAV, and The Daily Press today!

The Virginia football team is gearing up for its Gator Bowl showdown with Texas Tech on Jan. 1. What can Hoo fans expect from the Cavlaiers against the Red Raiders? Will the tight ends be involved as usual? How will Chris Long do? The Sabre’s Nick Sauer, The Daily Press’ Melinda Waldrop, WCAV’s Kris Budden, and Sabre user Fitz-Hoo take a look at the match-up with a roundtable of questions.

Virginia Athletics Director Craig Littlepage made a public statement last week encouraging UVa fans to buy tickets in support of the football team’s trip to the Gator Bowl. Are you surprised by the current ticket allotment sales? Do you think the sales seem sluggish? What do you expect the Cavaliers’ fan turnout to be?

Nick S.: I’m not surprised. Virginia is rarely going to travel in large numbers to locations a long way from traditional fan base areas (VA, DC, NC, Atlanta as examples). It’s not a big school and given that the opponent isn’t a big name, the casual fan isn’t likely to attend. If the game were against Texas, that would be a different story.

I don’t think the administration’s handling of the football program is making any friends either. The higher giving levels for next season are generating a negative undercurrent and the Virginia Tech debacle in addition to John Casteen’s “jocular” comments certainly didn’t help matters. Expensive ticket packages are keeping the allotment sales down and making things less convenient. Those factors alienate the common fan and all that is left are the hardcore folks that will travel anywhere, any time.

I’d guess a total of 20K Wahoo faithful in Jacksonville, which isn’t bad considering the way the season ended and the opponent.

Melinda: Yes, it is somewhat surprising that Virginia fans need to be prodded to buy tickets, since one of the reasons the Cavaliers leapfrogged Boston College to get in the Gator Bowl was a perception that the Cavs traveled in bigger numbers. And the brisk pace of ticket sales in Blacksburg doesn’t make the situation look any better. I have no real idea what the turnout will be in Jacksonville, having never covered UVa in a bowl. But I think that Clemson, by way of comparison, can usually be counted on to bring a good 30,000.

WCAV Kris: I’m not too surprised that the Cavaliers’ allotment has not sold out yet. Cavalier fans don’t travel as well as some ACC teams like Clemson and Virginia Tech. It is a great bowl game for the Cavaliers, and they were fortunate to get a New Year’s Day bowl game. Most people were planning on the Champs Sports Bowl in December. I am surprised more people didn’t jump at the chance to see the Cavs play in a New Year’s Day bowl. On the other hand, people don’t associate Jacksonville as a great football
town. Look at pictures from the Acc Championship! The stadium isn’t even half full!! When you look at other conference championships, the venues are sold out. Part of
the problem may be the location.

Fitz-Hoo: I am somewhat disappointed in the ticket sales numbers to date, but I’m not really surprised. I think there are three factors that are primary contributors to the less than spectacular sales figures. First, the New Year’s Day date eliminates some fans based on prior plans and the need to take at least one additional day off work following game day. Second, the late announcement of our bowl destination hurts. Traveling to Florida is more difficult and more expensive for most people than Charlotte. With less than a month’s notice, the trip is even more difficult. Third, and most troubling to me, the VAF and Athletics Department seem to have aggravated the issues. There was no presale. There are still unsold club and VIP tickets for which there are willing buyers. Buyers did not know where their tickets would be.
I am hoping that we can get 15 to 20K fans to the game. If we do that, we will have surpassed both teams that participated in the ACCCG. I think the Gator would be satisfied and our bowl reputation would not be damaged.
The VAF and Athletics department need to understand that the rules for selling bowl tickets need to be different than the rules for selling season tickets or ACC basketball tournament tickets. Bowls are about building a fan following not about increasing donations. Bowl priority points should be based primarily on willingness to go to the bowl. Prior bowl ticket buyers should get priority. Someone buying an upper deck ticket to the Gator Bowl should be happy to do so through UVa because it will put them in position to buy a VIP ticket to the Orange Bowl in a couple of years.

Texas Tech’s defense doesn’t get as much attention as the high-octane offense. That’s not too surprising since the Red Raiders give up 171.0 rushing yards per game. Can the Hoos take advantage with their running game? If so, who will be the key runner?

Nick S.: Absolutely they can. An effective running game doesn’t necessarily mean huge numbers as far as rushing yards though. It’s about dictating to the defense and thus being able to pick your match-ups. I think Mike Groh has done a much better job this year of using a multitude of looks in the running game to confuse the defense and set up the short passing game. I expect that to continue against Texas Tech. The Hoos will force the Red Raiders into engaging a lot of defenders to stop the run, which should allow Groh to pick his spots with play-action.

I think the key runner will be be Mikell Simpson . I wouldn’t mind pounding TT inside with Keith Payne but I’ve been waiting for that in many a game this season so I’m not holding my breath. Jameel Sewell should also have a good game using the read option set up by Simpson’s success. Stephen McGee of Texas A&M is a more gifted runner than Sewell but he ran for almost 90 yards against the Red Raider defense earlier this year so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sewell rack up some yardage and a TD or two.

Melinda: The Red Raiders’ defense may be better than most people give it credit for. The run defense stiffened a bit against Oklahoma, giving up just 104 yards on the ground as Texas Tech upset the Sooners 34-27 to end the regular season. But there’s little doubt the Cavaliers will have to put up some points in order to win, and it’ll be interesting to see who produces them. A rotating cast of running backs has filled in since Cedric Peerman ‘s season-ending foot injury, but I think Mikell Simpson will have to show the speed and toughness that beat Maryland to get Virginia’s ground game going.

WCAV Kris: Look back at some of the Raiders’ games – it seems opponents have the best success when they split rushing/passing offense evenly. Missouri, Texas, and Colorado all ran for 200+ yards. Those are three of the four teams Texas Tech lost to. Tech’s big win was against Oklahoma. In that game, OU only managed 106 yards on the ground. If Virginia can get the running game ready, that will be its best weapon. Let’s not kid ourselves, Virginia will not shut out Texas Tech. They need to be able to put a good amount of points on the board, so Mikell Simpson get your running shoes ready!!!

Fitz-Hoo: TT coaches are spending weeks reviewing tapes of our recent games. They are seeing Mikell Simpson run and catch for big chunks of yardage. They are seeing options and stretch plays with pulling linemen. They are not seeing Keith Payne because Payne was not very healthy in the second half of the season. I have a suspicion that we will see plenty of Mikell, but we may see a little more Payne brought to the Raiders’ defensive front. It would provide some change of pace and ball control. It also may be successful enough that Payne could be the surprise contributor of the game.

Tom Santi and the tight ends are usually featured heavily in the plan.

Virginia’s tight ends have been a critical component of the offense all season long, lining up everywhere from wide receiver to fullback to tight end. Will the UVa ends keep it rolling? Which tight end – Tom Santi , Jonathan Stupar , or John Phillips – is your choice to have a big day?

Nick S.: I expect Texas Tech to bring 8 into the box to try to shut down Simpson, Sewell, and the Cavalier rushing attack. The play-action pass to the tight end should be very effective as the TT linebackers and safeties will have to respect the run. Tight ends have been effective against the Red Raiders this season and that will certainly be the case on Jan. 1 as well.

I think John Phillips will have a big game. Tom Santi is a match-up problem for the Raiders and they will be paying attention to him wherever he lines up. Phillips is a strong blocker that will be used a lot In that capacity, so he should be able to sell his releases in the play action game the most effectively of the TEs. I expect he will find himself open down the seams on more than one occasion.

Melinda: The Cavaliers had better hope the tight ends keep it rolling since no receiver emerged to fill Kevin Ogletree ‘s shoes. And I think they will to some extent, as other opponents – i.e. Miami – have proven that game film study is not enough to stop the short throws with yards after the catch and over-the-middle routes that the TEs have run all season. Tom Santi would no doubt like to have a big game in his senior season, and I’m sure the Texas Tech defense is aware of that – and that Stupar was second on the team with 37 receptions. So I’d look for Phillips to have a chance to do some damage.

WCAV Kris: Again, looking back at some of Texas Tech’s losses, the worse game was against Missouri. The Tigers use their tight ends in the same way Virginia does – a lot!!! That could be another key weapon for the Cavaliers. Tom Santi should be the go to tight end.

Fitz-Hoo: You are asking if UVa is going to have the tight ends be a critical part of the offensive game plan? Is the sky blue? Is the dawn orange? This is Tight End U and Al Groh you are talking about. I think the ball control, low-risk plan will be the starting point. As long as our defense can keep us in the game, we will stick with the running backs, tight ends, and QB options as the bread and butter. The receivers will need to continue to block downfield. As for which of the tight ends becomes the focus, I think that’s just a matter of which one the TT defense chooses to leave open.

Chris Long will play his final game as a Cavalier in Jacksonville after posting 14 sacks in the regular season. That’s one shy of the season record set by Chris Slade and Patrick Kerney. How does Long compare to Kerney, who is leading the NFL in sacks, in your opinion? Will Long notch No. 15 against Texas Tech’s quick-throwing offense?

Nick S.: At this point, I’d be a fool not to bet on Chris Long to accomplish any feat on the football field. But to be honest, this could be a frustrating day for Chris – I think he’ll be more productive getting into the passing lanes and batting down balls. Texas Tech is not going to run plays where Harrell has more than a 3-step drop without doubling Long. Still, he’ll find a way to make plays against the mammoth TT line – he always does. I wouldn’t be surprised by a 2 batted passes, 2 TFL, 1 sack kind of game and there is even the potential for an INT on a zone blitz. Jeffery Fitzgerald could put up equal stats. The pass coverage of the linebackers is the major concern for me in this match-up as they will get their zones peppered with Graham Harrell darts.

Melinda: Long is the Cavaliers’ best hope to slow down Texas Tech’s outrageous offense, so getting pressure on Graham Harrell will be crucial. Long will likely be up to the challenge. The interesting question will be whether the Red Raiders’ offensive line can say the same. Having not seen a lot of Kerney this season, I hesitate to compare, but physically, they’re similar (Kerney is 6-5 and 272, Long 6-4 and 284) and both clearly share an instinct and ability to get to the quarterback. I don’t think Long will last until the 30th pick of the draft, though, which is when Kerney was taken in 1999.

WCAV Kris: Chris Long is not the type of guy to shy away from a challenge. I bet when the Hoos found out they were playing Tech, Chris’ eyes lit up. The Cavaliers have not seen a passing offense this strong. I think Chris knows it’s a big challenge and will have a great game. Number 15 or 16? I think so. Also, the Big 12 is not known for its strong defenses so it will be interesting to see how the UVa defense rattles Graham and to see how he handles the pressure.

Fitz-Hoo: I expect Long to get a sack. Patrick Kerney was an awesome UVa player, but, with no disrespect to Mr. Kerney, I think Long is better. I don’t ever remember Kerney influencing a game to the extent that Chris Long has done several times this season. Long’s play against Maryland was simply amazing. Even when he does not rack up the glossy numbers, Long has a tremendous influence on the offensive game plan. It will be interesting to see how Long and Fitz do against the TT OL line-up with wider than usual gaps. I also wonder if we might try to confuse things a little by having Long and/or Fitz occasionally drop into coverage against the underneath routes that TT loves to take advantage of. We are really going to miss Chris Long – as a player and as a person.

Al Groh has a good record in bowl games, but so does Texas Tech’s Mike Leach. Who will prevail?

Al Groh is 3-1 in bowl games during his Virginia tenure with the only loss coming in controversial fashion against Fresno State. Texas Tech has won four of its last five bowl games as well. When push comes to shove, which team will keep its postseason mojo intact? Why do you like them to win?

Nick S.: “Controversial” is an understatement when it comes to the Fresno State game. That was a victory and wasn’t even that close. That’s a different issue altogether though.

I like Texas Tech to win this game. That actually makes me feel better about UVa’s chances. I thought the Minnesota match-up in the Music City Bowl was an awful one for UVa and I think this TT team presents more problems than Minnesota and Laurence Maroney did that year. But for Minnesota, the coaches came out with a great game plan and the players believed in it and fought to win the game. On paper, I just don’t see how the Hoos are going to stop Texas Tech. I think UVa will put up a lot of points on a suspect Tech defense, but the Red Raiders will pull away late against a group of exhausted linebackers who aren’t great pass coverage guys in the first place. If there was ever a game to come up with a gimmick defense, this is it – if London and Groh can do that, the Hoos may have a chance.

Whatever the result, getting a New Year’s Day game was huge for the program. The extra practice for the secondary and for the young scout team players is crucial (and may generate some good ideas out there for the offense next year). Also, this team deserves a great reward for the toughness and resilience they showed this year. Go Hoos – prove me wrong like you did against Minnesota and beat the Red Raiders!!

Melinda: Both teams have proven they know how to win in bowls, so it’s difficult to handicap a hands-down winner. So much will depend on how much pressure Virginia can get on Harrell, and how its relatively young secondary fares against all-world freshman wideout Michael Crabtree. But if the Cavs can contain the Red Raiders on offense, and if Jameel Sewell can avoid the mental lapses that have led at times to key mistakes, Virginia has a good chance to run Groh’s bowl record to 4-1.

WCAV Kris: Having grown up around Big 12 football my entire life, I just don’t see an ACC team matching the Big 12 offense … especially the best passing offense in the nation! If the N.C. State game is any comparison, well … the Cavaliers are going to need some big help.

Fitz-Hoo: I am very interested to see how well we can put together a defensive plan against Texas Tech. The bad news is that we really haven’t played a team like this all year. The good news is that they cannot plan their offense based on our defensive tendencies against teams like them. I think the key to the game is limiting long passes forcing the Raiders to the underneath routes. We will need to limit the long passes in part with a steady pass rush to keep the QB from having time to beat one-on-one coverage deep. Then we will need to have our safeties and LBs contain the underneath routes. We will not be successful every time and they will score points, but if we can get a couple of turnovers and force a few field goals rather than touchdowns, we can score enough to win.

My head says the Raiders will win. My heart says the Hoos will find a way to pull it out. This year there have been five games that my head said loss and my heart said win. We are 4-1 in those games to date. I guess I better go with the heart this time: UVa 34 – Raiders 33.

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