When Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick and tailback Shyrone Stith line up for the Hokies' opening series against No. 1 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl on Tuesday, they will see two things: the angry, aggressive, well-known faces of the Seminoles defense bearing down on them, and the strong, wide backs of their unheralded offensive linemen crouching at the ready to protect and open holes for them.
If those angry faces can get to Vick and Stith early, the Seminoles will likely have all the momentum they'll need to win the game and the national championship. If the offensive linemen can keep them at bay, the No. 2 Hokies will have the chance to run their offense the way they want and take their own shot at the title.
Virginia Tech will want to run the ball, then use play-action passes to give the elusive Vick time to throw. It's a formula that has worked beautifully this season. The Hokies averaged 254 yards rushing per game (eighth in the nation), and Vick led the nation in passing efficiency, throwing just five interceptions.
But the Hokies haven't seen a defense like Florida State's. The Seminoles allowed less than 100 yards per game rushing and forced opposing quarterbacks into 22 interceptions. That's a lot of pressure to handle, even for someone with a strong, wide back.
"We know that's one of the main keys to the game, us battling against those guys, and they're tough--they have a great pass rush, a great defensive line, and they never stop their feet," Virginia Tech center Keith Short said. "We're going to have to see if we can move them out of the way, protect our quarterback and see if we can get a running game going. It's going to be a big job."
At the outset, this does not appear to be an equal matchup. The Virginia Tech offensive line consists of a hardworking, dedicated group of players whose greatest asset is that they have played together for a long time, building a strong sense of timing and teamwork. Three players--Short, left guard Matt Lehr (Woodbridge High) and right tackle Dave Kadela--were named second-team all-Big East by the league's coaches, but none received major honors.
Florida State's defensive front seven is just as hardworking and dedicated. It also features the kind of talent that has had NFL scouts watching closely. At 6-feet-4 and 275 pounds, noseguard Corey Simon is a mammoth force who racked up 48 solo tackles, 4 sacks and 1 interception this season, earning him consensus first-team all-American honors. Defensive tackle Jerry Johnson (6-2, 280 pounds) is the Seminoles' other inside force, and as a three-year starter has the experience to intimidate a redshirt freshman such as Vick.
Weakside linebacker Tommy Polley, who is from Baltimore, is Florida State's leading solo tackler with 67, and strongside linebacker Brian Allen also has shone with five sacks this season.
"You look at [Simon and Johnson], and they're just good," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said. "Someone said they are the first- and third-best in the country [among defensive linemen], and I don't disagree unless it's to say they are first and second.
"But I like our group. They are all solid guys, they are all smart kids and they all play hard. Plus, having Michael Vick back there helps them. He's so good, you don't have to block everyone every time. You have a little room for error."
At practice today, offensive line coach Bryan Stinespring joked that he has a simple plan for stopping Simon and Johnson--"tripping them." Actually, Stinespring is hoping to hold off Florida State's defense by stretching out the front line with blocking schemes and using double-team blocks to create movement. He'll try to use formations designed to slow the Seminoles' team speed. And he's also going to rely on the grit of his players, many of whom have impressed him with their character.
"They're just a lot of fun to be around--there are a lot of personalities out there, more than you'd usually see in an offensive line," Stinespring said. "They're going to be ready, ready for anything."
Sugar Bowl Notes: At Virginia Tech's practice, split end Emmett Johnson (dislocated finger) and backup cornerback Ronyell Whitaker (pulled leg muscle) were injured. Johnson is the team's third-leading receiver with 10 catches for 147 yards and one touchdown. Beamer was hopeful both would be ready but was not certain.
Florida State starting cornerback Tay Cody suffered a chest contusion in practice, but the injury is not considered serious. Bowden said he was unsure of the severity of his injury. . . .
Beamer is allowing his players to visit the casinos here, as long as they are of legal age, but backup tailback Andre Kendrick might not be back anytime soon. "I was playing craps and I crapped out," said Kendrick, 22, who has spent the last two nights trying his luck. "I went on a hot streak and won seven in a row, and then I don't think I've gotten a point since. My gambling is over for the week."
Bowden's players will never get that far--he has put the casinos off limits to the Seminoles. "Everyone has their own opinion on gambling," Bowden said. "I'm one of those guys not in favor of gambling, not in favor of lotteries. I think the statistics will tell you it brings crime, and I hate that." . . .
Virginia Tech will hold meetings instead of practicing Thursday, simulating what the team would usually do on a game-week Monday. The Hokies will then resume their normal game-week schedule on Friday, pretending it is a Tuesday, so they will be ready for Jan. 4--a Tuesday--as if it were a Saturday.
The Hokies will practice on a grass field at Tulane throughout the week, only treading on the artificial turf of the Superdome for a walk-through the day before the game. Beamer said he is not concerned with his team getting repetitions on artificial turf, because the Hokies have an artificial turf practice field at home. The Seminoles, who do not have any artificial turf in Tallahassee, will practice at the Superdome all week.