Keys to the Game

Other than the participants, few people in the nation should have better insight into tonight's game than the players and coaches of the Virginia Cavaliers, Clemson Tigers and Miami Hurricanes. All three played Virginia Tech and Florida State, with the Hokies -- for what it's worth -- having a big edge in average victory margin, 25.7 points to 12.7. Here is look at the keys to tonight's game, with a little help from those three teams:

Offense

1. Establish the Run. Quarterback Michael Vick gets all the attention, but tailbacks Shyrone Stith and Andre Kendrick are the workhorses of Virginia Tech's offense. Florida State cornerbacks Mario Edwards and Tay Cody should be able to keep tabs on Virginia Tech's wide receivers -- especially with Ricky Hall injured -- so the Hokies will want to stay out of third down-and-long situations.

That means Virginia Tech will have to do well running the ball, especially on first down. But the Seminoles' defense, led by all-American nose guard Corey Simon, is excellent against the run. They faced three teams in the top 20 nationally in rushing offense (Maryland, Georgia Tech and Virginia) and held them to an average of 120 rushing yards, well below average.

"Virginia Tech had the best defensive ends we played all season, but Florida State's defensive tackles were the best," Clemson offensive tackle T.J. Watkins said. "They're very strong and quick. Tech likes to run inside a lot and set up the play action, but it's going to be hard to run inside against Florida State because Corey Simon is so good."

2. Handle the Blitz. Florida State's blitz is ferocious. Simon, who had 21 tackles for loss this season, will see a lot of double-teaming from the Hokies. But that will leave the other linemen on their own against the rest of Florida State's defensive line and linebackers. Fullback Jarrett Ferguson will have a big role in keeping Florida State's defense away from Vick.

"Virginia Tech runs a pro-type offense with a tight end, and I think that's going to hurt them against Florida State because Florida State will be able to put a lot of guys in the box and put pressure on the quarterback," Clemson safety Carswell said. "Vick is going to have to run through his reads a lot faster and get rid of the ball. He won't have time to look over the field, he'll have to pick a receiver."

3. Keep Getting Big Plays. It is often overlooked, but Virginia Tech had at least six plays of 20 yards or more in 10 of their games this season. Vick didn't throw the ball very frequently, but he averaged 20 yards per completion, and wide receiver Andre Davis, an Atlantic 10 Conference sprint champion, averaged 27.5 yards per catch. In addition, of the Hokies' 47 offensive touchdowns this season, 23 occurred on plays of 20 yards or longer (12 rushing, 11 passing) and 16 on plays of 30 yards or longer (6 rushing, 11 passing).

Defense

1. Pressure Quarterback Chris Weinke. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Weinke is a traditional drop-back passer with little mobility. If the Hokies can get to him before he throws to one of his super-quick receivers, they should be able to limit the Seminoles' offense. Virginia Tech notched 58 sacks this season, with ends Corey Moore and John Engelberger combining for 24. But the Seminoles gave up only 22 sacks this season. 6-foot-6, 315-pound tackle Brett Williams is a redshirt freshman, but he kept Florida's speed-rushing end Alex Brown (13 sacks this season) away from Weinke when the teams met Nov. 20. It will be up to him to stop Moore.

"I think Virginia Tech will have to be able to rush Weinke," Virginia Coach George Welsh said. "Because if Weinke has time, and they've got three or four wideouts running up the field, they'll give anyone problems."

2. The Secondary Needs to Step Up. If the Hokies have a weakness, it's in the defensive backfield. Virginia Tech intercepted only 10 passes and hasn't faced a wide receiving corps with as much speed or depth as Florida State's. For example, the best passing offense the Hokies faced this year probably was Pittsburgh's, and the Panthers threw for 427 yards, although they still lost, 30-17. The Hokies try hide this weakness by getting after opposing quarterbacks (against Pittsburgh, they had nine sacks), but that might not be enough against the Seminoles.

"Tech was one of the best tackling teams we faced," Clemson offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez said. "We completed 28 passes against them, but it was only for 200 or so yards. So while we completed passes we couldn't get much out of them because they made the tackles. Florida State will complete short passes and you better wrap up the receiver because they can run with it after the catch."

Special Teams

With Coach Frank Beamer directing the special team, Virginia Tech is renowned for its kick-blocking skills (63 blocks since the start of the 1990 season), but it had just two blocks this season -- on a punt and an extra point.

The Hokies' return teams have done very well this season, but with wide receiver Ricky Moore unlikely to be available to return punts, as usual, safety Ike Charlton will have pick up that role. Charlton used to return kickoffs, and he has spent plenty of time in practice this season as punt returner, but he never has returned a punt in a game. That could be a problem.

Place kicker Shayne Graham became just the second player to be named first-team all-Big East Conference four times (Syracuse quarterback Donovan McNabb is the other). Punter Jimmy Kibble, who also handles kickoffs, has been named first-team all-Big East three times; only nine of his 46 punts this season were returned, and for a total of 36 yards. Tonight, however, he will be punting to Peter Warrick.

Intangibles

The Hokies never have been in a game of this magnitude. How they handle the pressure and emotion may have a lot to do with whether they win. Corey Moore's dust-up with the media over the weekend was not a good sign. Virginia Tech was the Big East's least-penalized team this season, with just 65 infractions; that discipline must continue. The coaching staff was so intent on making the final week of preparation resemble a normal game week that the team didn't practice this past Thursday, which was the equivalent of a Monday, a day on which the Hokies normally have meetings but no practice when they are preparing for a Saturday game.

Key points in the season

Sept. 23 vs. Clemson

Although Michael Vick had an off-night (88 passing yards, 3 INTs), the defense made a name for itself in an ESPN game. Virginia Tech was ahead 17-11 late in the fourth quarter, but two defensive touchdowns put the game away. Ike Charlton had a 34-yard interception return for a score, and 38 seconds later, Corey Moore took a fumble recovery 32 yards into the end zone, clinching the 31-11 victory.

Oct. 16 vs. Syracuse

The Hokies helped legitimize their standing as contender for the national title with a 62-0 pasting of then-No. 16 Syracuse, the second-largest margin of victory over an Associated Press-ranked team and the biggest shutout of an AP-ranked team. Virginia Tech held the Orangemen to 120 total yards and got two touchdowns from the defense. ESPN televised the game and broadcast their "GameDay" coverage from Blacksburg, and the Hokies were national news for the rest of the season.

Nov. 6 at West Virginia

This was Vick's statement game. The redshirt freshman almost single-handedly brought the Hokies back from what seemed to be a sure defeat. Down 20-19 with no timeouts and 1 minute 11 seconds left in the game, Vick engineered a six-play, 58-yard drive, including a 26-yard run highlighted by a acrobatic hurdle of a West Virginia defender. Shayne Graham won the game with a 44-yard field goal as time expired. The win also gave the Hokies the No. 2 spot in the Bowl Championship Series rankings poll, as previously unbeaten Penn State lost to Minnesota earlier that day.