On some running plays, Virginia's offensive linemen just lunge across the line of scrimmage and block whoever is in front of them. It is simple and generally effective, the basic blocking scheme for football teams at any level.
But more often than not, the Cavaliers spice things up. One, two or three linemen pivot left or right at the snap of the ball and run toward the sideline, building up a head of steam to unload on defenders and clear an outside path for the running back.
Senior right guard Elton Brown, the preseason all-American who often leads the charge, estimates 75 to 80 percent of Virginia's running plays call for at least one pulling lineman -- far more than most teams.
"It's one of the things that we like our linemen to be able to do," Coach Al Groh said.
Groh and his coaches spent the past three years recruiting athletic, mobile linemen and drilling them on the details of this complex choreography of big men in motion, planting seeds that have blossomed this season. The 10th-ranked Cavaliers (7-1, 4-1 ACC) own the nation's sixth-best rushing attack (255 yards per game) and are tied for first in the conference standings entering Saturday's home game against No. 18 Miami (6-2, 3-2).
"They're just really in sync as far as the running game's concerned," Hurricanes Coach Larry Coker said of a Virginia squad that totaled 643 rushing yards in wins against Duke and Maryland the past two weeks.
Groh said the scheme allows an offense to bring overwhelming force to a particular area of the field, giving tailbacks Alvin Pearman and Wali Lundy as many as five blockers in front of them. Linemen also can often get better angles and more power behind their blocks when they meet defenders in the open field instead of at the line of scrimmage. It's the same reason the Cavaliers run so many screen passes.
"Your secondary has to be physical enough and has to be strong enough to tackle Lundy and Pearman one-on-one, because they seal people off," Duke Coach Ted Roof said.
Yet as difficult as the plays are to defend, they are equally difficult to execute. "You can't do this on a part-time basis," Groh said. "Because there are a lot of moving parts involved, it takes a significant commitment to it."
That's where Virginia's experience comes in. Brown, junior left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, junior left guard Brian Barthelmes, senior center Zac Yarbrough and junior right tackle Brad Butler have a combined 146 career starts. Each has at least 22, the equivalent of two full seasons.
"When you play together that long, it's kind of like you bond and click without saying anything," Brown said.
Only once this season have the Cavaliers been held to less than 225 yards on the ground, but they were held way under it, managing a mere 20 yards on 29 carries in their 36-3 loss at Florida State. Seminoles defenders were too fast on the edge for Virginia's linemen, though Cavs coaches and players chalked up the failure in part to just a bad day.
"It was a real reality check for us five," Yarbrough said. "It kind of put us in our place, I think. We took it all upon ourselves to get better every week and to go out there and play with the heart and tenacity we need."
Could the Cavaliers face a similar challenge this weekend? The Hurricanes' linebackers will be as fast as any the Cavaliers face this season, though Virginia's linemen practice every day against an equally talented corps.
"There are [other concerns], but it's hard to get past that" speed, Groh said. "I mean, it really is. The speed is tremendous. It keeps on coming. There are all sorts of guys who have it."
On the other hand, the Hurricanes rank 59th in the nation in rushing defense (149 yards per game). They allowed an average of nearly 200 rushing yards in the past four games, including upset losses to North Carolina and Clemson the past two weeks. Cornerback Antrel Rolle, Miami's best defensive player, might not play because of a turf-toe injury.
Still, the Hurricanes will do everything they can to make their first visit to Scott Stadium memorable. Job one is slowing Virginia's running game.
"The main thing you do is you have to really be aggressive and you have to get upfield," Coker said. "You have to make sure that you get off blocks . . . and then you have to tackle well."
Cavaliers Note: Fullback Jason Snelling practiced Tuesday for the first time since spraining his right ankle Oct. 7 against Clemson, but "I haven't seen anything to make me think that we'll use him" this weekend, Groh said. The initial prognosis when Snelling went down had him returning for next week's game at Georgia Tech, though "if and when we do get him back," Groh said, "it certainly will probably have to be in less than the full-time role that he was in."