Less than a year removed from giving up eight sacks to Stanford in the Orange Bowl, Virginia Tech’s oft-criticized offensive line had a banner season this year, tying with Georgia Tech for the fewest sacks allowed in the ACC while right tackle Blake DeChristopher was selected as the best blocker in the conference. But count Michigan’s defense among those unconvinced.
“I really don’t think any offensive line can stand up to our physicality,” Wolverines defensive end Craig Roh said. “If our D-line plays the way we know how to play, I don’t think anyone in the country can.”
One of the more intriguing story lines heading into Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl will be the battle in the trenches. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster said Friday he believes it’s the key to his unit’s success, but it could play an even bigger role in how effective Virginia Tech’s offense can be against Michigan’s revamped defense.
In last year’s Orange Bowl the Hokies offense was derailed by Stanford’s complex blitzing schemes and defensive line twists. Afterwards Virginia Tech’s offensive linemen admitted all the extra pressure confused them.
But when Roh’s comments were relayed to offensive line coach Curt Newsome before the Hokies practiced at the Superdome, he didn’t disagree. Instead he reiterated that Michigan’s defensive line is strength of its defense, and talked of how Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and former Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio must have coached together at some point.
His intuition was right. Fangio, who followed Coach Jim Harbaugh to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers this year, coached with Mattison when the two were on the Baltimore Ravens staff in 2008 and 2009. And after last year’s Orange Bowl debacle, Virginia Tech knows Michigan’s defensive line poses a challenge unlike any it has faced this season.
“We’ve gone up against a lot of speed guys; these guys are more powerful, more physical, hit-you-in-the-mouth kind of defense,” DeChristopher said Saturday.
Added Newsome: “I don’t know if we’ve played anybody that is their size and the way they play.”
Though the Wolverines could be without defensive tackle Will Heininger on Tuesday because of a foot injury, they still have plenty of weapons up front. Senior Mike Martin was an all-Big Ten second-team selection for the second year in a row this season and will likely play in the NFL. Senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen tips the scales at 288 pounds, the only Michigan starter on the defensive line that weighs less than 300 pounds, but led the Wolverines in sacks.
To prepare for that, Newsome said the team’s bowl practices have been more intense than a year ago, with extra practice time dedicated to playing physical at the line of scrimmage. It doesn’t hurt that six of the 13 sacks Virginia Tech allowed this year came against Clemson, the Hokies’s most recent opponent.
“We’ve had a very good season, but you’re only as good as your last one,” Newsome said. “And we don’t want that to be our last one.”
This will, however, be the final game for Virginia Tech’s four fifth-year seniors on the offensive line – DeChristopher, right guard Jaymes Brooks, left guard Greg Nosal and left tackle Andrew Lanier. On Saturday, DeChristopher reminisced about their first season playing together in Blacksburg, when Virginia Tech gave up 38 sacks.
But whether they can put an exclamation point on that growth could very well decide this year’s Sugar Bowl
They’ve been through some tough times and they’ve been through some good times. They’ve played their tail off this season,” Newsome said. “We’ve come a long way.”