2006 Keys to the Game and Matchups to Watch: Virginia Tech at Miami

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Two former Big East rivals square off in the Orange Bowl on Saturday night in
prime time on ABC, as Virginia Tech seeks revenge for last year’s debacle in
Blacksburg. Ironically several games in the ACC and Big East will be bigger this
weekend in terms of conference championships, but most eyes in the nation will
be interested in the Miami vs. Virginia Tech matchup. Thursday night’s game
with Louisville hosting West Virginia is the most important game of the weekend
and two ACC games kick off at 7:00 with conference championships on the line —
Boston College at Wake Forest and Georgia Tech at N.C. State — but the Hokies
vs. Canes game will likely get the most attention from the national audience.

One major difference between the SEC and ACC that I have observed is the lack
of long-term heated football rivalries in the ACC. Florida State had previously
dominated the ACC to the point that other rivalries were basically insignificant
with regard to conference championships. Regional rivalries between the North
Carolina schools got local attention, but seldom attracted any national
interest. The ACC expansion of the three former Big East schools immediately
gained some rivalries — Miami vs. Florida State, Virginia Tech vs. Miami,
Virginia Tech vs. Virginia — that gain more interest from the casual fan not
on the east coast.

Virginia Tech vs. Miami is probably the second biggest rivalry in the ACC
right now (with Miami vs. Florida State being first) and one game that all Hokie
fans point to each season. Tech fans still have nightmares of the
self-destruction last year against Miami in the biggest (or at least the most
hyped) game in Virginia Tech football history. The Hokie offense could not
handle the blitzing, attacking defense of the Hurricanes, and Miami generated a
surprisingly effective ground game that set up some key play-action passes from
Kyle Wright (#3, 6-4 220, r-Jr.) as the Canes rolled to a 27-7 victory. The
Hokies committed an uncharacteristic six turnovers in the game and obviously
must do a better job taking care of the ball this year.

Turnovers are always critical in the Virginia Tech vs. Miami series, and this
game will likely be another defensive slugfest with field position and takeaways
being significant in determining the outcome. The team that can play with the
fewest mistakes and win the special teams battle has a very good chance at being
victorious. The Hokies have momentum coming off their best performance of the
season in defeating Clemson 24-7. Miami, on the other hand, is coming off a
devastating loss to Georgia Tech 30-23, which all but knocks the Canes out of
the division race.

The Hokies have momentum and the emotional edge in seeking revenge for last
year’s sub-par performance, but Miami is playing at home and the Hurricanes
always get up for playing Virginia Tech. The overall key to this game will
likely be the Hokies’ ability to run the ball. Brandon Ore is coming off two
200+ yard rushing games and has clearly established himself as the premier back
in the ACC this year. Miami is currently the #4 rushing defense in the country
and has not allowed 100 yards on the ground to a single opponent this year. So
what does Tech need to do to establish the run against the staunch Miami
defense?

When Virginia Tech Has the Ball:

1. Establish the Power Running Game

The renewed rushing attack from Virginia Tech in the last two games appears
to be the result of a return to the power running game. The Hokies still use a
varied running game mixing zone blocking with more traditional man-on-man
blocking, but the key to the improvement on the ground is the improved power
blocking of the interior offensive line. Sergio Render, in particular, has
become a force and Brandon Gore stepped in for the injured Ryan Shuman
(partially torn MCL, could be back for the bowl game) and played very well. The
Hokies have used the fullback more in the last two weeks with Jesse Allen and
Carlton Weatherford providing additional toughness to the running attack.

Miami relies on an aggressive, penetrating defensive line to create confusion
for the offensive line through a number of stunts, twists, and blitzes. To
account for the variety of blitzing tactics by Miami, last year Tech ran more
zone blocking plays in which the linemen block an area as opposed to a man. The
idea is that each lineman should be able to pick up the blitzing or stunting
player coming into his area. However, the Hokies could not account for the speed
of the pursuit, particularly from the linebackers, and the penetration of the
defensive line, thus the ground game never got going. While Tech will still use
the zone runs on occasion to keep the defense off balance, I suspect that the
Hokies will rely more on the power running game that worked so successfully
against Southern Miss and Clemson.

The basis for a power running attack is to double-team at the point of
attack, usually a defensive tackle, and lead another player through the hole
ahead of the back, either another lineman, tight end, or fullback. Georgia Tech
had some success using the fullback lined up in the slot and trapping the
penetrating tackle while the other defensive tackle was double-teamed. Virginia
Tech has been using one of the two athletic offensive tackles to lead through
the hole and having the tight ends and fullbacks be responsible for backside
protection. In the second half against Clemson, Brandon Ore made a nice run down
to the goal line following a tremendous block by Brandon Frye pulling through
the hole. Look for Tech to use the athletic ability of Frye and Duane Brown a
lot in this game to lead plays downfield.

If Virginia Tech is going to be successful running the ball, the logical
tactic is to run straight at Miami to neutralize their speed. The Hurricanes’
defensive tackles are not as disruptive as last year’s players, especially
with the loss of Orien Harris, but Brian Pata (#95, 6-4 280, Sr.) can be
difficult to handle. Pata and Baraka Atkins (#98, 6-4 275, r-Sr.) basically
switched positions, with Atkins now at left end and Pata manning the right
tackle spot. Brandon Gore will get the assignment of blocking Pata, and he will
need to neutralize Pata’s quick first step. Gore can have trouble with quicker
linemen, so this is a matchup to watch in the game. Look for Danny McGrath to
help out quite a bit with Pata.

The other defensive tackle, Kareem Brown (#99, 6-4 315, r-Sr.) is a hustling
player that can get penetration, but he tends to play too high at times and he
can be moved in the running game. The matchup between Brown and Sergio Render
could be critical for Tech’s running game to get going. Kareem Brown’s
back-up, Teraz McCray (#54, 6-1 300, r-Jr.) plays quite a bit and he is
extremely quick and stays low coming off the ball. However, McCray can be
overpowered at times, so look for the Hokies to follow Render on power running
plays.

Key statistics to watch: Total rushing yards. If Virginia Tech can gain more
than 100 yards rushing against Miami, then the Hokies are controlling the line
of scrimmage and should win the game. If the Hurricanes can stop the ground
attack of Tech, then the Hokies will have to go to the air and the chances of
winning lessen considerably. Remember that Tech only had two games last year
that the running game was ineffective — Miami and Florida State.

2. Pick up the Blitz

In last year’s game Miami used blitz packages that had been prepared
specifically for Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes will bring anybody at any time,
relying on confusion in the blocking schemes to pressure the quarterback. Miami
will use a number of blitzes combined with stunts in the offensive line to
generate pressure. Obviously last year’s strategy worked well, especially with
an ineffective rushing attack by the Hokies.

The first key in handling the blitz is to avoid the natural blitzing
situations — second and long or third and long. If Tech can establish the run
to some degree on first down or hit some quick passes to avoid the blitzing
situations, then the problem starts to take care of itself. However, Miami will
even blitz on first down to prevent the second and short situations. Basically,
the Hokies need to be ready for a blitz on every play, and Sean Glennon needs to
recognize his keys and make the proper protection calls. The offensive line then
needs to execute and communicate well to pick up the frenetic attack of the
Hurricanes.

One strategy is to provide maximum protection on each play, keeping the backs
and tight ends in protection on some passing plays, but I believe this strategy
is too “defensive” and the Hokies need to counterattack the blitzes of
Miami. I would like to see more three-receiver sets with a hot read to the slot
receiver on recognizing the blitz. One reason I advocate this strategy is that
Miami’s All-ACC strong safety, Kenny Phillips (#1, 6-2 202, So.) would
generally have to stay in coverage and would not be able to make as many plays
at the line of scrimmage. Also, Tech needs to use Brandon Ore out of the
backfield to take advantage of potential mismatches with linebackers. In other
words, Virginia Tech should make some quick passes and screens to counteract the
blitz. Tech should limit the seven-step drops in this game and go to a quick two
or three read pattern with a pre-snap read dictating the play call.

Key statistics to watch: Quarterback hurries and sacks. Sean Glennon cannot
afford to be holding the ball for any length of time, so if he is getting
hurried or even sacked that would indicate a significant problem for Tech’s
offense. Glennon needs to make his reads quickly, and if nothing is available
then dump the ball off.

3. Beat the Man-to-Man Coverage

Probably more than any team that Virginia Tech plays, Miami will use
man-to-man coverage in the secondary. Because of the blitzing strategy of the
defense, the Canes leave their defensive backs alone one-on-one a great deal.
Generally they will play man-free (or Cover-1) with the free safety left to
protect the deep middle of the field. By protecting against deep posts, the one
deep pass that is left open is the fade or simple “go” pattern. However,
these passes are relatively low percentage plays and Miami relies on the
pressure on the quarterback to make these throws difficult.

The higher percentage passing plays are crossing patterns, which are
difficult to cover man-to-man. Recall in 2004 when Eddie Royal beat Antrel Rolle
for the winning touchdown late in the game on a crossing pattern; this is the
type of pattern that the Hokies need to use in this game. Look for Josh Morgan
to be lined up in the slot and running crossing patterns as well as the other
receivers. Also, if Tech can provide enough protection, double moves by the
receivers could be very effective, particularly by the Hokies’ speed
receivers, Eddie Royal and David Clowney.

Miami’s cornerbacks are solid as always, but I like the matchup with Royal
or Clowney against Brandon Meriweather (#19, 6-0 195, r-Sr.). Meriweather
started his career at cornerback but he did not excel until he was moved to free
safety, where he earned second-team All-ACC honors last year. Meriweather was
moved back to corner to provide a more physical presence, but there was a reason
he was moved to free safety earlier in his career. While certainly adequate in
coverage, Meriweather does not change directions as easily as natural corners,
so he can be beaten by Tech’s faster receivers.

Miami’s other cornerback is Glenn Sharpe (#4, 6-0 187, r-Jr.) who is
probably most remembered for getting the interference call (or bad call
depending on your viewpoint) in the end zone against Ohio State on fourth down
in overtime. Sharpe was a true freshman at that time but has suffered knee
injuries in the last two years, so this year is his first true return to action.
He looks healthy and is Miami’s best player in coverage, but he is not as
physical or aggressive as Meriweather. Tech may test him with the bigger, more
physical receivers such as Josh Morgan or Justin Harper.

Another pattern that we have not seen this year from Virginia Tech that may
be unveiled in the Miami game is Brandon Ore running a wheel route out of the
backfield. Miami generally covers the running back with a linebacker, so a
natural mismatch is created, and if Ore can get deep this is a potentially big
play for the Hokies. If nothing else, the potential to run Ore deep out of the
backfield might keep the Canes thinking and not be as aggressive blitzing.

Key statistics to watch: Yardage after catch. One of my key statistics to
watch for the season may be critical in this game, as the Hokies need to break
off some big plays in the passing game to put points on the board against Miami.

When Miami Has the Ball:

1. Pressure the Quarterback

Similar to Miami’s defensive strategy, Virginia Tech wants to put as much
pressure as possible on Kyle Wright. The Hokies will blitz some this game, but
generally Bud Foster wants to pressure the quarterback using the front four.
Tech’s defensive front has played superbly in the last two games, and
consequently offenses have struggled moving the ball on the Hokies. Carlton
Powell and Barry Booker are getting a push up the middle, and Noland Burchette
and Chris Ellis are getting good pressure off the edge. The front four needs to
have another big game to keep the Miami offense in check.

Like Virginia Tech, Miami’s offensive line has been a concern this season,
with two new starters at offensive tackle and two reserves stepping up at guard.
Depth has been a concern as the Canes’ best offensive tackle, Reggie
Youngblood (#77, 6-5 305, So.) was injured earlier in the year and Miami’s
lack of depth created problems. The other offensive tackle is true freshman
Jason Fox (#64, 6-6 285, Fr.) who is undersized but surprisingly technically
sound for such a young player. The Hokies’ experienced defensive ends need to
be aggressive and test the young linemen with a variety of moves.

The guards for Miami are “road grader” types that are used mostly to plow
ahead. Both Andrew Bain (#72, 6-3 330, r-Jr.) and Derrick Morse (#71, 6-4 326,
r-Jr.) are experienced and have some mobility, but mainly they are used to
anchor the middle of the line. Quicker defensive tackles can give them some
trouble, so look for Booker and Powell to be quick off the line and try to get
some penetration up the middle.

Another strategy that I believe we may see this game is the zone blitz. Tech
has used the zone blitz less this year to date, but Miami may be an excellent
candidate to use this tactic more, creating confusion for the offensive line and
the quarterback. Tech may also use the boundary corner blitz more this game, as
well as occasionally blitzing the linebackers just to keep the offense off
balance.

Key statistics to watch: Quarterback hurries and sacks. The defense needs to
generate more hurries and sacks than Miami. This statistic will probably be a
good indicator of which team is winning the battle in the trenches when
comparing each team’s hurries and sacks.

2. Mix Coverage to Provide Confusion

Kyle Wright is a skilled quarterback with a strong, accurate arm and good
mobility, but he has the same basic weakness that his predecessor Brock Berlin
had. Wright struggles when reading defenses and tends to lock onto one receiver
in the pattern. Bud Foster has always done a good job confusing quarterbacks by
mixing and disguising defenses, so I would expect Tech to use a variety of looks
and coverages in this game.

To prevent big plays I would see the Hokies using Cover-2 and Cover-3
(two-deep and three-deep zones) a great deal with mixed coverages underneath.
Sometimes Tech may use a zone under and other times going man-to-man with some
different looks such as zone blitzes, in which the defensive end drops into the
flat for coverage. Outside of Lance Leggett (#9, 6-4 188, Jr.), Miami’s wide
receivers are inexperienced and will likely have trouble recognizing some of the
coverages, particularly if the secondary is active before the snap and providing
different looks. Between the inexperienced receivers and a quarterback who tends
to lock onto receivers, I can see the secondary having the opportunity for some
interceptions in this game.

The one player that Virginia Tech must account for in the passing game is
tight end Greg Olsen (#82, 6-5 252, r-Jr.). Olsen is a very good receiving tight
end, and the Hokies may look to bracket him with a safety and linebacker just to
keep him contained. Tech needs to play him physically and make sure he cannot
run clean routes. In particular, watch for Olsen on third down plays, as he is
the Hurricanes most reliable receiver.

Key statistics to watch: Interceptions. The Hokies need to pick off at least
a couple of Kyle Wright passes in this game and to keep him at a relatively low
completion percentage (around 50%).

3. Contain the Running Game

Miami has been inconsistent running the ball this year, mainly due to a young
offensive line that has had injuries at key positions. Also, the Canes could not
seem to decide on the main running back and have used four backs extensively
this year. Miami seems to have settled on true freshman Javarris James (#5, 6-0
202) who is Edgerrin James’ cousin. Javarris James actually reminds me some of
his cousin, but maybe even more of last year’s ACC rookie of the year, James
Davis from Clemson. The current James is very talented and a natural runner, so
Tech needs to wrap him up and keep him from getting downfield.

Miami’s other running backs have had injury problems — Tyrone Moss (#30,
5-9 232, Sr.) and Charlie Jones (#34, 5-10 218, Jr.) — or fumble problems (Derron
Thomas – #21, 5-9 200, r-So.), so Javarris James has literally taken the ball as
a true freshman. Moss is getting more playing time and I would expect to see him
a fair amount against the Hokies, especially since he will be highly motivated,
since he injured his ACL in last year’s game.

The strategy this week is very similar to last week, in which Tech needs to
maintain gap control and get penetration out of the front four. The linebackers
need to be active and fly to the ball, while the secondary needs to come up and
make sure tackles. The Hokies run defense has looked extremely sharp this week
and I would fully expect that Tech can shut down Miami’s running game.

Key statistics to watch: Running plays for 10+ yards. Last week I identified
this statistic as possibly the key to the entire game and I would consider this
an important stat this week as well (but probably less than turnovers). Tech
needs to limit the big plays, since Miami has struggled moving the ball
consistently this year.

Matchups to Watch:

1. Offensive Tackles vs. Defensive Ends

Normally I would focus on specific matchups between players, but in this game
all of the four offensive tackle vs. defensive end matchups are critical.

1A. Duane Brown vs. Baraka Atkins

Miami’s most experienced defensive lineman goes up against Virginia Tech’s
most experienced offensive lineman in the headliner of the line matchups for
this game. Last year Atkins was very disruptive and gave Tech’s line fits.
Atkins is strong at the point of attack and highly effective against the run,
showing good pursuit to the ball. He relies mostly on power and aggressiveness,
so Duane Brown needs to set a good base to handle him. Brown needs to stay
fundamentally sound and use Atkins’ aggressiveness against him. For Tech to
run the ball, Brown must control Atkins and keep him from being disruptive.

1B. Noland Burchette vs. Jason Fox

Fox has been a huge surprise on the offensive line despite being somewhat
undersized for a D-1 offensive tackle (listed at 285 but probably closer to
265). He played high school ball in Texas (North Crowley HS) and has obviously
been well coached. Burchette has been playing much more physically in the last
couple of games, and I believe he could be a tough matchup for Fox. Burchette is
a fifth-year senior going against a true freshman, so the experience levels
indicate a potential mismatch.

1C. Brandon Frye vs. Calais Campbell

Calais Campbell (#81, 6-8 265, r-So.) is an extremely tall, athletic
defensive end who has developed into Miami’s best pass rusher. Campbell is a
star in the making for the Canes and he is already difficult to handle. He uses
his hands extremely well and shows excellent pursuit to the ball. Brandon Frye
needs to use his strength and power to offset Campbell’s quickness, making
sure he gets a good punch at the line. Frye moves his feet very well so I
believe he matches up well with Campbell. Frye needs to stay fundamentally sound
and maintain a solid base to keep Campbell “mirrored” in pass protection.

1D. Chris Ellis vs. Reggie Youngblood

Youngblood was a highly regarded recruit out of high school, and he is living
up to his billing. He still needs to get stronger but he moves well for his
size, and Youngblood appears to be solid fundamentally. Ellis needs to use more
of a power game in this contest and show a good variety of moves. Youngblood
handles the speed rush well, but strong inside moves may give him some trouble.

2. Vince Hall vs. Anthony Wollschlager

In last year’s game, Wollschlager was able to stay on Vince Hall and
effectively neutralize the middle linebacker, opening up the running game.
Wollschlager was named ACC offensive player of the week for that game, and I am
sure that Hall remembers it well. I would expect Hall, who is playing at a very
high level right now, to respond with a huge game on Saturday. Look for Hall to
get off of blocks and make more plays in this game.

On a similar note, Miami’s fullbacks were able to get a hat on Xavier Adibi
as well, limiting the effectiveness of Tech’s two star linebackers. Adibi
should be primed for a huge game against the Hurricanes as well.

Player Ratings

Here is my assessment of the talent on Miami’s football team based on the
rating system that I introduced in earlier articles. The rating system is
statistically based using criteria such as size, speed, strength, and agility as
well as performance on the field. In the rating system, players receive grades
that are similar to those we receive in school. The rating scale can be
summarized as follows:

90+ Excellent college player; All-American
candidate
80-90 Above average starting player;
All-Conference candidate
70-80 Solid college player
60-70 Supporting player; solid back-up; generally
deficient in one area such as speed
<60 Back-up player; deficient in one or more
areas such as size, speed, or strength

Here are my current ratings for Miami’s depth chart (starters highlighted in
green):


Position

Number

Name

Height

Weight

Year

Rating
SE 85 Ryan Moore (susp) 6-3 225 r-Sr. 96.5
SE 9 Lance Leggett 6-3.5 188 Jr. 83.2
SE 87 Khalil Jones 6-2 218 r-So. 75.0
SE 12 Ryan Hill 5-11 188 Fr. 68.0
LT 77 Reggie Youngblood 6-5 305 So. 77.8
LT 76 Chris Rutledge 6-5 325 r-So. 64.8
LT 73 Cyrim Wimbs 6-3 335 r-Jr. 51.4
LG 72 Andrew Bain 6-3 330 r-Jr. 74.0
LG 70 A.J. Trump 6-3 294 r-Fr. 71.6
LG 65 Matt Pipho 6-7 290 r-Fr. 61.5
C 78 Anthony Wollschlager 6-4.5 288 r-Sr. 83.5
C 70 A.J. Trump 6-3 294 r-Fr. 78.9
C 63 Alex Pou 6-3.5 286 r-Sr. 78.4
RG 71 Derrick Morse 6-4 326 r-Jr. 72.2
RG 63 Alex Pou 6-3.5 286 r-Sr. 68.1
RT 64 Jason Fox 6-6 286 Fr. 70.2
RT 76 Chris Rutledge 6-5 325 r-So. 64.8
RT 67 Tyrone Byrd 6-5.5 295 r-So. 57.9
FL 8 Darnell Jenkins (inj) 5-10.5 190 r-Sr. 83.5
FL 83 Sam Shields 6-0 177 Fr. 76.2
FL 38 Rashaun Jones 6-1.5 196 Jr. 74.0
FL 20 Terrell Walden 5-11.5 168 r-Jr. 68.5
TE 82 Greg Olsen 6-5 252 r-Jr. 94.2
TE 88 Chris Zellner 6-2 238 r-So. 69.8
TE 11 DajLeon Farr 6-5.5 248 So. 69.8
QB 3 Kyle Wright 6-4 220 r-Jr. 91.8
QB 7 Kirby Freeman 6-2.5 215 r-So. 86.5
QB 16 Matt Perrelli 6-3 232 So. 55.6
TB 5 Javarris James 6-0 202 Fr. 82.0
TB 30 Tyrone Moss 5-9 232 Sr. 80.5
TB 34 Charlie Jones 5-10.5 218 Jr. 80.4
TB 21 Derron Thomas 5-9.5 200 r-So. 75.4
FB 45 James Bryant 6-3 250 Jr. 74.5
FB 41 Jerrell Mabry 6-1.5 266 r-Fr. 60.8
LE 98 Baraka Atkins 6-4 275 r-Sr. 93.2
LE 94 Eric Moncur 6-2 260 r-So. 88.2
LE 47 Vegas Franklin 6-3.5 255 r-Jr. 75.6
LT 99 Kareem Brown 6-4.5 315 r-Sr. 77.0
LT 54 Teraz McCray 5-11.5 300 r-Jr. 73.6
LT 93 Dwayne Hendricks 6-4 280 r-So. 67.2
RT 95 Bryan Pata 6-4 280 Sr. 93.0
RT 96 Antonio Dixon 6-3 335 So. 70.2
RT 93 Dwayne Hendricks 6-4 280 r-So. 67.2
RE 81 Calais Campbell 6-7.5 265 r-So. 90.0
RE 47 Vegas Franklin 6-3.5 255 r-Jr. 75.6
RE 49 Courtney Harris 6-3 260 r-Fr. 72.2
SLB 52 Tavares Gooden 6-1 238 r-Jr. 81.7
SLB 44 Colin McCarthy 6-3 222 Fr. 68.8
SLB 59 Eric Houston 6-2 228 So. 64.8
MLB 51 Romeo Davis (inj) 6-2.5 229 Jr. 88.5
MLB 55 Glenn Cook 6-0.5 215 r-Jr. 72.4
MLB 50 Darryl Sharpton 5-11.5 227 r-Fr. 71.6
WLB 2 Jon Beason 6-0.5 236 r-Jr. 83.1
WLB 48 Spencer Adkins 5-11.5 233 So. 70.1
WLB 58 Demetri Stewart 6-3 210 r-Fr. 62.2
LCB 4 Glenn Sharpe 5-11.5 187 r-Jr. 84.5
LCB 22 Bruce Johnson 5-10.5 177 So. 75.8
RCB 19 Brandon Meriweather 6-0 195 r-Sr. 86.0
RCB 6 Randy Phillips 6-0.5 195 So. 82.5
SS 1 Kenny Phillips 6-2 202 So. 92.8
SS 28 Willie Cooper 6-1.5 211 r-Jr. 76.8
FS 35 Lovon Ponder 6-0.5 207 r-So. 79.4
FS 26 Anthony Reddick (susp) 6-0 205 r-So. 79.0

Conclusion

Like most predictions, I expect a knock-down, drag-out defensive struggle in
which turnovers and big plays on special teams play a significant role. Miami is
still a very talented team, though the sum has not quite equaled the parts so
far this season. However, Miami seems to play their best against Virginia Tech,
and I would expect to see the Canes’ best effort Saturday night.

Look for the Hokies to be the first team to gain over 100 yards against the
Hurricanes, but don’t expect Brandon Ore to surpass 200 yards in this one.
Tech will hit a couple of big plays in the passing game and hopefully not make
too many mistakes. I like Tech’s chances in this one, especially with the
current momentum, but anything can happen in the Orange Bowl. I’ll have my
prediction Friday in the Projections article.

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