ACC Championship Game Preview: #12 Virginia Tech vs. #20 Florida State

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  • Date: Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010
  • Time: 7:45pm
  • TV: ESPN

For weather information and a roster card link, see the Info Center to the
right.

Virginia Tech has an opportunity to accomplish two big feats on Saturday.
First and foremost, they will win the ACC with a victory. Second, a win will
give the Hokies their 11th win of the season, which would tie a school record.
However, the opponent is long-time nemesis Florida State, who has given Tech
more trouble than any other program in the country.

Since 1999, Virginia Tech and Florida State have met on a neutral field three
times. The Noles have won all three of them, despite the Hokies holding second
half leads in two of the games. One thing has been common in all three games:
Virginia Tech has been outplayed on special teams.

In 1999, the Hokies gave up a punt return for a touchdown, had a punt blocked
for a touchdown, and were also unsuccessful on a fake field goal and a fake
punt. In 2001, Florida State blocked a punt which led to a 1-yard touchdown
drive. In 2005, the Noles again returned a punt for a touchdown, and the Hokies
also shanked a punt out of bounds that gave FSU a short field.

Even in the 2008 meeting at Florida State, a big roughing the kicker penalty on the Hokies kept an FSU drive alive and led to a touchdown.

In short, Tech’s special teams are the opposite of “special”
against Florida State. Beamerballing the Hokies has become quite common for the
Noles. Special teams could easily be the deciding factor in this game as well,
because the offenses and defenses appear to be very evenly matched.

If you haven’t paid much attention to FSU this year, they are 9-3 on the
season and could easily be 11-1. They lost to Oklahoma 47-17, but their other
losses could have gone the other way, and arguably should have.

The Noles lost to NC State when Christian Ponder fumbled inside the five yard
line late in the game. He had a wide open receiver in the back of the end zone,
but his tailback ran into him and he dropped the football. They also lost to
North Carolina 37-35 when placekicker Dustin Hopkins missed a 40 yard field goal
as time expired.

Virginia Tech has the same story. They were one play away from beating Boise
State, and the ensuing Game Of Which We Shall Not Speak is a once-a-decade type
upset. The Hokies could easily be 11-1, or even 12-0. These are two very good
football teams, and the ACC should get a heckuva football game in a great
environment on Saturday night.

The Florida State Offense

Florida State isn’t putting up huge numbers offensively, thanks in part to a
few key injuries throughout the course of the season. That being said, they have
plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball, and they are a very balanced
offense.

The
FSU Offense
Category Stat FSU
Rank

Rushing
177.42 ypg 34

Passing
213.33 ypg 67

Total
390.75 ypg 52

Scoring
31.67 ppg 38

Pass Eff.
140.3 35

Sacks
2 spg 68

Third Downs
48.43% 17

Florida State has a good offense for the same reasons Virginia Tech has a good
offense. First, they have the talent to stretch the field vertically and
horizontally. Second, they can throw and run out of a number of different
formations. They can spread the field with four wide receivers, but still have a
power running game. They can bring in two tight ends, or go with an I-formation
and have a power running game, but they can also run play-action out of that
formation. In short, they are good at running out of passing formations, and
they are good at passing out of running formations.

Quarterback Christian Ponder (6-3, 227, r-Sr.) has been banged up a bit this
year with elbow problems. He missed the Clemson game because of his elbow, and
he also sat out of practice earlier this week to rest it, as well as get it
drained.

For the season, Ponder has completed 62.2% of his passes for 2,038 yards,
with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. When healthy he is one of the most
dangerous quarterbacks in the country. He is also a very good runner,

If Ponder’s elbow happens to flare up during the game, and the Noles have to
go to their backup, it will be Virginia Beach’s E.J. Manuel (6-4, 226, r-So.).
Manuel is a solid player who is dual-threat. However, he is still developing as
a passer. He did lead FSU to a 16-13 win over Clemson, with the Noles kicking a
55 yard field goal as time expired.

Florida State has a very talented group of wide receivers, as usual. Bert
Reed (5-10, 167, r-Jr.) is the team’s top receiver, with 53 catches for 547
yards and two touchdowns. Reed is an Eddie Royal type who will also get the ball
on reverses from time to time.

Taiwan Easterling (5-11, 192, r-Jr.) has been a major part of Florida State’s
rotation since he was a freshman. He has caught 35 passes for 462 yards and four
touchdowns. Equally dangerous is Willie Haulstead (6-3, 215, So.), who has 33
catches for 500 yards and six touchdowns. Haulstead has a good combination of
size and speed, though as a true sophomore he is still inconsistent at times.

Rodney Smith (6-6, 220, So.) will be hard to miss. He is a huge target who
has 27 receptions for 408 yards and three touchdowns. If Florida State gets the
ball inside the 10, fade routes to Smith against Jayron Hosley and Rashad
Carmichael (who are both 5-11) would make sense.

The Noles do use their tight end more than they used to. Beau Reliford (6-6,
253, Jr.) has caught 15 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown. Florida State will
also dump it down to their running backs. Jermaine Thomas (5-11, 190, Jr.) and
Chris Thompson (5-8, 185, So.) each have 12 catches on the year, while Ty Jones
(5-10, 211, Jr.) has seven.

However, the Florida State backfield is banged up right now. Thomas is the
regular starter, but he sprained his knee against Clemson and hasn’t played
since. He has 85 carries for 484 yards and six touchdowns on the season. He is
questionable for the ACC Championship Game.

Ty Jones has 77 carries for 496 yards and two touchdowns in the year, but he
is also questionable for Saturday after spraining his ankle last weekend against
Florida. Chris Thompson (5-8, 186, So.) is the team’s leading rusher. He has 101
carries for 686 yards and five touchdowns this year.

All of Florida State’s running backs are good, but only one of them is
completely healthy at this point in the season. It’s unknown whether Thomas and
Jones will play. If they don’t, then fullback Lonnie Pryor (6-0, 209, So.) could
get carries out of the singleback set.

No matter who is playing running back for Florida State, the success of the
running game comes down to their offensive line. Rick Trickett took over FSU’s
offensive line in 2007. He is a former Marine, he’s a disciplinarian, and he
built the West Virginia offensive lines that were so good in the middle part of
the last decade. He has gradually transformed Florida State’s offensive line
into a good unit, though starting right guard David Spurlock (6-4, 286, Jr.)
will miss the ACC Championship Game with his second concussion of the season.

The
Florida State Offensive Line
Pos. Name Ht. Wt. Yr.
LT
Andrew Datko
6-6 307 Jr.
LG
Rodney Hudson
6-2 288 Sr.
C
Ryan McMahon
6-1 285 r-Sr.
RG
Bryan Stork
6-4 304 r-Fr.
RT
Zebrie Sanders
6-6 307 Jr.

Like Tech’s offensive line, this group isn’t particularly big. Rodney Hudson is
an excellent guard, and center Ryan McMahon is a four-year starter as well.
Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders are also returning starters. This line relies on
their quick feet to get good blocking angles, rather than brute strength. The
Tech front seven has struggled the most against the bigger, more physical
offensive lines they have faced (Boise State, Miami), so this isn’t a bad
matchup for the Hokies.

Last week we saw Tech take a big step forward with their rushing defense,
dominating a UVA team who has had plenty of success running the football against
ACC opponents this year. They’ll face a different type of offensive line this
week, though the goal will be the same: stop the running game and force the
opposing offense to be one-dimensional.

Over their last three games, with David Spurlock nursing that concussion, the
Florida State running game hasn’t been as effective.

FSU
Running Game, Last Three Weeks
Opp. Rushes Yards YPC TD

Clemson
30 97 3.2 1

Maryland
30 151 5 1

Florida
41 112 2.7 1

Totals/Average
101 360 3.6 3

Those numbers include 71 yards rushing by quarterback E.J. Manuel against
Clemson, and one 70 yard touchdown run by Chris Thompson against Maryland. The
FSU running game was at its peak earlier in the season when everyone was
healthy. Over the last three games, the Noles have depended more on turnovers
(four by Florida, four by Maryland and two by Clemson) to win football games
more so than a balanced offense.

Virginia Tech’s defense is not going to shut down the FSU offense, but I
think they’ll have a solid day at the office.

The Florida State Defense

Florida State’s defense is very young in the secondary, but it is also filled
with very good athletes who can run.

The
FSU Defense
Category Stat FSU
Rank

Rushing
123.67 ypg 23

Passing
217.67 ypg 63

Total
341.33 ypg 39

Scoring
17.83 ppg 11

Pass Eff.
115.6 30

Sacks
3.58 spg 2

Tackles for Loss
7.17 tflpg 15

Third Downs
38.10% 46

This is a similar defense to the one the Hokies faced at Miami, though it’s not
as big and strong in the front seven. Nevertheless, they are much better against
the run than the Canes because they play with more discipline.

Florida State is second nationally in sacks, mostly because of their terrific
defensive end combo. Brandon Jenkins (6-3, 250, So.) has 18.5 tackles for loss
and 12 sacks on the season, and he was recently named First Team All-ACC. That’s
an impressive feat for a true sophomore. Jenkins is an excellent athlete, and so
is FSU’s other defense end, Markus White (6-4, 265, Sr.). White had 11 tackles
for loss and 7.5 sacks in the regular season.

These ends are excellent athletes on the edge, as are backups Bjoern Werner
(6-4, 264, Fr.) and Dan Hicks (6-4, 260, r-Fr.). Those two young players have
combined for 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks this season.

Florida State’s defensive tackles are short and stocky, just like Virginia
Tech’s. Jacobbi McDaniel (6-0, 298, So.) and Everett Dawkins (6-2, 285, r-So.)
are solid players, though Dawkins is a somewhat undersized former defensive end.
They have combined for 10.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

Their backups are also young: Demonte McAllister (6-2, 280, r-Fr.) and
Anthony McCloud (6-2, 302, r-So.). McAllister is very similar to Dawkins. He
played defensive end in high school, and he’s a smallish, quick defensive tackle
who can make plays.

Florida State’s linebackers are big and experienced. Nigel Bradham (6-2, 240,
Jr.) starts on the weak side, and he leads the team with 86 tackles. He has 4.5
tackles for loss and four sacks. Kendall Smith (6-0, 242, Sr.) has 83 tackles
and 3.5 tackles for loss.

The strong side linebacker is Mister Alexander (6-3, 237, r-Sr.), and he’s
the best athlete of the linebackers, with five tackles for loss on the season.
This group of linebackers is solid, but they aren’t the all-star cast of great
athletes that we’ve seen at times in the past from Florida State.

The FSU secondary is very young. Xavier Rhodes (6-1, 210, r-Fr.) starts at
boundary cornerback, and he intercepted three passes and broke up 11 others
during his rookie campaign. Rhodes was named ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year on
Tuesday. With his size, he’s a perfect fit for the boundary corner position.

The field corner is Greg Reid (5-8, 185, So.). He obviously doesn’t possess
great height, but he has good instincts and is a natural football player. Reid
also doubles as Florida State’s highly dangerous punter returner, though his
numbers are down in the return game from his freshman season. He has three
interceptions this year.

Junior college transfer Mike Harris (5-11, 183, Jr.) and true freshman
Lamarcus Joyner (5-8, 175, Fr.) have also played cornerback for FSU this year.
Harris has three interceptions, including one last week against Florida.

The Noles have big safeties, led by free safety Nick Moody (6-2, 228, r-So.).
He has three tackles for loss and an interception this year. Strong safety
Terrance Parks (6-2, 218, Jr.) has no tackles for loss and no interceptions.

Florida State has been solid against the run this season, but they have
struggled at times against the pass with their young secondary. The Noles have
athletes, but I do think the Hokies will be able to establish a solid running
game behind Ryan Williams, Darren Evans, David Wilson and Tyrod Taylor. FSU
hasn’t faced an offense this year that offered as many threats in the running
game as the Hokies.

Special Teams

The offenses and defenses appear to be pretty evenly matched in this game,
statistically speaking. This one could come down to hidden yardage. Naturally,
special teams will play a big role in the hidden yardage battle.

Special
Teams Comparison
Category FSU
Rank
VT
Rank

Net Punting
25 26

Punt Returns
49 16

Punt Return Def.
47 9

KO Returns
101 27

KO Return Def.
65 103

Florida State has a slight advantage in net punting, but overall the Hokies have
been the much better team in special teams this season. Even where Tech has been
weak, kickoff return defense, FSU has also been weak. The Noles are only 101st
nationally in kickoff returns, so that should be a good matchup.

However, FSU still has athletes, so they will be very dangerous on special
teams. Greg Reid is having a down year, averaging only nine yards per punt
return, with one touchdown against Samford. However, last season he averaged
18.4 yards per return, which was tops in college football.

Reid also returns kicks, and he’s averaging 23.6 yards per return. However,
he hasn’t had much help, and the Noles average just 19.7 yards per return as a
team.

Florida State’s kicker is Dustin Hopkins (6-2, 185, So.). He is 17-of-23 on
the season, with a long of 55 yards. That 55 yarder came on the final play
against Clemson to break a 13-13 tie. He also missed a 40 yarder against North
Carolina that would have won the game. Overall, his long range accuracy isn’t
great. He is just 1-of-3 from 40-49 yards this year, though he’s 2-of-4 from
beyond 50 yards.

Punter Shawn Powell (6-4, 235, Jr.) has a very strong leg. Of his 45 punts
this year, 16 have traveled 50+ yards. He has pinned opponents inside their 20
on 15 occasions. His matchup with Brian Saunders should be a good one.

Final Thoughts

Florida State is a good football team, but I’m not as much worried about them
in this game as I am the Hokies. Tech has run off 10 straight wins, and they are
the hottest team in the ACC, but when they get into a high-profile game on a
neutral field with the whole country watching, we all know they have a tendency
to lose.

Florida State, Alabama, Georgia, USC, Boise State, LSU (though that one was
on the road) … they even lost to Kansas in the Orange Bowl. Neutral site wins
over Boston College (whom nobody watches), Cincinnati (ditto) and a 7-5
Tennessee team aside, it seems that whenever Tech’s star is shining the
brightest, they find a way to lose a big game.

Well, this is a big one. Florida State is a big name team that a lot of
people will want to watch. The only competition on television that night will be
Oklahoma vs. Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship Game. Millions of eyes will be
on Virginia Tech on Saturday night, and they need to handle it better than
they’ve done in the past.

To their credit, they have rebounded quite well this year. This is one of the
most disciplined Virginia Tech teams we’ve ever seen. That says a lot,
considering the Hokies are almost always one of the most disciplined teams in
the country, and they are such a young team this season.

Besides the whole record in neutral site big games thing, the team the Hokies
are facing concerns me as well. Florida State is good, and they are better
coached than they’ve been in a long time. Jimbo Fisher has control over the
program, which I’m not sure Bobby Bowden had over the last 10 years. There is a
lot more discipline on the field in Tallahassee, or so it seems.

On many occasions in the past, we’ve seen the Hokies lose their heads
whenever they’ve faced that tomahawk chop and seen that Appaloosa horse.
However, the last two meetings were different. Tech blew out Florida State in
2007, and played a very tough game in Tallahassee in 2008 despite being forced
to use third string quarterback Corey Holt for most of the second half.

The easiest way to tell how much character this Tech team has is to look at
what they’ve done this year after falling behind early.

The
Hokies When Falling Behind
Game Score Result

Boise State
17-0 33-30 L

NC State
17-0 41-30 W

CMU
7-0 45-21 W

Georgia Tech
14-0 28-21 W

UNC
7-0 26-10 W

Miami
7-0 31-17 W

The Hokies came back and took the lead in every single one of those games, and
finished with a 5-1 record. They closed the NC State game on a 41-13 run,
outscored Georgia Tech 28-7, UNC 26-3 and Miami 31-10. If they could play those
first few minutes, they’d really be killing teams.

As it stands, every one of Tech’s wins this year has come by double digits,
except for the Georgia Tech game. Beside that, we haven’t had to sweat the
ending of a game since September.

I like Tech’s explosive talent on offense, I like the way the defense has
been playing recently, and more than anything I like the mental makeup of the
team. ACC Player of the Year Tyrod Taylor and the Hokies will get this done.

Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Florida State 20

Will Stewart’s Take: This should be a great game in a great atmosphere.
In the 2005 ACC Championship Game in Jacksonville, Seminole fans in the big
crowd outnumbered Hokie fans by a wide margin, but in this game, the situation
should be reversed. Hokie fans hope the outcome will be reversed, as well.

Chris and I have been talking about this all week, and we don’t think this
game is about the Seminoles. We think it’s about Virginia Tech. What does that
mean? Simple: if the Hokies play up to their capabilities, we think they’ll win.

In 2005, a Florida State team that wasn’t very good and which limped to the
Atlantic Division championship dismantled a Hokie team that was 10-1 and ranked
#5 in the country. The Hokies completely lost their composure, fell behind 27-3,
and committed 17 penalties for 143 yards.

The Hokies faced the Seminoles on the big stage and fell apart. It was a
humbling night.

What I remember about that night is how an unranked 7-4 Florida State team
that had lost three of their last four games rose to the occasion and manhandled
a Virginia Tech team that until then spent the entire season ranked in the top
7. There are some losses that stick in your craw forever, and this is one of
them.

Why dwell so much on that game in my comments? Because I think that this time
around, if the Hokies just keep their composure and play their game, they’ll
win. No, that’s not brilliant, insightful, X-and-O strategy. It doesn’t need to
be, and because these teams are so evenly matched on paper, it really can’t
be. This is a crap shoot that will come down to the intangibles.

Frank Beamer has gone to great lengths to build a team of high-character,
resilient kids who stick together when things get tough and keep on plugging. It
has served them well this season, particularly in the month of November. Just
apply that same model of toughness, resiliency, and togetherness, and Tech will
win. I mistakenly picked the Hokies to win that 2005 game 20-10, but if this
year’s team plays like who they are, it won’t be a mistake this time.

Although I do see it being higher-scoring than 20-10.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, Florida State 25

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