Virginia ranked third in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing just under 19 points per game. It’s unlikely it will hold its opponent in the Gator Bowl to that low a total.
The Cavaliers and top defensive end Chris Long will try to contain the spread offense of Texas Tech on New Year’s Day when the schools play for the first time.
Virginia (8-4) bounced back from last year’s 5-7 season behind a defense led by Long, the son of former NFL star Howie Long who earned the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation’s top defensive end. Hendricks was a former teammate of Howie Long’s with the Oakland Raiders.
“He and my father were teammates with the Raiders for several years and my dad talks about the passion and enthusiasm Ted demonstrated on the field,” said Long, who was third in the nation with 14 sacks. “I try to play to the same high standards at which Mr. Hendricks played.”
Whether Long can help slow down Texas Tech (9-3) and quarterback Graham Harrell is debatable. The Red Raiders were sixth in the nation in scoring with nearly 42 points per game while Harrell led all players with 441.5 yards passing a contest and 45 touchdowns.
“We have never taken on a challenge of this nature before, against this type of offense,” said Virginia coach Al Groh, who compared the Red Raiders’ attack to the run-n-shoot style used by the Warren Moon-led Houston Oilers in the 1990s. “If we give up 25 points in this game it will be a heck of a job. That still means we have to get 26. So it creates a very different-type mentality for us in terms of strategizing for us and what the other team has.”
Harrell’s favorite target is Michael Crabtree, who led the country in touchdown catches (21), receptions (125), and receiving yards (1,861). Crabtree, the first freshman to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver, had just four touchdowns in his last six games after catching 17 in his first six.
“They are very impressive, obviously (with) Michael Crabtree, who is perhaps the top receiver in the country with 125 catches and 21 touchdowns,” Groh said. “Those are unbelievable numbers.”
Although Texas Tech put up bigger numbers in other games, its most impressive effort was probably in its last contest, a 34-27 win over then-No. 3 Oklahoma on Nov. 17. Harrell completed 47 of 72 passes for 420 yards and two touchdowns for the Red Raiders, who scored 27 first-half points.
That was the last game before the Gator Bowl for Texas Tech, which is hoping the layoff won’t affect the timing of its offense.
“We’re practicing our guys, keeping them sharp, and really working work our young guys, that’s where the emphasis is right now while we’re trying to recruit at the same time,” Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said. “I think everything’s going good but the thing is as you wait that long, you always wonder how it is going to come out.”
Virginia’s strong season came as a bit of a surprise after last year’s losing campaign raised questions about Groh’s future at the school. The Cavaliers set an NCAA record by winning five games by one or two points this season, earning the coach a one-year extension through 2011.
Virginia also survived the loss of leading rusher Cedric Peerman midway through the season thanks to quarterback Jameel Sewell’s opportunistic play. In four of the Cavaliers’ last five victories, Sewell guided the team to drives of at least 56 yards that led to game-winning scores late in the fourth quarter.
Sewell will try to erase the bitter taste of a poor performance in a 33-21 loss to then-No. 8 Virginia Tech on Nov. 24 that cost the Cavaliers a chance at playing in the ACC title game. He completed 15 of 24 passes for 121 yards, ending his streak of 200-yard efforts at four.
Texas Tech is making its eighth straight bowl appearance - all under Leach. The Red Raiders improved to 4-3 in those games with a 44-41 overtime win over Minnesota last season in the Insight Bowl.
“I watched from an entertainment standpoint last year and saw Texas Tech come back against Minnesota in their bowl game,” Groh said. “They were down 35-7 and won the game in overtime. So I certainly have a recollection of that game.”
Virginia won three of four bowl games under Groh from 2002-05.
“I know that Virginia played real well this year and I do think it is an exciting matchup,” Leach said. “We’ve been playing very well on offense lately so I expect to be able to move the ball and then defensively this last game we played extremely well. So hopefully we can take that and build on it.”