December 28, 2007

The four keys to a Gator Bowl victory

The Texas Tech Red Raiders will look to win their fifth bowl game in their last six post-season appearances, and will seek to win the school's third Gator Bowl in four previous appearances when they tackle the Virginia Cavaliers on New Year's Day. In order to continue this record of post-season and Gator Bowl success, Mike Leach's boys will need to do very well in several critical aspects of the game. Below are some of the keys to watch.

Hot Start: It would help the Red Raiders' cause immensely to jump on the Cavaliers much as they pounced on the Oklahoma Sooners. In doing so, Tech would take the Cavaliers' running game out of the equation, and run defense is still the biggest question mark concerning the Red Raider defense. Put another way, when teams are forced to throw against Tech, the Red Raiders are in great shape. This will be even more the case against a Virginia club that is bereft of any passing game to speak of. It Tech gets up by three scores, you can probably stick a fork in the Cavs. One fly in the ointment-Virginia has outscored opponents in the first quarter by a 116-55 count.

No Long Faces: Virginia defensive end Chris Long is one of a small handful of college defensive players who is capable of dominating a game. He is also the best defensive player the Red Raiders will have seen this season. Long has the ability to single-handedly disrupt the Air Raid offense by consistently harassing Tech quarterback Graham Harrell. The less Harrell sees Long's face, the better. That means Red Raider tackles Rylan Reed and Marlon Winn will have to play lights out. If they are incapable of handling Long mano a mano, one would expect running backs Aaron Crawford and Kobey Lewis to frequently chip Long. Fullback David Schaefer could see an expanded role as well. One thing is for sure, however, if Long has a monster day at Harrell's expense, the Red Raiders will be in trouble.

Road Rage: No, the Gator Bowl is not technically a road game, but it is a contest outside the friendly confines of Jones/AT&T Stadium. And the 2007 Red Raiders have fared poorly against good competition away from Lubbock. Oklahoma State in Stillwater? Loss. Missouri in Columbia? Loss. Texas in Austin? Loss. The common denominator in all those losses, incidentally, was numerous points allowed to potent offensive units. The Cavaliers certainly don't qualify on that score, so to speak. Be that as it may, if Tech defeats Virginia it will be their first win against a respectable foe away from the Hub City this year.

Screens and Flares and Wheels, Oh My! The Virginia Cavaliers are the seventh best sacking defense in the nation, and that means that they have weapons other than Chris Long. And so they do. Linebacker Clint Sintim has eight sacks. Defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald has six. One way to render the Cavalier pass-rush irrelevant is to execute the short passing game effectively. Aaron Crawford proved to be an extremely effective receiver out of the backfield against Oklahoma. Expect to see him on the receiving end of at least five Harrell passes in the Gator Bowl. Crabtree is murder on the bubble screen. I think he'll snag three against Virginia. Even if this strategy does not burn the Cavaliers for huge yardage, it may force them to think twice about bringing the heat with full intensity.

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