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Posted at 10:18 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

Virginia Tech's secondary, Stanford's Luck face their biggest tests yet

By Mark Giannotto

There is so much to like about Monday night's Orange Bowl. Two star quarterbacks leading two balanced offenses. The old, reliable coach (Frank Beamer) against the new, hot commodity facing NFL rumors (Harbaugh). East coast vs. west coast. A football power with years of consistency, but has struggled to win the big one (Virginia Tech) facing a resurgent program that's just four years removed from going 1-11 (Stanford).

But perhaps nothing intrigues me more than the matchup pitting Stanford's Andrew Luck against the Virginia Tech secondary. Luck is the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NFL draft if he decides to come out following this game, having thrashed opposing defenses all season, completing more than 70 percent of his passes and throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns.

There's also little doubt he's faced a secondary as talented as Virginia Tech's, a unit that features one cornerback (Rashad Carmichael) who will be suiting up in the NFL next season and another (Jayron Hosley), who currently leads the nation with eight interceptions. The secondary at No. 2 Oregon, which handed Stanford its lone defeat this season, is the only near equivalent to the Hokies, but Virginia Tech has given up fewer yards per game through the air and grabbed more interceptions.

It would seem this, more than any other factor revolving around this game, will decide who the winner will be. Virginia Tech led the nation in turnover margin, finishing the year with 22 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. Stanford, meanwhile, ranked fourth in the country in turnover margin. The Cardinal turned the ball over just 15 times this season, while Luck was sacked only five times.

Something's got to give, right? You'll remember in all of the Hokies biggest wins this season, turnovers were the key to a victory. Against North Carolina State, Hosley picked off Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson three times. The secondary then forced North Carolina quarterback T.J. Yates to throw four interceptions when the Hokies defeated the Tar Heels. In a win over Miami, the Virginia Tech defense forced six turnovers, a stat that helped them overcome the fact that the Hurricanes outgained them by a wide margin. And then came the ACC championship game victory over Florida State, a win that was jumpstarted when linebacker Jeron Gouveia-Winslow returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter.

We won't know for sure if Hokies will be able to replicate that formula until game time, but the prospect of this matchup has Virginia Tech salivating at the chance to prove themselves as perhaps the nation's best defensive backfield.

"I’m the type of guy, I want to play against whoever’s the best," Carmichael said. "They were saying Cam Newton was the best. I was hoping they would lose and we could play them down here. That’s what I was hoping the whole season. But it turned out that Luck is the best; he’s supposed to be the No. 1 draft pick. So I’m getting what I asked for."

Led by playcaller Greg Roman, a former NFL assistant, the Cardinal feature an offense with more than 300 plays. When I spoke with ESPN's Ron Jaworski last week, he said it is much more a pro-style offense than any other college team he's watched this year.

They use multiple formations and utilize varied personnel not just from series-to-series, but play-to-play. As a result, Virginia Tech's ability to make adjustments on the fly will be vital to its success. Safety Eddie Whitley is in charge of making calls at the line, and defensive coordinator Bud Foster called the Hokies strategy for Monday a "check with me" philosophy.

Whitley will need to identify formations, and then with the help of Foster on the sideline, determine what coverage or blitz package Virginia Tech must audible into.

"They're going to do the same things, but it's going to be out of multiple personnel groupings," Foster said of Stanford's offense. "And that's kind of one thing they've done that's similar to Boise State, they're going to run a lot of people in, a lot of people off, try to get you into substitution match-up situations. ...

"We've got to probably take some chances on early downs, too. That's where they seem to like to run play action pass and throw it down the field and those type of things. We've got to be loose in our play calling. We've got the ability to do a lot of blitzes and do a lot of different things and show a lot of different looks, and I think they've got to prepare for that."

Here's a rundown of what some of the other principal characters in this battle of wills had to say about the other:

Stanford QB Andrew Luck

"Watching film, they almost look like wide receivers when the ball is in the air. Guys going up and making plays with their hands in crazy acrobatic positions. They fly to the football. As a quarterback, it’s definitely a challenge. But it’s more rewarding if you can have success against a defensive backfield as talented as this. ...

"We’re definitely gonna have to be on the screws against this defense. They make you pay for every mistake you make. You don’t get second chances against them. We’re definitely gonna have to be on the screws.”

Stanford WR Doug Baldwin

"What I see out of their defensive backfield is motivation. I’m so passionate and competitive that when I get a chance to go against guys like this, it’s something that I really get pumped about. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it right now. It’s an opportunity to go against defensive backs that are fast, talented. One of them leads the FBS in interceptions. To me, a lot of guys go, ‘Oh crap. What am I gonna do?’ I go, ‘I can’t wait.’ They obviously do great things. They’re fast, athletic, defensively sound. I’m anxious to get a chance to go against them.”

Stanford assistant head coach-offense Greg Roman

"I remember when I was coaching in the NFL and I was evaluating an offensive player, if I had a chance to watch them against Virginia Tech, I made sure I did, because I could see them on the offensive line, I could see them have to deal with quickness, toughness, relentlessness. As a tight end, I could see him having to deal with guys trying to beat him up at the line of scrimmage and having to match up with him in coverage. At quarterback, I could see him, evaluate him against all the different coverage looks they need to see with the variety they'll see, which is somewhat NFL like. And as a wide receiver, you could see him against defensive backs that are going to come up and try to lay you out. So I think their reputation is long and well deserved, and it travels everywhere."

"I'd say their secondary as a whole is extremely talented in the sense that they have very, very good instincts and very, very good ball skills. I think Andrew would probably agree that you can't just throw lollipops up there against this secondary, because they've shown that they're going to come down with it ...

"Their secondary has really stood out with their ability to finish plays on the ball, intercept the ball. I believe they got 22 interceptions. They've been very, very good in the red zone; I believe 40 times teams have been down there and 10 times they've come away with no points. So they're a great team defense, and you've got to be careful of that secondary because of their ball skills."

Virginia Tech safety Davon Morgan

"I’m very excited to play against this bunch because they have a great quarterback and from what I seen on film, you can tell these guys work on what they do. They’re on the same page on routes. I seen a guy break off a route the other day on film and I was like, ‘Man, why did he break that off.’ But it was because he knew he couldn’t get deep, so he just stopped. Andrew knew that and put it right on him. Those are the kinds of things I’ve been studying. ...

“Whoever was tackling [Luck], I don’t know what they were thinking anyway. If you’re gonna come in, you gotta go hard. You gotta meet force with force,. You can’t come in and then back out. He’s not the kind of guy you do that with.”

Virginia Tech cornerback Jayron Hosley

“For any corner, this would be a game to really show what you can do. Having a No. 1 quarterback, playing against him, we ready, Rock’s ready, our secondary’s ready for it. We’re all ready for it. We wish the game was tomorrow; that’s how ready we are for it. We definitely looking forward to it.”

“It’s just like any player; you gotta hit [Luck]. You gotta hit him, wrap him up, bring the pain. Hit him before he can hit you. Luck’s a tough guy, so you’re gonna have to hit him with some force. He’s kind of big ... but it’s different ways to hit a player. There’s no fear in my heart.”

By Mark Giannotto  | January 3, 2011; 10:18 AM ET
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Next: How will the Hokies handle 'Lord Fangio' and the Stanford defense?


Looks like the REAL challenge is going to be for Virginia Tech's offense to put up a lot of points.

I wouldn't count on being able to stop all 300 offensive plays under an NFL pro-caliber quarterback.

Posted by: postfan1 | January 3, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse

If the Hokies defensive line and blitzes can bring pressure, you know the rest. If Luck gets time, he'll be really hard to beat. On the other side, Tyrod has been getting pretty good protection - and when it breaks down he extends plays and makes good teams look bad. I'm hoping for a good game!

Posted by: pgcorky | January 3, 2011 3:32 PM | Report abuse

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