Friday, October 15, 2004

Tonight’s matchup between No. 6 Virginia and No. 7 Florida State could break down into a running discussion.

The undefeated Cavaliers bring their highest ranking in 14 seasons into Tallahassee, where they hope to prove they belong among college football’s elite. The Seminoles, the longtime kings of the ACC, hope to continue their run of dominance by thwarting the latest coup attempt.

But perhaps the most intriguing subplot pits one of the nation’s best rushing attacks against one of the country’s top run-stuffing defenses. Virginia has averaged 275 yards on the ground, while Florida State’s stonewalling defense has yielded just 65.6 rushing yards a game.

“Somebody is going to come out of it and say, ‘We can still do what we wanted to do,’” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “The other is going to say, ‘Our inability to play to the same standards we had before was a factor.’”

The Cavaliers (5-0, 2-0 ACC) lead the ACC and are fifth in the country in rushing behind running backs Wali Lundy (96.8 yards a game), Michael Johnson (59.2) and Alvin Pearman (48.8). Each averages at least 5.0 yards a carry, with the compact speedster Lundy pacing the group at 6.7.

The backfield runs behind an offensive line loaded with size, speed and experience, led by 6-foot-6, 338-pound right guard Elton Brown. Add to the mix versatile quarterback Marques Hagans, whose quickness often turns into big runs, and the Cavaliers have been rendering defenses, well, defenseless. Virginia is averaging 42.4 points, third in the country.

“They remind me of the [New York] Giants when [Bill] Parcells was there,” said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose team has won 11 of 12 meetings with the Cavaliers. “They remind me of the Denver Broncos when they first won the Super Bowl. They get that football, and you simply can’t get it away from them.”

The praise is genuine, even if Division I’s all-time winningest coach may be buttering up his foe a bit. Still, Virginia hasn’t faced a defense like that of the Seminoles (4-1, 2-1), who rank third in the country against the run and 10th overall. The Seminoles allowed just 25 yards rushing in their 19-14 win over the Cavaliers last year, when they won their 11th ACC title — outright or shared — in 12 years in the league.

These Cavaliers, however, claim they are more mature, stronger and better skilled than last year. And the numbers, including 326 rushing yards against Akron a week after compiling 299 against North Carolina — back that up.

“We have a fast, athletic offensive line,” said Brown, one of three third-year starters on the line with 6-5, 295-pound left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and 6-4, 276-pound center Zac Yarbrough. “They have a fast, athletic defense. We haven’t seen a defense like that. I don’t think they have seen an offensive line like us.”

Florida State’s defense doesn’t have the big names this season with only four returning starters, but that doesn’t mean the speed and instincts aren’t there. The defense has been known to pack nine defenders near the line to nullify the run, daring offenses to throw into single coverage.

That could shift the emphasis to Hagans and his receivers. Virginia’s dual-threat quarterback leads the ACC in passing efficiency and has completed 70.1 percent of his passes.

“We have to create space [by running pass patterns],” Groh said. “If we don’t get some space, we are going to get strangled.”

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