- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Since their arrival here Dec. 26, the Virginia Cavaliers have been treated to a whirlwind tour of all Jacksonville has to offer. But of all of the metropolitan attractions, star defensive end Chris Long had a particular favorite.

“There was some crazy stuff at the zoo,” the 2007 Hendricks Award winner said. “I got to see the lion, and that was pretty sweet.”

Long’s fondness for the king of the jungle may have gotten a rise of laughter out of the media throng, but the remark may have a more serious meaning come today’s 1 p.m. kickoff.

For the Cavaliers to have any chance of leaving the Gator Bowl with a victory, Long and his teammates on defense must play with the heart of a lion.

Today’s task is the most challenging of the season for Virginia’s defense: stopping Texas Tech’s air-it-out offense.

The Red Raiders possess the NCAA’s top passing attack, leading the nation with 475.6 yards a game. They have amassed 6,444 total yards (second in the nation) on the season, scored 501 points and punted only 26 times. Ten Texas Tech receivers have double-digit receptions, including redshirt freshman Michael Crabtree, who has every freshman receiving record in the books.

“It’s a challenge not only because of the scheme they run but also because they have good players running the scheme,” said Long, the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year. “We just have to keep coming and like you would in a pass rush in any game, just be relentless and keep bringing it.”

Of all the staggering statistics, Virginia coach Al Groh finds one figure most worrisome: 41.8. That’s the average number of points the Red Raiders score, nine more than Virginia has allowed in any winning effort this year.

“That’s incredible,” Groh sid. “That’s a lot of points to score in any one game, much less to average 42 points a game. We are looking for ways to kind of chop that down.”

Neither Groh nor his defensive star have been forthcoming about how they plan on halting Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell — who has eclipsed passing 400 yards 10 times this season — and his bevy of productive pass-catchers.

Groh has studied tape of how Oklahoma and Texas — two of Texas Tech’s Big XII opponents who have consistently beaten the Red Raiders over the years — and has talked to a “few friends around the country” who have schemed against Red Raiders coach Mike Leach.

Groh’s game plan was dealt a serious blow when cornerback Chris Cook was ruled academically ineligible in December and sophomore Vic Hall and freshman Ras-I Dowling will be called upon to corral Crabtree and senior receiver Danny Amendola in Cook’s absence.

Groh will undoubtedly unleash Long — who has 14 sacks this season — and sophomore defensive end Jeffrey Fitzgerald on Harrell. While Fitzgerald said he has salivated at the wide gaps in the splits in Texas Tech’s offensive line, the Red Raiders’ 15 sacks allowed has tempered him.

“We know that they get the ball off real quick so we have to get our hands up.” said Fitzgerald, who has six sacks and four interceptions.

Junior linebacker Clint Sintim added: “We just have to modify our schemes to slow them down.”

Groh will also need an impeccable performance from his offense, which has managed 40 points only twice.

“A lot of attention has been paid to what we have to do against the Texas Tech offense because it is so prolific but still at the end of the day, we have score more points than the other team does in order to win the game,” Groh said. “We are still going to have to score a decent amount of points in the game.”

Fortunately for quarterback Jameel Sewell and the Cavaliers, Texas Tech’s defense has given up 367.8 yards a game.

Should the inaugural clash between the Cavaliers and Red Raiders turn into a shootout, the advantage may lie with Groh’s scrappy bunch, who have made a habit of winning at the wire.

“I think it goes back to the heart of this team,” said tight end Tom Santi, who has three touchdowns and garnered second team All-ACC honors. “It’s not just a fluke that we go out and [win close games]. We have that mentality from the top down that we aren’t going to crack.”

After a week of zoos, parades and fanfare, Groh was anxious to see how his team will fare in the fifth bowl appearance of his tenure.

“We understand the challenge that it is going to take, and it will be interesting to see how we do it,” Groh said in his signature old-school seriousness. “We are anxious to see.”

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