Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies' D-line must turn up heat on Harris

BLACKSBURG -- Let's not sugarcoat this: Jacory Harris must be pummeled if Virginia Tech is going to win this week.

He must run scared.

He must see his mouthpiece hit the Lane Stadium turf.

He must feel something different than he's felt in his first two games, something other than unbridled confidence -- namely, an actual body from the other team crashing into him.

Harris is Miami's sophomore quarterback. He is also college football's brightest new star. Check all the Heisman Trophy watch lists that take performance into account -- the ones from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports, The Sporting News -- and he's on them, climbing fast.

And he deserves it. Miami has played two ranked opponents so far and beaten them both, and Harris is the biggest reason for it.

He ranks third in the nation in passing efficiency. He blistered Florida State's secondary for 386 passing yards in the opener, the most ever for a Hurricanes QB against the Seminoles. Last Thursday against Georgia Tech, Harris was even better, going 20-for-25 for 270 yards and three touchdowns.

He's been named ACC offensive back of the week twice already. He's taken over the conference lead in passing average, passing efficiency and total offense.

Yes, Harris has done it all -- except get hit.

One sack. That's it. The Seminoles got Harris once, and he hasn't left his feet with the ball in his hands since. Defensive end Derrick Morgan piled up five sacks in Georgia Tech's first two games; against Miami, he got nothing.

"Early in the game I saw [Morgan] coming from the side,'' Harris told the Miami Herald. "Then I saw they picked him up. I didn't worry about looking at the defensive line the rest of the game."

This cannot happen Saturday in Blacksburg. Somebody up front -- a Jason Worilds, a John Graves, a Cordarrow Thompson, somebody -- is going to have to get in there and cause trouble.

"Something's got to disrupt it," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "And that's the way it is with any good offensive team. But there's no question: He hasn't been rushed very much, I can tell you that. And that's a credit to his offensive line and him. He gets the ball out of there."

Miami left tackle Jason Fox, an All-ACC performer who has 38 starts to his credit, presents a formidable challenge to any blindside pass rush. Tech must meet it anyway. The Hokies' offensive struggles are the topic du jour -- as they should be, until they can fix them -- but let's not forget that this program has risen thanks to its defense. Sometimes your best simply must defeat their best.

Statistically, Tech's pass rush has been a disappointment so far this year. The Hokies tallied 35 sacks in 14 games last season, an average of 2.5 per game. They have just three so far this year, and only half of that total has come from the front four.

That's worrisome, particularly when this matchup dictates that the grunts apply the majority of the pressure. Leave this Tech secondary one-on-one too often, and those tall, fleet Miami receivers will shred it like they did against Florida State. You can throw in occasional blitzes from linebackers and corners, but they must be well-timed.

"You've got to hope your front four can get it done," Beamer said. "And then after that, everything else is a plus. I think you bring some pressure, but if your front four is at least hurrying the thing up, at least making the quarterback move, or at least being in his way a little bit where he doesn't have a clear throw, then I think you've accomplished something.

"Then you can pick and choose when you ... bring more people. If that front four is not doing it, then you know what you've got to do."

Worilds is the Hokies' best line candidate to disrupt. Tech's sack leader with eight last season, the junior defensive end has just one so far this year, but he's been close often. He must turn some of those 13 quarterback hurries into sacks. He must turn Jacory pressure into Jacory pain.

The alternative? College football's brightest new star shines even brighter. And before the calendar even flips to October, Tech's Coastal Division hopes go dim.

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