FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The challenges for a defense facing a dual-threat quarterback are always great, but in the case of Stanford in the Orange Bowl, they are immense. That's because the Cardinal must stop Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor, who is one of the nation's best in that role.
"With a guy like this, you always have to defend two plays when they call a pass," Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "You've got to defend the passing play they've called in the huddle, and the route and protection. And then you have to defend the play that he might create on his own."
At a press gathering Thursday morning at the Marriott Harbor Beach, Fangio and his players provided some keys on what it will take to limit Taylor and the Hokies' offense on Monday night.
The consensus was this:
• Sure tackling • Stay disciplined • Shut down the pass on third down
Breaking each key, we'll start with the one Fangio has stressed the most.
"The biggest thing is, How well do we tackle?" Fangio said. "Are those running backs making us miss? Are they dragging us for that extra three or four yards, or are we getting them down before that happens?
"How are we handling the quarterback in open spaces? Are we getting him down, or is he making us miss and turning it into a schoolyard game where he really excels?
"To me, it's going to come down to tackling. These guys are so talented that if we don't have our best tackling game, we could be in for a long night. It could be that they're going to score a lot of points."
Part of the reason for Fangio's concern is the toughness of Virginia Tech running backs Darren Evans (817 yards), David Wilson (616), and Ryan Williams (473).
"I don't know that there's another team in the country that has three backs of this quality," Fangio said. "I think all three of those backs will be in the NFL someday.
"What's impressive is they run hard, they've got the speed to bounce it outside but yet they're inside-the-tackle runners also. These guys move the pile after contact. You'll see them -- the contact is made, but these guys bleed you for the extra three, four yards. It's not really a missed tackle, but they're dragging the guy. To me, that's the mark of good running backs."
Stanford's defenders understand the task at hand.
"We have to make sure we tackle on every play," cornerback Michael Thomas said. "The trouble is when we don't, when you put a shoulder into them and not wrap up, that's when they bounce off and use their breakaway speed to take it to the house."
With the versatility and unpredictability of Virginia Tech's offense, the need to control the gaps and stay patient with their assignments will be of the utmost importance for Stanford's defenders.
"They're kind of a cross between a conventional offense -- quarterback under center, run, play-action passes -- like our offense is," Fangio said. "But, at a moment's notice, they'll be into the shotgun and running the gun reads and the option games and the fly sweeps.
"You might get a game where they're just going to try and hammer the ball at you and challenge you physically, or you might get a game where they're going to spread you out and run a bunch of the option stuff. They give you a lot to prepare for."
Of course, the player that makes it work is Taylor, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year. Taylor has accounted for 28 touchdowns (23 passing and five rushing). He has passed for 2,521 yards and run for 637.
"He's tough to contain," Fangio said. "He's very athletic, with a strong throwing arm. He's a playmaker. When you watch him play, he's like the point guard of a great basketball team; the guy just makes plays many different ways."
Said middle linebacker Shayne Skov, "Virginia Tech's run game drives off Taylor. We obviously have to have some awareness of where he is in the pocket and try to keep him there."
Said outside linebacker Chase Thomas, "Anytime you're facing a dual-threat quarterback, your pass rush techniques that you've had all year long go right out the window. You have to start from scratch and maintain those pass rush lanes and be a little bit more cautious, and don't let them break contain."
Shut down the pass on third down:
Assuming Stanford is successful in the first two keys, the third will become critical.
"They've been able to convert a lot of third and longs," Stanford outside linebacker Thomas Keiser said. "And you can't let them do that if you want to win."
Like Stanford, the Hokies are extremely balanced. They have run for 2,716 yards, but have also passed for 2,628.
Fangio said he believes Taylor "Throws the ball better than I think most people give him credit for. They've got balance both from the run-pass standpoint and they've got balance from the schematic standpoint.
"Obviously it's a quarterback/running back driven offense," Fangio said. "But their tight end (Andre Smith) also is an integral part to what they do. He's a good blocker. They like to throw him the ball, particularly down in the red zone (he has five touchdowns). I think the receivers as a unit are very solid.
Taylor "has a very accurate tight spiral," Stanford cornerback Richard Sherman said. "He has the ability to hit guys 60 yards on the run and he can get the ball anywhere."
Stanford knows the challenge will be daunting for its defense.
"You don't score over 40 points as many times as these guys have (six times), without talented players and a good offensive scheme," Fangio said.
With the challenges that Virginia Tech presents, it becomes vital for Stanford that it follows the No. 1 key of safety Delano Howell: "Trust each other."
The best of schemes won't mean a thing unless Stanford follows Howell's directive.
"We have to set the tone when we take the field," Skov said. "We have to play aggressively and physically and believe in each other, just the way we have all year."