December 31, 2008

Orange: Cincinnati can extend Big East's BCS run

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

Christmas has come and gone, but this week remains the Big East's most wonderful time of the year.

After losing Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC earlier this decade, the Big East has regained national respect by ringing in the new year with a BCS victory.

ORANGE BOWL

Cincinnati (11-2)
vs. Virginia Tech (9-4)

WHEN: 8 p.m. Jan. 1
TV: Fox (Thom Brennaman will do play-by-play, with Charles Davis as the analyst).
THE LINE: Cincinnati by 2.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Cincinnati 5-2, Virginia Tech 5-4.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Cincinnati 50th, Virginia Tech 18th.
BCS RANKINGS: Cincinnati 12th, Virginia Tech 19th.
COACHES: Cincinnati − Brian Kelly (2-0 in bowls); Virginia Tech − Frank Beamer (6-9 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Each team features one of the nation's most exciting and versatile players. Cincinnati wideout Mardy Gilyard set a school single-season receiving record with 1,118 yards, and he also has scored on two kickoff returns. Virginia Tech cornerback Victor Harris has picked off six passes this season and returned two for touchdowns. Harris also returns punts and even occasionally lines up on offense.
KEY STATS: Cincinnati leads the nation in net punting; Virginia Tech ranks 91st in that category. The likelihood of a low-scoring contest makes field position a major priority, which could make Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber one of this game's most valuable players.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Virginia Tech tailback Darren Evans has averaged 3.0 yards per carry and 46.3 yards per game in the Hokies' four losses. He has gained 4.9 yards per attempt and 106.9 yards per game in Tech's nine wins. Virginia Tech ranks 112th in the nation in passing and is facing an exceptional Cincinnati secondary, so the Hokies probably won't win unless Evans has a big night.
"All year, everybody hates on the Big East," said West Virginia kicker/punter Pat McAfee, whose team started the trend three years ago by stunning Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. "Everybody mocks it and makes fun of how bad we are. All that anger builds up and all that disappointment builds up to a peak, and that's [during] bowl season. We have to prove ourselves."

One year after West Virginia pulled off its stunner, Louisville knocked off Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl following the 2006 season and West Virginia upset Oklahoma in last season's Fiesta Bowl.

Cincinnati (11-2) will try to give the Big East four consecutive BCS victories Thursday when it faces ACC champion Virginia Tech (9-4) in the Orange Bowl. A Cincinnati victory also would improve the Big East's overall bowl record to 12-3 since 2006.

"I don't think we need to compare ourselves to anybody," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said. "We can let the numbers speak for themselves."

Recent history suggests Cincinnati should continue the Big East's run of BCS success. While the BCS continually has given the Big East vindication, it has offered the Hokies and the ACC nothing but frustration.

The ACC hasn't won a BCS game since Florida State's 1999 national championship season. Coincidentally, that Florida State victory came against Virginia Tech, then a member of the Big East.

Virginia Tech is 0-3 in BCS games since the BCS era started in 1998. The Hokies also have dropped four of their past five bowl games overall, including upset losses to Kansas in last season's Orange Bowl and to Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl two years ago.

The Hokies have responded to their recent lack of postseason success by changing their attitude. Virginia Tech's coaches and players admit they treated last season's Orange Bowl as too much of a reward after winning the ACC title. They took a more businesslike approach this year, practiced harder and instituted an earlier curfew.

"It's obvious to the players," Virginia Tech strong safety Dorian Porch said. "Our whole approach to this game has been different. This time we know there's a time to relax and a time to go to business. We know we have to finish this season strong. We want to get everything we worked hard for this season."

Virginia Tech must overcome the absence of a few key players. The Hokies' defense is missing starting end Jason Worilds (dislocated shoulder) and linebacker Brett Warren (partially torn anterior cruciate ligament). Worilds leads the Hokies with eight sacks, while Warren is second on the team 86 tackles. And the offense won't have starting guard Nick Marshman, who is academically ineligible.

Tech won't get much sympathy from Cincinnati, which had to deal with injury issues all season. The Bearcats used five quarterbacks this season and still won their first Big East title while ranking second in the league in passing.

"I think it says everything about this team," Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike said. "Coach Kelly has always preached, 'Next man in,' and it has given players an opportunity to get ready getting the reps you need in practice."

Cincinnati won its first outright league title of any kind since capturing the 1964 Missouri Valley Conference crown. The No. 12 Bearcats already have their highest ranking in school history and are aiming for their first top 10 finish.

"It's an ongoing process for us relative to changing the perception [of the program]," Kelly said. "One win or loss won't take away from the work. It's winning. Winning changes perceptions."

Winning also can alter the perception of a conference.

Who has the edge?

Cincinnati run offense vs. Virginia Tech run defense
Cincinnati won the Big East despite ranking last in the league and 95th in the nation in rushing. The Bearcats didn't have a single player rush for at least 100 yards in a game. John Goebel and Jacob Ramsey aren't likely to find much running room against a Virginia Tech defense that allows 107.0 rushing yards per game.
Edge: Virginia Tech.

Cincinnati pass offense vs. Virginia Tech pass defense
This may be the most intriguing matchup of the game. Cincinnati has used five quarterbacks this season, and Tony Pike came out of nowhere and helped the Bearcats rank 25th in the nation in passing. Mardy Gilyard and Dominick Goodman have combined for 2,095 receiving yards and 17 touchdown catches. Virginia Tech CBs Victor Harris and Stephan Virgil have combined for 11 interceptions. Pike's a great story, but he also has thrown an equal number of touchdown passes (three) as interceptions over his last two games. The absence of injured Hokies sack leader Jason Worilds puts more pressure on Orion Martin, who has 7.5 sacks this season but none in his last three games.
Edge: Even.

Virginia Tech run offense vs. Cincinnati run defense
Darren Evans has rushed for 1,112 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has gained at least 100 yards in three of his last five games, including a 253-yard effort against Maryland. QB Tyrod Taylor has rushed for 691 yards and reached the century mark in three games. Cincinnati ranks 13th in the nation in run defense and has allowed just 3.2 yards per carry. Defensive tackle Terrill Byrd is stout in the middle, and the Bearcats have an underrated linebacker group headed by Ryan Manalac. This particular matchup could determine the outcome of the game.
Edge: Even.

Virginia Tech pass offense vs. Cincinnati pass defense
This could be the biggest mismatch of the game. Taylor and Sean Glennon have combined to throw 11 interceptions and only five touchdown passes this season. Cincinnati ranks 27th in the nation in pass efficiency defense and should benefit from the return of star CB Mike Mickens, who missed the Bearcats' last three games with a knee injury. Even if the Hokies want to throw, they might not have time to do it. Defensive end Connor Barwin has a Big East-leading 11 sacks to help the Bearcats rank ninth in the country in sacks per game at 2.9.
Edge: Cincinnati.

Cincinnati special teams vs. Virginia Tech special teams
Virginia Tech is known for its quality special teams, but it must take a back seat to Cincinnati in this department. Kevin Huber helped the Bearcats lead the nation in net punting. Cincinnati's Jake Rogers is 16-of-22 on field-goal attempts, including 3-for-4 from at least 50 yards - with a long of 54. Gilyard has scored on two kickoff returns, and the coverage units have been solid. Virginia Tech's Dustin Keys is 21-of-26 on field-goal attempts, while Brent Bowden averages 40.5 yards per punt. But the Hokies have had two punts blocked, including one returned for a score late in a season-opening loss to East Carolina. The Hokies have allowed two punts to be returned for touchdowns.
Edge: Cincinnati.

Cincinnati coaches vs. Virginia Tech coaches
Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer has more bowl experience, but Cincinnati's Brian Kelly has more recent bowl success. Beamer's track record coaching in BCS games could make a difference, even though his experiences in the BCS haven't been pleasant. Both staffs did outstanding jobs this season helping their teams overcome plenty of adversity on their way to winning conference titles. The presence of Virginia Tech's Bud Foster one of the nation's top defensive coordinators gives the Hokies the advantage here.
Edge: Virginia Tech.

X-factor: Injuries to Virginia Tech starters Worilds and Brett Warren could be huge. Worilds leads the Hokies in sacks and was one of the ACC's top pass rushers at the end of the season. Warren is Virginia Tech's second-leading tackler. The academic ineligibility of starting guard Nick Marshman could hinder the Hokies' rushing attack, too.

Cincinnati will win if: Pike must avoid interceptions against a ball-hawking Virginia Tech secondary. The Bearcats would love to take an early lead. If they can force Virginia Tech into passing situations, the Hokies are in trouble.

Virginia Tech will win if: The Hokies need Evans and/or Taylor to have a big night running the ball. It's hard to imagine Virginia Tech passing effectively against Cincinnati when the Hokies struggled to throw the ball all season.

Expert picks
Olin Buchanan: Virginia Tech 24, Cincinnati 21
Tom Dienhart: Virginia Tech 24, Cincinnati 23
David Fox: Cincinnati 21, Virginia Tech 17
Mike Huguenin: Cincinnati 24, Virginia Tech 20
Steve Megargee: Virginia Tech 17, Cincinnati 16

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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