(12) Cincinnati (11-2) vs. (21) Virginia Tech (9-4)
Thursday, January 1st, 8:30 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 75th edition of the Orange Bowl is set for Dolphin Stadium on New Year's Day, as the Cincinnati Bearcats take on the Virginia Tech Hokies.
The Bearcats will be playing in their first January 1st bowl since 1951 and posted a remarkable 11-2 overall record, while capturing their first-ever Big East title and subsequent BCS Bowl bid. Brian Kelly was named the Big East Coach of the Year as a result.
The 2008 season was one to remember for Cincinnati, which closed the year with six consecutive wins, including big wins over Big East powerhouses West Virginia, Louisville and Pittsburgh in a three week span in November. The Bearcats, whose lone losses on the year came at Oklahoma (52-26) and at Connecticut (40-16), registered 11 victories for the first time in school history.
Cincinnati is playing in its 11th bowl game all-time (6-4) and has been solid in the postseason of late, winning three straight bowl games, including last year's 31-21 decision over Southern Miss in the Papajohns.com Bowl.
Frank Beamer's Hokies are no stranger to the postseason (7-14) and major bowl games for that matter, as the team has played in three Sugar Bowls and two previous Orange Bowls. This will be the second straight appearance in the Orange Bowl, as Tech dropped a 24-21 decision to Kansas in last year's memorable event.
The Hokies (9-4 overall) repeated as ACC Champion this season thanks to a 5-3 ledger in conference play. Virginia Tech won three of its last four regular season games to capture the Coastal Division title and then topped Boston College in the ACC Title Game (30-12) to cap off a tough season in Blacksburg with another trip to the Orange Bowl.
"It was such a team effort," said Beamer. "Offensively, we did a heckuva job out there. Defensively, we did a heckuva job. Our special teams were solid, and we beat a really good Boston College team. I�m really proud of our players and coaches. This particular year especially because we�ve overcome so much. I�m really proud of that. We�re going to enjoy this for sure."
The Hokies are seeking their fifth straight 10-win season, a current streak only matched by Texas and Southern California.
These two teams have met eight previous times and the series is knotted at four games apiece. The last meeting took place in 2006, as the Hokies posted a 29-13 at home.
The Bearcats' ascension to the top of the Big East was a bit of a surprise, considering injuries turned the quarterback position into a revolving door. First, Ben Mauk's appeal for another year was denied, leaving the position to former starter Dustin Grutza. The veteran signal-caller went down early with a broken leg and was replaced by Tony Pike, who subsequently went down to injury himself (arm). Chazz Anderson, got a couple starts in relief as well, but the team was no worse for the wear, as Cincinnati managed to average a solid 254.1 yards passing when all was said and done. Grutza and Pike are both healed enough to play in the bowl game and both may see time under center. Regardless of who is throwing the ball, the general direction of the passes will be toward Dominick Goodman (78 receptions, for 977 yards, seven TDs) and Mardy Gilyard (74 receptions, 1,118 yards, 10 TDs). Goodman was a First-Team All-Big East selection, as was Gilyard, who established himself as the conference's top kickoff returner as well, averaging 28.0 yards per return and picking up All-American honors for his special teams play. Goodman is nursing a shoulder injury, but is listed as probable for this bowl game.
The ground game plays second fiddle on this team, with Cincinnati averaging just 121.2 yards per game, on a mediocre 3.6 yards per carry. Tailbacks Jacob Ramsey (4.3 ypc) and John Goebel (4.7 ypc) got the majority of the work this season and combined for nine TDs, seven of which came from Goebel.
Cincinnati did a solid job defensively this year, especially against some of the Big East's best offenses. The Bearcats limited foes to a meager 314.8 total yards, holding opponents to 102.7 yards rushing and 212.1 yards passing. In addition, the team allowed the opposition to convert just 30 percent of the time on third down, while recording 36 sacks and forcing 21 turnovers, including 16 interceptions. Up front, the team relies heavily on the play of Connor Barwin and Lamonte Nelms. Barwin (48 total tackles) led the team in both TFLs (15.5) and sacks (11), earning Big East First-Team honors. Nelms (53 tackles) finished second in both categories with 14.0 TFLs and 6.5 sacks. The emergence of Barwin along the defensive front has been a real pleasant surprise for coach Kelly, who moved the senior over from tight end this year.
"I think the most amazing part of this is that I've been a head coach for 18 years, and I don't think I've ever seen a guy go from one position to defense and get voted all-conference in his first year playing the position as a senior."
The secondary was extremely active this season as well, led by All-American (Third-Team) selection Mike Mikens, who finished the year with 65 tackles and four INTs, despite missing the last three games with a knee injury. Mickens holds the school record for INTs in a career with 14 and although he is still listed on the injury report heading into this game, he has been upgraded to probable. Brandon Underwood was also instrumental in the secondary, recording 60 tackles, three INTs and three fumble recoveries, en route to All-Big East Firt-Team honors.
The Hokies have had their own misfortunes under center this season and neither Tyrod Taylor nor Sean Glennon have played particularly well overall. The pair have combined for just over 1,600 yards passing, with five TD passes and 11 interceptions. Taylor gets the nod to start the bowl game, as he is the more athletic of the two signal-callers, ranking second on the team in rushing this year with 691 yards and six TDs. The real workhorse in the backfield though is young tailback Darren Evans, who has showed flashes of brilliance this year, en route to 1,112 yards rushing and 10 TDs. He picked up Freshman All-American honors for his efforts. With a passing game that managed a mere 128.2 yards per game, it is no wonder that the top receiver on the team was Danny Coale, who managed to haul in just 33 balls, for 356 yards. Jarrett Boyle (28 receptions) led the team with 413 receiving yards and was tied with Greg Boone (19 catches, for 237 yards) with a team-high two TD receptions each.
The Hokies have long been a defensive-led program and 2008 was no different, as Virginia Tech finished among the nation's elite squads, giving up just 17.5 ppg, on 277.1 yards of total offense. The team had equal disdain for the run (107.0 ypg) and the pass (170.1 ypg) and really made its mark recording big plays, with 34 sacks and 30 takeaways. The play along the defensive line was paced by Jason Worilds and Orion Martin. Worilds, who is listed as questionable for the Orange Bowl with a shoulder injury, led the team in TFLs (18.5) and sacks (8.0). Martin (13.0 TFLs, 7.5 sacks) also made his presence felt in opposing backfields, as did outside linebacker Cody Grimm (12.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks). The linebacking corps was also highlighted by Purnell Sturdivant (team-high 91 tackles, 8.0 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) and Brett Warren (86 tackles, 5.0 TFLs, two INTs), although Warren will miss this game due to a torn right ACL. The secondary is not short of playmakers either and is headlined by standout cover corner Victor Harris (44 tackles, six INTs) on one side and Stephan Virgil (40 tackles, five INTs) on the other. Harris picked up All-American honors this season.
The ACC has been cursed in BCS games of late, dropping eight straight major bowl games. The conference's last win came in the 1999 national championship game, as ironically, Florida State topped Virginia Tech (then part of the Big East). The Bearcats are playing on the big stage for the first time and that coupled with Virginia Tech's stingy defense, should result in a win for the Hokies.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Virginia Tech 27, Cincinnati 21
12/29 12:20:33 ET