2008 Football Game Preview: The FedEx Orange Bowl

, TechSideline.com, on December 29, 2008
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Thursday, January 1st, 2009, 8:00

TV: FOX

Forecast (from WeatherBug.com):

Click the “Miami, FL Weather” link to the right.
Game day forecast, as of 4:00 pm Monday: Partly cloudy, high of 76, low of 68


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Game Preview: #19 Virginia Tech (9-4, 5-3 ACC) vs. #12 Cincinnati (11-2,
7-1 Big East)


by Chris Coleman, TechSideline.com

The Hokies are back in South Florida for the second year in a row, and this
time they are trying to get it right. #19 Virginia Tech will take on #12
Cincinnati on January 1 in the FedEx Orange Bowl. If the Hokies win, it will
mean another 10-win season and a possible preseason Top 10 in 2009. If they
lose, it will be the fourth bowl loss in the last five years, and another
offseason of grumbling from the Hokie faithful.

Cincinnati is a very good football team, coming into this game with an 11-2
record. Like the Hokies, they are also a very clutch team. The Bearcats won six
games by eight points or less this year, while Tech won four games by five
points or less. While Virginia Tech’s losses were all very close, Cincinnati
dropped two blowouts to Oklahoma (52-26) and UConn (40-16).

As you’ll see, these teams are pretty evenly matched.

The Cincinnati Offense

Cincinnati has started three different quarterbacks this year, yet still
managed to win the Big East and put up good numbers offensively.


The Cincinnati Offense

Category

Stat

National Rank

Rushing

121.23 ypg

94

Passing

254.08 ypg

25

Total

375.31 ypg

50

Scoring

27.31 ppg

49

Pass Efficiency

139.38

27

Sacks Allowed

2.31 per game

90

Average

55.83

The Bearcats run a spread offense with a heavy emphasis on the pass. They have
finally settled on Tony Pike (6-6, 225, r-Jr.) at quarterback. Pike was barely
on the depth chart when preseason practice began, but he transformed himself
into one of the top quarterbacks in the Big East as the season moved along.

Pike completed 62.9% of his passes this year for 2,168 yards. He threw 18
touchdowns and just seven interceptions. He is arguably the best quarterback
Virginia Tech has faced this season.

Pike is helped by a quality combination at wide receiver. Dominick Goodman
(6-1, 210, Sr.) and Mardy Gilyard (6-1, 180, Jr.) put up impressive numbers this
season, as you can see in the following table.


Cincinnati Wide Receivers

Name

Catches

Yards

Touchdowns

Dominick Goodman

78

977

7

Mardy Gilyard

74

1118

10

Marcus Barnett

29

271

1

D.J. Woods

14

168

0

Totals

195

2534

18

That’s excellent production, particularly from Goodman and Gilyard. You’d be
hard pressed to find a more production duo anywhere in the nation.

Virginia Tech will be forced to fight Cincinnati’s excellent passing attack
with a defense lacking its best pass rusher (Jason Worilds) and arguably its
best linebacker (Brett Warren). Barquell Rivers, a r-freshman, will get the nod
at mike linebacker, and the Bearcats will likely try to challenge him through
the air, as most young linebackers struggle somewhat in pass defense.

To combat this, we could see more nickel formations from Virginia Tech’s
defense, with Rashad Carmichael entering the game against certain formations or
in obvious passing situations.

While quarterback and wide receiver are Cincinnati’s strengths on offense,
the weakness is probably up front on the offensive line. First, let’s take a
look at the players.


The Cincinnati Offensive Line

Position

Name

Height

Weight

Year

LT

Jeff Linkenbach

6-6

313

r-Jr.

LG

Jason Kelce

6-3

295

r-So.

C

Chris Jurek

6-2

290

r-Jr.

RG

Trevor Canfield

6-5

305

Sr.

RT

Khalil El-Amin

6-4

312

r-Sr.

Cincinnati allows 2.31 sacks per game, which ranks just 90th nationally. They
don’t do a good job of protecting the passer at all. They also aren’t the most
effective run blocking team. Although the Bearcats favor the pass, they do like
to spread out teams and try to run the ball. They haven’t been that successful
this year, though they do have solid runners.

Jacob Ramsey (6-0, 230, Jr.) starts and splits time with John Goebel (6-1,
225, r-So.). Ramsey averaged 4.3 yards per carry this year, running for 630
yards and two touchdowns on 148 carries. Goebel carried the ball 124 times for
581 yards and seven touchdowns. Goebel is also an effective receiver with 25
catches for 265 yards.

Kent
Square Condominiums – Blacksburg’s Premier Address!

The most talented running back on the team is true freshman Isaiah Pead
(5-11, 185, Fr.). Pead is a graduate of Eastmoor Academy in Columbus, OH. While
at Eastmoor, he broke former Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin’s school
rushing record. Pead only had 28 carries this year, but he averaged 6.6 yards
per carry. Against Hawaii in the final game of the season, he had eight carries
for 74 yards. His workload could be increasing just in time for the Orange Bowl.
He is a quick, speedy back that is perfect for carrying the ball out of spread
formations.

Overall, Cincinnati has a good offense, and they are comparable to the Kansas
offense that the Hokies faced last year. They aren’t nearly as explosive as
Kansas was, but they are efficient throwing the football. They aren’t going to
power the football down anyone’s throat, but their running game can be effective
if the passing game is successful.

Ultimately, I see Virginia Tech stopping the Bearcat running game and making
their offense one-dimensional. We’ll just have to see whether or not that will
be enough to win the game.

The Cincinnati Defense

The Cincinnati defense had a very good season. They have good players on each
level of defense, particularly up front and in the secondary. They are also very
experienced, with 10 seniors and one junior in the starting lineup.


The Cincinnati Defense

Category

Stat

National Rank

Rushing

104 ypg

13

Passing

212.08 ypg

67

Total

316.08 ypg

25

Scoring

20.15 ppg

28

Pass Efficiency

112.92

27

Tackles for Loss

6.54 per game

29

Sacks

2.85 per game

9

Average

28.29

Football starts in the trenches, so we’ll first take a look at the Cincinnati
defensive front. Defensive end Connor Barwin (6-4, 255, Sr.) leads the Big East
in sacks with 11, and he also has 15.5 tackles for loss. Barwin is a great
story, having just moved from tight end to defensive end this past spring for
his senior season. He caught 31 passes last year as a tight end, and he had
three catches for 36 yards in Lane Stadium in 2006.

Very few players are capable of having the type of success on both sides of
the ball that Barwin has had. To top it off, he is also a former member of the
Cincinnati basketball team. Overall, Barwin is a very good athlete and a good,
instinctive football player. He is a definite NFL Draft pick this coming April.

At the other defensive end spot is Lamonte Nelms (6-3, 255, r-Sr.). Nelms is
no slouch coming off the edge either, ranking third in the Big East with 6.5
sacks. He also finished with 14 tackles for loss.

The Bearcats get good defensive tackle play as well. They are led on the
interior by All-American Terrill Byrd (6-1, 290, Sr.). Byrd is a tough player
with a low center of gravity that is difficult to move. He finished the season
with six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Tech’s interior offensive linemen will
have their hands full, particularly first-time starter Jaymes Brooks.

The final starting defensive lineman, Adam Hoppel (6-2, 300, r-Sr.), has 5.5
tackles for loss and three sacks. This is a very productive group of defensive
linemen. The Bearcats rank 9th in the country in sacks, at 2.85 per game.


Defensive Line Production

Position

Player

Tackles

TFL

Sacks

DE

Connor Barwin

48

15.5

11

DT

Terrill Byrd

40

6

4.5

DT

Adam Hoppel

25

5.5

3

DE

Lamonte Nelms

53

14

6.5

Totals

166

41

25

There is no way around it – those are impressive numbers.

The Cincinnati linebackers aren’t as talented overall as the defensive line
or defensive backs, but they are still three good and experienced seniors.

Ryan Manalac (6-0, 235, r-Fr.) mans the middle of the defense. He led the
team with 74 tackles on the year, and also added two tackles for loss. Weakside
backer Torry Cornett (6-2, 235, r-Sr.) is a former starter on the Prarie View
basketball team. He’s a good athlete who posted 67 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss
and a sack.

Strongside linebacker Corey Smith (6-1, 225, Sr.) has been starting since he
was a true freshman. He is the most athletic linebacker on the team. He had 61
tackles, nine tackles for loss and two sacks on the season.

The Bearcat secondary is arguably the most talented position on the team. It
is led by cornerback Mike Mickens (6-0, 190, Sr.). Mickens has started since his
true freshman season. He has intercepted four passes this season and 14 for his
career. He is rated as one of the top 10 cornerbacks in college football, and
has a good chance to end up a first day pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Mickens has plenty of competition from the other starting cornerback,
DeAngelo Smith (6-0, 190, r-Sr.). Smith led the nation in 2007 with eight
interceptions. He is a playmaker who combines with Mickens to form perhaps the
best cornerback duo in the nation. He is also a projected draft pick this April.

The talent in the secondary doesn’t stop at cornerback. Free safety Brandon
Underwood (6-1, 190, r-Sr.) is a transfer from Ohio State. In his first season
on the field for Cincinnati, he was one of the top playmakers on the defense. He
recorded 60 tackles and three interceptions. He also had three fumble recoveries
and forced two more fumbles, and was named a member of the All-Big East First
Team Defense.

Strong safety Aaron Webster (6-3, 205, Jr.) is the only non-senior starter on
the Cincinnati defense. He brings good size to the safety position. Webster
finished the season with 55 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and an interception.
As a team, the Bearcats are 23rd in the nation in interceptions, with 16.

As you can see, this Cincinnati defense is strong across the board. In some
ways, they remind me of the 1995 Virginia Tech defense. All of their defensive
linemen can rush the passer, their linebackers are solid to good, and their
defensive backs can lock in on the best wide receivers out there.

When Virginia Tech is in their 3-wide receiver formations, they’ll have six
freshmen on the field on offense, out of 11 players total. Cincinnati will
counter with 10 seniors and a junior on defense. And they don’t just have
experience – they have talent, too. That doesn’t look like a very good matchup
for the Hokie offense, on paper.

Special Teams

In a game that looks like it could go either way, special teams could be the
difference. Here are some quick Cincinnati special teams stats.


Cincinnati Special Teams

Category

Stat

National Rank

Net Punting

41.51 ypp

1

Kickoff Return

24.18 ypr

14

Kickoff Return Defense

20.41 ypr

48

Punt Return

9.44 ypr

51

Punt Return Defense

7.53 ypr

48

Average

32.4

The Bearcats play well on special teams. Their punting is particularly
impressive. Kevin Huber (6-1, 220, r-Sr.) is an All-American punter, arguably
the best player in the country at his position. He averages 44.9 yards per punt,
and has 18 punts of 50+ yards this season. Behind Huber, Cincinnati finished
first in the nation in net punting this season and last season. Huber is
a major weapon for Cincinnati, and he could potentially put an already
struggling Virginia Tech offense in poor field position.

Jake Rogers (6-3, 205, r-So.) is a good field goal kicker with excellent
range. He finished the year 16-of-22, with a long of 54 yards. Rogers made
3-of-4 kicks from beyond 50 yards this year. Like Huber, he could be a major
weapon in a game that could potentially come down to a field goal.

Finally, the Bearcats also have the top kick returner in the Big East. Wide
receiver Mardy Gilyard was a First Team All-Big East player at both wide
receiver and kick returner. For the season, he averaged 28.8 yards per return,
and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. He is a very dynamic player with the
ball in his hands.

Conclusion

Cincinnati is no fluke. I don’t think they have the overall talent of
Virginia Tech, but I do think they are the most talented team in the Big East,
particularly on the defensive side of the ball. They pressure the quarterback,
intercept passes and don’t make many mistakes. Offensively, they are efficient
at throwing the ball, and they have playmakers in the kicking game.

Basically, this is the most well-rounded football team the Hokies have faced
this year. They are good in all three phases of the game. Tech will have to
bring their A-game to win.

However, will the Hokies be able to bring their A-game? They will be missing
starting left guard Nick Marshman. To plug that gap, right guard Sergio Render
is changing positions, and r-freshman Jaymes Brooks will be making his first
career start at right guard. We all know what generally happens to the Hokies
when they get an injury up front and are forced to start moving players around.

Defensively, the Hokies will be without their top defensive lineman, Jason
Worilds. Worilds had the potential to wreak havoc on a Cincinnati offensive that
does a poor job of protecting the quarterback, but not anymore. His replacement
will be Nekos Brown, a good player with a lot of experience, but not the
playmaker that Worilds is.

At linebacker, Brett Warren had a very good senior season. However, he’ll
miss this game with a torn ACL. Barquell Rivers, a r-freshman, will replace him.
I think Rivers has an excellent future at Tech, but you don’t replace a r-senior
with an inexperienced r-freshmen and not expect any dropoff in performance.

With so many key pieces missing, can the Hokies play their A-game against the
Bearcats? Maybe, but it will be tough.

I like the way Virginia Tech is preparing for this game. I think they are
focused, and I think they’ll be ready to play. However, I’m just not sure it
will be enough. Can those six freshmen (with a true sophomore quarterback, I
might add) offensive players move the ball on such a good Cincinnati defense? I
have my doubts.

I think the Tech defense will play well, despite the missing starters. I
believe this game will come down to how well the Hokie offense will play. In the
end, I just don’t trust it.

Chris’ Prediction: Cincinnati 20, Virginia Tech 17

Will Stewart’s Take: Bowl games are tough to pick. The bulk of a team’s
stats are accumulated in conference play, and when teams from different
conferences face off, you find yourself wondering how relevant the stats are.
(Are ACC defenses strong statistically because they face weak offenses, or are
the offenses weak statistically because of the quality of the defenses? Are
defensive stats from a Big East team comparable at all to defensive stats in the
ACC?)

You also don’t know how the layoff and bowl prep will affect both teams.
Cincinnati has prepped very hard for this game and wants to win it badly. Like
the 1995 Hokies, they want to make a good first impression in their first BCS
Bowl. I also know that the Hokies have prepped hard and are taking the game very
seriously. So on the surface, this issue appears to be a wash.

Having said all that, I can’t pick the Hokies to win this game in good
conscience. VT has done an impressive job holding things together this year and
winning yet another ACC title, but the losses of Marshman, Warren and Worilds
are serious stuff. The one that really jumps out is Jaymes Brooks, who will
start on the line in Marshman’s absence and is about to get a rude introduction
to college football, at the hands of All-American defensive tackle Terrill
Byrd
and running mate Adam Hoppel. The
experience will be good for Brooks, who will get a good, long, 60-minute taste
of big-time college football and will know just how hard he needs to work in the
coming eight months to get ready for the 2009 season.

The experience will not, however, be good for the Hokies in this Orange Bowl.

Cincinnati is an impressive, well-rounded team, and in the one area where the
Hokies could press an advantage — pressuring the QB — Tech has lost a weapon
with the exit of Worilds to shoulder surgery.

There are still areas that could swing this game in Tech’s favor, namely
mistakes. The Bearcats are 84th in the nation in turnover margin, while Tech is
18th; Cincinnati is 106th in penalties per game, while the Hokies are 35th, and
the disparity in penalty yards per game is larger: 108th for Cincy, 8th for VT.

If the Hokies don’t make mistakes, the Bearcats might play into their hands.
But if Cincinnati has a strong game in terms of turnovers and penalties, Tech
will be hard pressed to make up the difference elsewhere.

Will’s Prediction: Cincinnati 23, Virginia Tech 14

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