2011 Orange Bowl Preview: #13 Virginia Tech vs. #4 Stanford

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  • Date: Monday, Jan. 3, 2010
  • Time: 8:30pm
  • TV: ESPN

For weather information and a roster card link, see the Info Center to the
right.

#13 Virginia Tech will take on #4 Stanford in the Orange Bowl on Monday
night, January 3 at 8:30pm on ESPN. This has already been a very special season
for both teams, and both Stanford and the Hokies would like nothing more than to
close things out with a win.

As well as things have gone for Tech, there are still a few more things left
to accomplish.

  • 12 wins for the first time in school history
  • Another finish in the Top 10
  • First win against the Pac-10 in school history
  • 12 consecutive wins for the first time since the 1998 Music City Bowl
    through the end of the regular season in 1999
  • A three-bowl winning streak, longest in school history

Not to mention sending out Tech’s outstanding senior class with a victory, of
course. Players like Tyrod Taylor, Rashad Carmichael, John Graves, Andre Smith,
Davon Morgan, etc. have meant so much to the team this year, from a leadership
standpoint as much as a talent perspective. The Hokies never would have
rebounded from an 0-2 start without them.

To reach all of the goals listed above, Tech will have to defeat one of the
best teams they’ve ever faced in a bowl game. You’ve got the 1999 Florida State
team that the Hokies faced in the National Championship Game, then comes the
2004 undefeated Auburn team that barely beat Tech in the Sugar Bowl, and the
1996 Nebraska team that almost played for the national championship. Right
behind them has to be Stanford.

The Cardinal are a big, physical and experienced football team that is led by
probable future #1 draft pick Andrew Luck. They are smart, they are tough, they
are experienced, they are well-coached and they have arguably the best football
player in the country at the most important position. Virginia Tech will have to
play very well to win.

Of course, the Hokies are no slouches themselves. Stanford will have to bring
their A-game, or a confident Tech team that is on a roll will win. This has the
makings of a great BCS Bowl.

The Stanford Offense

Before we take a closer look at Andrew Luck, here are the five guys who
really make the Stanford offense go.

The
Stanford Offensive Line
Pos. Player Ht. Wt. Yr.
LT Jonathan Martin 6-6 304 r-So.
LG Andrew Phillips 6-5 302 r-Sr.
C Chase Beeler 6-3 285 r-Sr.
RG David DeCastro 6-5 310 r-So.
RT Derek Hall 6-5 303 r-Sr.

The Cardinal are all about establishing a physical running game up front so
they can work their play-action passing game down the field, and that’s not
possible without an offensive line that can control the line of scrimmage.
Stanford’s offensive line is big, physical and experienced. They have all been
redshirted, and have all been in the program for at least three seasons.

Center Chase Beeler is regarded as one of the top centers in the country,
while r-sophomores Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro are very talented players
who were honorable mention All-Pac 10 as r-freshmen last season. Overall, this
is a very experienced group that has played together in a lot of games. Along
with Miami and Boise State, this is one of the best offensive lines the Hokies
will have faced this season.

Without that offensive line, the Stanford offense wouldn’t be nearly as
effective. Behind that line, star quarterback Andrew Luck (6-4, 235, r-So.) has
been able to flourish and finish second in the Heisman Trophy voting (I would
have voted him #1, but that’s another story). Luck is projected as the #1 pick
in April’s NFL Draft if he elects to come out early, and he is a very complete
player despite his relative inexperience.

Luck is a very sharp guy with a good head on his shoulders, he has a good
understanding of the passing game, he has great size for a pocket quarterback, a
strong and accurate arm, and the ability to run. He is the total package, and as
far as I’m concerned, there is no other option for the Carolina Panthers to take
with the #1 pick in the draft if Luck exits Stanford.

Luck has thrown for 3,051 yards, 28 touchdowns and just seven interceptions
while completing an astounding 70.2% of his passes. He keeps the chains moving,
and Stanford ranks second nationally in third down efficiency (53.4%) thanks to
luck. This should be an excellent matchup with Virginia Tech’s third down
defense, which gives up first downs at just a 35% clip.

Luck has a good group of receivers to throw to.


>Luck’s Top Targets

Pos.

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.

Rec.

Yards

YPC

TD
WR Doug Baldwin 5-11 189 Sr. 56 824 14.7 9
WR Ryan Whalen 6-2 205 Sr. 39 415 10.6 2
RB Stepfan Taylor 5-11 208 So. 26 259 10 1
WR Chris Owusu 6-2 200 Jr. 24 394 16.4 3
TE Coby Fleener 6-6 244 Sr. 22 261 11.9 4
TE Konrad Reuland 6-6 257 Sr. 19 195 10.3 1
WR Griff Whalen 6-1 185 Jr. 17 249 14.6 1
TE Zach Ertz 6-6 249 So. 14 151 10.8 4
FB Owen Marecic 6-1 244 Sr. 9 75 8.3 0

The most dangerous receiver overall is Chris Owusu, who only played in six
games this year because of injury. Owusu has the best combination of size and
speed of all of Stanford’s receivers, and he’s the top big-play threat on the
roster. He is expected to be 100% for the Orange Bowl.

Obviously Stanford likes to use their tight ends a lot in the passing game.
Coby Fleener, Konrad Reuland and Zach Ertz all have NFL size, and they have
combined to catch 55 passes for 607 yards and nine touchdowns this season. It’s
common to see Stanford go with two tight end sets, but they also have the luxury
of spreading the field with Owusu back in the lineup.

With so many good tight ends, Stanford has the option to run play-action pass
out of running formations. The running game is very good, which makes
play-action out of running formations even more dangerous. Stepfan Taylor is the
starting tailback. As you can see from the table above, he is a good receiver
coming out of the backfield. He also ran for 1,023 yards on 210 carries this
year, scoring 15 touchdowns in the process.

Stanford will likely use two other backs against the Hokies, and they are
both big, physical runners. Anthony Wilkerson (6-1, 220, Fr.) is a true freshman
who ran for 409 yards and three touchdowns on 87 carries, while Tyler Gaffney
(6-0, 216, So.) had 58 carries for 245 yards and four touchdowns.

This is a good trio of running backs, but a step behind Virginia Tech’s trio
of Darren Evans, Ryan Williams and David Wilson. However, they are physical
runners behind a physical offensive line, and that is a good combination. As a
team, the Cardinal averages 211 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 17th
nationally. They are as balanced offensively as you’ll see in college football.

The key for the Hokies will be limiting Stanford on third downs, which has
been very difficult for opponents this season. That means Tech must play well on
first and second down. Stanford simply has too many weapons to make stopping a
third and 2 a feasible situation for the Tech defense. They need to keep the
Cardinal in third and long situations.

The Stanford Defense

Stanford runs a base 3-4 defense that can morph into a 4-3 front at any time.
The Cardinal are very big in the front seven, and they usually don’t have a lot
of pressure put on them because the Stanford offense is so good. The Cardinal
lead the NCAA in time of possession, so the defense is only on the field for
just under 25 minutes per game.

Stanford’s starting defensive line is very big and physical. Defensive ends
Matt Masifilo (6-3, 280, r-Jr.) and Brian Bulcke (6-4, 275, r-Sr.) would
probably play defensive tackle at Virginia Tech. Masifilo is the best pass
rusher, with four sacks on the season. Bulcke is more of a gap stuffer who
doesn’t make a lot of plays against the quarterback.

Nose tackle Sione Fua (6-2, 306) is Stanford’s best defensive lineman
overall. He produced six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on the season. Rather
than the defensive line, it’s the linebackers who are the best defensive
playmakers for the Cardinal.

Outside linebacker Chase Thomas (6-4, 239, r-So.) led the team this season
with 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. He is the top playmaker on the
Cardinal defense, though the other outside linebacker, Thomas Keiser (6-5, 244,
r-Jr.), could give him a run for his money. Keiser had eight tackles for loss
and 3.5 sacks on the season. Thomas and Keiser can function as either
traditional outside linebackers or standup defensive ends.

The inside linebackers are Owen Marecic (6-1, 244, Sr.) and Shayne Skov (6-3,
243, So.). Skov is probably the most physical defender, and he led the team with
72 tackles on the season. He also had 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
Marecic also starts at fullback for the Cardinal, and he’s a quality inside
linebacker as well.

Stanford is even big back into the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Richard
Sherman (6-3, 192, r-Sr.) and Johnson Bademosi (6-1, 197, Sr.) have exceptional
size for their position. Sherman had four interceptions on the season, and broke
up nine other passes. In the past, it has been bigger, physical cornerbacks
(such as Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara) that have given Tech’s wide receivers the
most trouble.

Surprisingly, the Stanford safeties aren’t particularly big. Michael Thomas
(5-11, 182, Jr.) and Delano Howell (5-11, 198, Jr.) are third and fourth on the
team in tackles, respectively. Howell, the strong safety, is tied for the team
lead with four interceptions. As a team, the Cardinal have intercepted 17 passes
on the season.

It’s natural to view Stanford as an offensive team, but their defense has put
up excellent numbers this season as well.


The Stanford Defense

Category

Stat

Rank
Rushing 126.3 ypg 24
Passing 200.3 ypg 32
Total 326.6 ypg 22
Scoring 17.8 ppg 9
Pass Eff. 113.2 19
Third Downs 36.96% 35
Sacks 28 total 41

It’s tough to find running room against Stanford, and opponents are averaging
fewer than 18 points per game. At times this defense might bend, but they rarely
break. They don’t give up big plays, and it’s difficult to drive the length of
the field against them.

There is hope for the Hokies, however. Tech has a good offense of their own,
and Oregon’s read option was able to light up the Stanford defense to the tune
of 626 yards. Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas ran for 117 yards in that game,
while tailback LaMichael James had 257 yards on the ground. The Hokies have had
success with their own read option plays this year, so you can bet Bryan
Stinespring and the offensive coaching staff spent a lot of time reviewing that
Oregon film.

Special Teams

You aren’t ranked #4 in the country unless you are a complete football team,
and that includes special teams. Stanford has been very good in the kicking game
this year. Starting placekicker Nate Whitaker (5-9, 185, r-Sr.) is 17-of-19 on
his field goal attempts, with a long of 46 yards. He has excellent accuracy with
solid leg strength.

Thanks to their excellent offense, Stanford has only punted a grand total of
29 times this year. Daniel Zychlinski (6-3, 207, r-So.) is averaging 41.8 yards
per punt, and one-third of his attempts have been downed inside the 20. As a
team, the Cardinal have given up one punt return for a touchdown this year, so
there is potential room for Jayron Hosley.

Wide receiver Chris Owusu is Stanford’s top threat in the return game. He
averaged 24.7 yards per return on the season, with a long of 88 yards. Usua
Amanam (5-10, 184, So.) also has ability as a kickoff returner, while Drew
Terrell (5-11, 180, So.) and Doug Baldwin are capable of making big plays on
punt returns.

In a game that looks pretty even offensively and defensively, special teams
is where the Orange Bowl can be won or lost. Hidden yardage could be critical in
a game like this, and a shanked punt, a blocked punt, a kickoff out of bounds or
a good return can be the difference in what I think will be a one-possession
game.

Final Thoughts

Like many members of the national media, I think this is one of the best
matchups of the bowl season. I believe both teams have the capability to match
each other blow for blow, and this game will not be decided until the fourth
quarter.

On one side, r-sophomore Andrew Luck will possibly be playing in his final
college game, and he has dominated defenses throughout his college career. On
the other side, the Hokies will be led by possibly the most underrated
quarterback in college football, Tyrod Taylor. Both have put up big numbers this
year, and should match up well against each other in the Orange Bowl.

Most people believe that Stanford is going to win this football game, and
that feeling goes all the way back to the James Madison loss. That fluke of the
decade knocked the Hokies from the national rankings. The Cardinal began the
season outside the top 25, so if Tech had not lost to JMU, they would be 12-1
right now and probably ranked #4 in the country, the highest ranked one-loss
team. In that scenario, Stanford would be #5. That would be one heckuva BCS Bowl
matchup, and most folks would consider the game a 50-50 toss-up.

Instead, that loss to JMU, which wouldn’t happen again if the teams played 50
times, derailed Tech’s season from a rankings perspective. If the Hokies hadn’t
lost to JMU, the national level of interest in this game would be second only to
the BCS National Championship Game.

A win in this game would mean a lot. It would mean a victory over an opponent
ranked in the top five, and a victory over a quarterback that is likely to be
the #1 pick in the draft whenever he chooses to come back. It would be the first
time in the history of the program that the Hokies reached the 12-win mark, and
it would be the first win over a Pac-10 team in school history. Beating Stanford
would be the first three-bowl winning streak in Tech history, and would
virtually guarantee a finish in the top 10.

The Cardinal will be a tough out, however. I’m a big fan of Andrew Luck, and
an even bigger fan of head coach Jim Harbaugh. He has instilled a winning
attitude in a program that was used to losing, and losing big. He is intense on
the sideline, but he’s also a good tactician. I think this will be his last game
at Stanford, and he’ll be missed quite a bit in Palo Alto.

This is a tough, physical football team. Because of Andrew Luck, they are
known as a big time passing team, and because they’re a Pac-10 team, I’d wager
that most people in the country would call them a finesse team. That couldn’t be
further from the truth. In reality, they are a big, physical football team that
likes to establish the running game and work play-action passes with their
terrific quarterback.

In short, I think they are Boise State with a quarterback who is more suited
to the NFL. Boise State is known for big plays down the field, but in reality
they rely on a physical offensive line establishing a power running game so that
Kellen Moore can go play-action. I see this as a very similar matchup to that
Boise State game, which the Hokies lost 33-30 in the final seconds.

Tech had a lot of young, inexperienced defenders who were seeing their first
major action against the Broncos. Guys like J.R. Collins, Bruce Taylor, Antoine
Hopkins and Jayron Hosley have grown up a lot since then. However, like Boise
State, they’ll be facing another very experienced team in the Orange Bowl.
Stanford starts 12 seniors and four juniors, and their best player is a
r-sophomore. As Stanford students they are very smart as well. Smart and
experienced is a tough combination to beat, especially when the team is led by
the future #1 pick in the NFL Draft.

I love the way the Hokies have been playing recently, and I think they’ll
play very well in the Orange Bowl. However, I think Stanford is going to have a
little too much experience, and Tech’s big plays in the passing game will be
limited because the Cardinal won’t make many mistakes. I think Stanford wins a
close one late in the fourth quarter.

Chris’ Prediction: Stanford 30, Virginia Tech 27

Will Stewart’s Take: I haven’t seen Stanford play this year, so I’m going
to make my prediction based on the national man-crush on Andrew Luck, Stanford’s
record, their statistics, and my knowledge of Virginia Tech’s football team.

Bluntly put, as good as the Hokies are, I don’t see them winning this one.

It’s my belief that Stanford is very, very good … this year. And it’s my
belief that, although they’re a complete team this year, they are very
good for two reasons: their head coach and their quarterback. Lastly, it’s my
belief that both of them will be gone soon, as soon as next season, and that
when they’re gone, Stanford will sink back down to their usual level of
competitiveness, which was 47-69 and two bowl bids from 2000 through 2009.

But this year, they’re a very good football team, and a bit too much
for the Hokies to handle.

I think this will be a great game, and I think that Virginia Tech has enough
horses, particularly Tyrod Taylor, to take it down to the wire. But if Andrew
Luck is as good as he says he is, he’s going to frustrate us a lot by converting
third downs, and that’s going to be the difference. Tyrod is going to convert
some as well — here’s to hoping he plays as well as he did in the ACC
Championship Game — but I think the Hokies are running into a team in Stanford
that is peaking. That peak will be brief, but it’s a great peak.

Virginia Tech is playing well overall, but some parts of the team have their
best days still ahead of them. Tyrod is playing the best he’ll ever play, of
course, and the offense as a whole is having their best year in a long time. But
the defense is still young and has its best years ahead of it, and as good as
the Hokie defensive backs are, the defense as a whole isn’t ready to slow down a
future NFL #1 draft pick playing with so much talent and experience around him.

To win, the Hokies are going to have to play mistake-free football, of which
they are capable. Tech is +18 in the turnover stat this season. But Stanford is
+14, not too shabby themselves, so I don’t look for much help from the Cardinal,
particularly Andrew Luck.

I know you don’t want to hear that, but it’s my gut feeling. If the Hokies do
win this one, I know exactly how it will happen: Tyrod will make the plays
needed, the Hokie defensive backs will play a big part in slowing down
Stanford’s passing game enough to force some punts or turnovers, and Tech will
get a break here or there (paging David Wilson, paging David Wilson) to
pull out the win.

If the last two bowl games are any indication, we’ll see Virginia Tech’s best
effort, thanks to much-improved bowl preparation after the 2007 Orange Bowl
debacle against Kansas. So it’s comforting to know that the Hokies aren’t going
to lay an egg on the Orange Bowl turf. Stanford will have to work for it.

But if these two teams played ten times, I think Stanford would win six of
them, maybe even seven. That’s frustrating, because Stanford hasn’t been this
good in years, and they won’t be this good again for many years. The Hokies are
catching them at the wrong time. It happens.

Will’s Prediction: Stanford 31, Virginia Tech 24

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