InsideTheACC: Previewing The Military Bowl

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Virginia Tech (6-6) faces off with Cincinnati (9-3) in the Hokies’ 22nd consecutive bowl game. We break down each side here and predict who comes out on top December 27th.

Virginia Tech Offense

  • Scoring Offense: 23.3 PPG (98th nationally)
  • Passing Offense: 225.2 YPG (70th nationally)
  • Rushing Offense: 142.75 YPG (96th nationally)
  • Total Offense: 370 YPG (96th nationally)

The Virginia Tech offense struggled mightily this season, perhaps proving that Logan Thomas wasn’t all to blame for the team’s issues on offense the past three seasons. The team was booed for much of a Thursday night home game against Miami this season when they failed to manufacture anything to combat the Hurricanes’ onslaught, and looked equally bad on offense for much of the second half of the season. However, they did show signs of life in their regular season finale, a win over rival Virginia that made them bowl eligible.

Michael Brewer proved to be a gamer capable of taking a beating, but wasn’t always a stellar performer. The junior quarterback threw for 2,598 yards with 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, although most of those came in a mid-season slump when he threw multiple picks per game. Luckily for Brewer a pair of freshmen, receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges exceeded expectations. Ford moved his way up the depth chart in the summer, earning a starting spot where he would lead the team with 53 receptions and 665 yards. Hodges probably put himself on the short list for the Mackey Award next season by hauling in 42 receptions for 517 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. Fellow freshman Cam Phillips and hard-nosed fan favorite Willie Byrn were also valuable, combining for 84 receptions in 2014.

The Hokies’ rushing attack was hampered by poor offensive line play and injuries to their top three running backs. Marshawn Williams, Shai McKenzie and Trey Edmunds all went down, leaving undersized junior J.C. Coleman as the team’s top rusher heading into the Military Bowl. Coleman only gained 376 yards on the ground and two scores this season, but did improve in the final three weeks of the season, eclipsing the 100-yard mark against the Cavaliers in the final game of the season.

Virginia Tech Defense and Special Teams

  • Scoring Defense: 20.4 PPG (17th nationally)
  • Passing Defense: 186.8 YPG (14th nationally)
  • Rushing Defense: 144.8 YPG (41st nationally)
  • Total Defense: 331.7 YPG (17th nationally)

Much of the Hokies’ troubles began when they lost a pair of seniors, lineman Luther Maddy and linebacker Chase Williams to injury this season. The defense was still solid, but significant holes in the middle of the defense forced some young Hokies into action. Linemen Ken Ekanem and Dadi Nicolas provided a boost in the absence of Maddy, recording 9.5 and 8.5 sacks respectively while combining for 109 tackles. Senior Kyshoen Jarrett picked up the Williams’ slack, leading the team in tackles with 86 and interceptions with three.

Sophomore Kendall Fuller is emerging as the best of the Fuller family to come through Blacksburg and has been collecting the postseason awards to prove it. Fuller finished with 50 tackles, and only one interception this season, down from six a season ago when he  won ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, this is not a lack of production, as much as it is respect from opposing quarterbacks (Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis syndrome). Fellow defensive backs Chuck Clark and Detrick Bonner were also valuable to the Tech defense, combining for 135 tackles.

Joey Slye won the kicking job in camp, but did nothing to solve the accuracy issue that have plagued the Hokies the last two seasons. Slye missed 8 of his 24 field goal attempts, but did convert 30 of 31 extra points. A.J. Hughes was called upon to punt 78 times due to the team’s offensive struggles and finished with an average of 39.9 yards per punt. Demitri Knowles and Deon Newsome split time returning kickoffs with similar results. Knowles had 270 return yards and an 18-yard average, while  Newsome had 219 return yards and a 19.9 average. Greg Stroman handled punt returns for the Hokies, returning 33 punts for a 6.6 average.

Cincinnati Offense

  • Scoring Offense: 35.4 PPG (26th nationally)
  • Passing Offense: 300.2 YPG (13th nationally)
  • Rushing Offense: 157.6 YPG (71st nationally)
  • Total Offense: 457.8 YPG (29th nationally)

The script for the Military Bowl is flipped when looking at the Cincinnati side. The Bearcat offense is one of the most dangerous in the country, putting up over 450 yards and averaging five touchdowns per game this season. Sophomore quarterback Gunner Kiel had a breakout season for the Bearcats, throwing for over 3,010 yards and 30 touchdowns. Kiel’s 3:1 touchdown to interception ratio, 150.8 quarterback rating and 250 yards per game made him one of the most valuable quarterbacks in the AAC. A trio of junior receivers were on the receiving end of most of Kiel’s 219 completions this year. Shaq Washington lead the team in receptions with 61 for 661 yards and four touchdowns. Just ahead of Washington was Mekale McKay, who lead Cincinnati with 690 yards and eight scores on 42 receptions. Chris Moore is the most valuable receiver after the catch, boasting a 21.9 per catch average on 26 receptions.

Freshmen Mike Boone and Rod Moore split carries in the backfield for Cincinnati and combined for just under 1,200 yards. Moore handled more of the load, carrying 134 times compared to Boone’s 91, but Boone was the more productive of the two backs rushing for 601 yards and nine touchdowns. Kiel was also asked to rush 57 times for 136 yards and a touchdown. While Kiel is not a true mobile quarterback, Cincinnati’s willingness to have him run is something to watch against a Hokie defense that has struggled to contain quarterbacks when they rush.

Cincinnati Defense and Special teams

  • Scoring Defense: 26.8 PPG (66th nationally)
  • Passing Defense: 266.3 YPG (111th nationally)
  • Rushing Defense: 181.5 YPG (82nd nationally)
  • Total Defense: 447.8 YPG (102nd nationally)

Cincinnati often needed all of their offense’s 35 points per game because the defensive unit struggled all season containing the opposition. They were in the bottom third of college football in both pass and run defense, and finished 102nd in total defense. There were some bright spots for the Bearcats’ D however, as they did have three players finish above the 100 tackle mark in 2014. Senior linebacker Jeff Luc lead the team in the category with 120, while sophomore defensive back Zach Edwards and senior linebacker Nick Temple followed with 110 and 108 respectively. Luc and Temple also combined for 9.5 sacks and senior lineman Terrell Hartsfield took down the quarterback eight times to lead the team.

Aside from Edwards, who emerged as a stellar defensive back in his second season, the rest of the secondary and pass defense as a whole was often torn apart by opponents. The Bearcat pass defense allowed 266 yards per game through the air and no player had more than two interceptions on the entire roster. The Cincinnati defense also placed 106th in third down conversions allowed, which often kept the subpar unit on the field for long stretches at a time.

Receiver Johnny Holton handled kickoff return duties for Cincinnati, returning 31 kicks for 640 yards, a 20.6 average. Shaq Washington was only called on to return 12 punts this season, and gained 79 total punt return yards. Kicker Andrew Gantz missed three field goal attempts and two extra points in his freshman season for Cincinnati, while fellow freshman Sam Geraci averaged 39 yards on 46 punts.

Outlook and Prediction

This game will be a true test of a strong offense against a solid defense, as neither side plays the other side of the ball especially well. Virginia Tech will enjoy a home town atmosphere in Annapolis which should prove to be a boost. The Hokies’ solid defense and ability to stop the opposition on third down conversions could be a game changer in this one, and the much maligned Frank Beamer will get another win in a bowl to add to his legacy in Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech 27 Cincinnati 24

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