Dec. 30, 2008
Sixty-two years to the day that they played their first ever bowl game, the University of Cincinnati will play in their first ever BCS bowl game (translation: one that everyone knows about) at Dolphin Stadium in South Florida.
Oddly enough, that game was also against Virginia Tech, with the Bearcats winning 18-6 in the Sun Bowl in El Paso. Thing is, there wasn't much sun on that day as three inches of snow somehow fell in the town Marty Robbins made famous ("down in the West Texas town of El Paso....").
Fast forward to 2009 and the Bearcats will do battle again on New Year's Day, albeit without the snow. If it snows in Miami, all of us that paid inflated holiday airfares ought to be reimbursed in one of George W. Bush's final acts as President.
Should the Bearcat defense rise up as it did 62 years ago, I can guarantee a victory over the Hokies. UC on that day held the "Gobblers" to 34 yards rushing and just four pass completions, picking off the unfortunate Hokie QB twice. Offensively though, you won't see the same thing. I can also guarantee the Bearcats won't run for the 369 yards that they did in the snow that day. And most assuredly, UC will complete more than five passes.
If the game goes Brian Kelly's way, five completions should come on the first drive.
While this is UC's first BCS bowl game, Virginia Tech has several on their resume. However, they've lost the last four BCS games including last year's Orange Bowl to Kansas. That might explain why the fans of ol' "Virginia Polytechnic" haven't rushed to Miami in record numbers from lovely metropolitan Blacksburg, Va.
So much for teams that "travel" well.
Still, the Hokies and Coach Frank Beamer are "bowl savvy" and they've been routine visitors to the post-season. Their last bowl win came against Louisville in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. But again, they have an Orange Bowl loss last year, another one in 1996 to Nebraska, plus they just lost to the Miami Hurricanes back in November--so they're far from dominant in South Florida.
Having witnessed a pair of UC/Virginia Tech games on the radio crew, I can tell you that the Bearcats should be more than competitive with this team. Trust me, Brian Kelly's not bringing a team south to "compete", the objective is to "win".
None of us should be content just to "be there". This is not a time for "Cinderella". This is a time to put the slippers on and dance in the end zone and in the streets afterward.
If you go back to September of '06, a young and not as deep UC squad went into Blacksburg and led then-No. 10 Virginia Tech 10-5 at halftime and 13-12 after three quarters. With just under nine minutes left, UC was only down 15-13. Virginia Tech added a score from there and then had a "Pick 6" when the Bearcats were in desperation mode to pull away and win by 16.
Dustin Grutza, Connor Barwin, Mike Mickens, Trevor Canfield, Kevin Huber and a number of Bearcats made that 7-plus hour bus ride back and forth to Blacksburg and will tell you UC was not overwhelmed whatsoever.
Then, your last win against the Hokies came in 1995 in the Rick Minter era in the mud and slop when UC's defense led by future NFL linebacker Brad Jackson shut down Virginia Tech in front of a stunned crowd, 16-0.
Driving back to the airport, we all listened to a Hokies talk show where fans were threatening to call Dr. Kavorkian after that loss. Strangely enough, Frank Beamer resurrected the team from there and had them in the Sugar Bowl.
Again that team, not as complex as this team, but truly dominant that day against the then-Big East Hokies.
Come New Year's night, there's no doubt that many members of that 6-5 1995 squad will be on hand to watch UC hopefully rise to the occasion again.
YOUR ORANGE BOWL MATCH-UP
WHERE: Not the Orange Bowl anymore (that's been torn down) it's Dolphin Stadium which actually isn't in Miami, but who's keeping score?
WHEN: January 1, 2009, kickoff approximately at 8:45 p.m.
IF YOU'RE NOT THERE: 700WLW, ESPN Radio, Fox TV (Doobie Brothers at halftime!)
THE RECORDS: UC 11-2, Virginia Tech 9-4
THE PAST: All knotted up 4 apiece.
LAST TIME: No. 10 Virginia Tech 29, UC 13 on 9/23/06 in Blacksburg.
THIS TIME...STAY TUNED!!
UC OFFENSE VS. VIRGINIA TECH DEFENSE
The Hokies play decent defense as they were second in the ACC in points and yards allowed. Only two teams hit the "30 mark" on them--Nebraska in a 35-30 win and Florida State in a 30-20 loss. Since November, no team has scored more than 16 against them. Their two corners, Stephan Virgil and Victor Harris have picked off passes much like UC's Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith did in BK's first year (they've teamed for 11). Obviously, Tony Pike will have to be careful as he's rolling out trying to make plays. For that matter, any of the UC QB's will have to be cautious. Based on the way the season's gone, I would be surprised if Pike went solo the whole game behind center.
Virginia Tech does not allow many rushing yards, but realistically UC doesn't usually run for many. As always, if any of the Bearcat runners can approach the century mark on the ground, the game should be decidedly in favor of UC. John Goebel and Jacob Ramsey have both made key runs to help "ice" games and I'm still enamored with what Isiah Pead brings to the table. However, UC's bread and butter has not been the grinding run game and clearly is the fast-paced passing game. If Dominick Goodman is full go after the shoulder injury in Hawaii, UC's in good shape. If not, Mardy Gilyard's going to have to work more magic and you're going to need a performance from Marcus Barnett more reminiscent of his freshman year. This is a game where I think TE's Kazeem Alli and Ben Guidugli can really make an impact.
NOD: Hokies have won lately with tough "D", BK's offense won't be near as predictable as the last two Frank Beamer saw though. Slight edge--Cincinnati.
UC DEFENSE VS. VIRGINIA TECH OFFENSE
This is a more run-oriented Virginia Tech team that only averages 128 thru the air with a scrambling QB in Tyrod Taylor who took over for the Hokies "throwing QB" Sean Glennon this season. Brian Kelly told me Taylor reminded him more of USF's Matt Grothe rather than Pat White of West Virginia (which is good because White is in a class by himself I think). Like Grothe, Taylor can rack up yards on the ground and keep his team in the game. Unlike Grothe, he's not going to beat you throwing the ball as he's only thrown a pair of TD passes and has been picked off six times. Clearly, if Connor Barwin, Terrill Byrd, Lamonte Nelms, Adam Hoppel et al can somehow stuff the Hokies run, UC's in good shape. There's more to deal with than Taylor though. Freshman Darren Evans ran for 1,112 yards and he's one of the reason Virginia Tech averages 45 lugs per game. It would help UC if CB Mike Mickens is healthy to prevent any deep balls in the secondary, but the key here is going to rest in the trenches and at linebacker. Call it a hunch, but I feel Corey Smith's going to have a big game here. There's absolutely no football knowledge to back that up, it's just one of those feelings. As BK said (and I agree) this is more of a Pitt approach to playing the game as the Hokies are going to want to "hit UC in the mouth" first to see if they're up to playing with the so-called "big boys".
NOD: Virginia Tech's going to get their running yards. It's crucial that UC doesn't let Taylor turn broken plays into big plays. UC's defensive line has improved as the season has progressed, I would expect them to be up to the challenge.
Jake Rogers ended the season on an upswing, which is good, as he tends to be streaky. But, this is really a new flow chart here--so hopefully he responds. Talking to Kevin Huber, the kickers are all happy to be in warmer weather where the ball doesn't necessarily feel like a concrete block when it's booted. Huber obviously will be important if this turns to a field position game like Rutgers earlier in the season. It wouldn't shock me to see another fake from Huber (preferably more successful than the one tried in Oklahoma). I say this because Frank Beamer's "bread and butter" is special teams play. The Hokies are notorious for blocking punts and gaining short fields from it. You can ask the Bearcats that played in '06 in Blacksburg as they saw that first hand. UC can counter this by breaking a big return when Virginia Tech sends "the house". D.J. Woods nearly did that in Hawaii and I'm convinced we'll see him in TD land after a punt at some point in his career.
NOD: Because they've been under the Orange Bowl "microscope" before, I'll have to go with the wily veteran Beamer's special teams units. If both Huber and Rogers are nailing "missiles" of 50 yards or better, the Bearcats should be OK though.
THROW IT AGAINST THE WALL AND SEE WHAT STICKS
The "hype" machine seems to be angled toward the Bearcats. Even though UC's record is better, you still get the impression that the "haves" still think UC is a "have not" that maybe doesn't deserve the BCS Orange Bowl bid. Don't think that Brian Kelly won't be using that to his advantage. The UC coaches will milk the "underdog" role for all it's worth (even though UC is actually favored at last check). If you buy into UC as the "underdog", you should be happy to know that Cincinnati's own Thom Brennaman is doing the game for Fox TV. Weird things happen when Thom does games on the tube. Just ask Boise State who beat Oklahoma in one of the best games I've ever watched a couple years ago. Just ask Appalachian State who knocked off Michigan in "The Big House" in '07. Where Thom goes, drama happens.
See you on South Beach. I'm having my Don Johnson "Miami Vice" suit pressed as you read this.