Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Orange Bowl Preview

The 75th FedEx Orange Bowl
8:30 PM, January 1st, 2009

The University of Cincinnati Bearcats have come a long way. This year’s 11-2 record with a six game win streak to finish marks the second of back to back ten-plus win seasons. Last year was their first ten win season since 1951. Those three years are the only times since they've started playing football in 1885.

The Bearcats throughout their football history have been in and out of conferences. They've spent a significant amount of time as an independent and in local conferences until joining the MAC in 1947 and immediately making their mark winning the championship in five out of their six years with the conference (coming in at second in the other year.)

Through most of the 1980s and 1990s, the Bearcats were mostly the doormat of whomever they were playing. This included Virginia Tech who, from 1987-1991, racked up 118-43 points on the Bearcats through three wins. Then came the 1995 Cincinnati shutout victory in Lane Stadium. I remember this game vividly. The Hokies had just come off one of those, what would become signature, Thursday night losses to Boston College at Lane to open the season. Tech fell off the rankings from their preseason rank of #20. The Cincy loss gave the Hokies an 0-2 record and it looked as though Tech's rise to bowl worthiness was over. Nine wins and a stunning Sugar Bowl victory over Texas later it certainly didn't look that way anymore.

Cincinnati was one of the charter members of Conference USA that year and would go on to slowly build toward an eventual place in and this year's title of the Big East. Bearcats, along with South Florida and Louisville, joined the Big East in 2005 after the Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College moved to the ACC.

The last time the Bearcats and Hokies met was in 2006 when the Hokies won 29-13 in Lane Stadium.

Brian Kelly came on as head coach of the Bearcats for the 2006 season and has led the team to two straight ten plus win seasons. He did inherit an already established team that went to six bowl games in the eight years prior.

Why did I take the time to note the history of the Bearcats program? Because, it looks a bit familiar. Virginia Tech spent most of its existence in the bowels of the netherworld. In 1993, Coach Frank Beamer finally found a way to make things click and an Independence Bowl victory later, Virginia Tech was no longer the team that people referred to “Oh is that the same as VPI?” Two years after that, Tech was in and won their first major bowl game – the Sugar Bowl. [Note: The BCS didn’t exist yet in 1995.] Cincinnati is on the cusp of becoming an elite team and a bowl victory in a BCS bowl against the Hokies would be a large boost towards achieving that status.

The Bearcats only losses were to Oklahoma and Connecticut. Both losses involved major injuries at quarterback. This season the Bearcats have gone through quarterbacks faster than Peter Griffin at a Chinese buffet. They lost three quarterbacks to injury this year. They started the season with their only experience quarterback Dustin Grutza. He broke his leg in the Oklahoma game (a loss). Tony Pike came in and he broke his non-throwing arm two games later. Redshirt freshman Zach Collaros came in to finish the game. Coach Kelly then went with another redshirt freshman Chazz Anderson for two games. They won both games but Anderson tore his MCL toward the end of that last game. Pike returned despite extensive pain for the Connecticut game (the other loss) and had to be replaced midway by Anderson who also was hurt. Pike returned to lead the team past South Florida and they never looked back. Pike has thrown for 2,168 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

His two main targets are Marshwan (Mardy) Gilyard and Dominick Goodman. Gilyard had a 1,118 yard season with ten of those touchdowns. The match up between Gilyard and Victor “Macho” Harris will undoubtedly be the most exciting if not the most influential to the outcome of the game. But on the other side, Goodman will give Stephan Virgil a run for his money as well. Goodman is just 23 yards shy of a 1,000 yard season himself.

On the ground the Bearcats use a two headed running back approach. Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel combined this year for 1,211 yards.

These guys are going to be a challenge to contain. The loss of Brett Warren and Jason Worilds on defense will hurt. Warren is out with a torn ACL and Worilds has been listed as inactive due to the separated shoulder he’s been playing with all season.

On the other side of the ball senior defensive end Connor Barwin leads the Big East in sacks with 13. He did all this as a first year defender. He made the switch from tight end this season. Cincinnati led the Big East as a team with 36 sacks.

Look, this defense has a ton of speed. Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith will easily match up against Tech’s receivers. That means these guys will gladly play man coverage and take the collar off of their safeties. With Nick Marshman out – perhaps the biggest loss of the lost starters – the Cincinnati defense will be licking their chops. Tyrod Taylor will be under pressure all game from these guys and he’s going to have to make some quick throws. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Bearcats will be ready with a spy on Taylor which will make his ground attack obsolete. Speaking of ground attack, it is imperative that Darren Evans and what’s left of the line to get establish. Lest they do, this will be a long game for the Hokies.

The Hokies have their work cut out for them. Brian Kelly and his staff have this team well coached. To go through a season with five different quarterbacks and still manage to win eleven games is quite impressive. Make no mistake, these guys are for real and it will take a performance like that against Nebraska or Maryland to come away with a Hokie victory. Anything short of that, will give the Bearcats their first BCS win.

Here are some meaningless stats:
Total UC 25th VT 7th
Passing UC 28th VT 33rd
Rushing UC 13th VT 18th
Scoring UC 29th VT 13th

Total UC 50th VT 107th
Passing UC 25th VT 112th
Rushing UC 95th VT 41st
Scoring UC 49th VT 89th

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