After week two's loss James Madison, no college football fan could make a strong case for Virginia Tech's appearance in a BCS bowl. In fact, even some Hokie faithful began to have chills of a bowl ineligible season, but here we are about to watch our Hokies compete against Stanford for the Orange Bowl title. I can't claim to have had full confidence in the Hokies running the table in their ACC schedule, but as frustrated as the loss to JMU made me, I didn't see the Hokies dropping too many more contests. Part of me even had a sense of relief that our worst losses lay behind us. And as we've seen thus far, the recurring theme has been that of a late start, for both many individual games and the season as a whole. Our Hokies have had more than just a few poor first quarter performances followed by playing great football thereafter. This theme and the level of play Virginia Tech football has exhibited has me optimistic about the upcoming contest on January 3. I fully expect the Hokies to keep the opposition fans on edge throughout the night.
Let's take a look at the Hokies' opponent, the Stanford Cardinal. Wake Forest is the only common opponent shared between the two teams this season. Each team slaughtered the Deamon Deacons, doubling their score in each respective game. The Cardinals play in the Pac 10 conference, soon to don the name Pac 12 with newcomer teams. To establish the caliber of the Stanford team, I start with analyzing their conference. Their conference includes the likes of the USC Trojans, Oregon Ducks, and UCLA Bruins. Historically, fans of the Pac 10 have griped of the college football commentary world consistently under-rating their conference, and this claim has some ground on which to stand. For example, in the 2008-09 bowl season, the Pac 10 cleaned up with a 5-0 record. But then in the 2009-10 bowl season, the Pac 10 went 2-5. If you trace back over the inter-conference play, you'll notice that the pendulum swings. This year, the Pac 10 has gone 11-9 in their inter-conference play. Considering their win percentage, they place fourth amongst conferences that had some team in the top 25 sometime this season. The ACC ranks seventh in this way. This year, Oregon is all the rage, earning a number two ranking and some weeks holding the number one spot. Oregon has handed Stanford their only loss. In all comparison, the Pac 10 stacks up as a tougher conference this season than the ACC. By that barometer, Stanford placing second in the conference while losing only to a team headed to the National Championship Game makes them a formidable opponent and the favorite to win on Jan 3.
Let's take a top-down look at the Cardinal. Stanford head Coach Jim Harbaugh took over the team in December of 2006 and has since steadily improved the program to reach their current BCS bowl bid. In his first season as head coach, his squad defeated a number one ranked USC, the favorite by 41 points. This season, Sanford has won most of its games by a definitive margin. Only Arizona State and USC handed them a win margin of less than a touchdown. In each of these games the Cardinal scored their winning points in the fourth quarter, which shows they can finish strong in a close game. Stanford exemplifies the West Coast offense by ranking second the Pac 10 in passing with 3076 yards on the season. They've put up 2532 rushing yards and also ranked second in the conference in that category. The Stanford defense ranks first in the Pac 10 allowing 2404 passing yards, 1515 rushing yards, ~18 points per game, and ~327 yards per game. Virginia Tech, on the other hand, doesn't have numbers quite as good. The Hokies have allowed 2591 yards and 1936 yards in passing and rushing respectively. On offense, the Hokies have generated 2628 and 2716 yards in passing and rushing respectively. And those numbers come from contests within a weaker conference. One caveat: the Hokies' contest against Boise State does make their non-conference schedule notably more challenging.
Now, let's turn to some individual elements within the Cardinal. Heisman candidate and quarterback Andrew Luck finished second to Cam Newton of Auburn for the trophy. Luck has broken the school's season record of touchdown passes with 28. He has completed ~70% of his passes this season, while throwing for 3051 yards. Standing at 6'4" and weighing in at 235 lbs., the Junior quarterback is no picnic to tackle. His offense has allowed only five sacks (of him) on the season. Luck has a lot of depth in his receiver core, but one clearly stands out from the rest. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin has caught for 824 yards and nine touchdowns this season. The Senior receiver will surely give trouble to Virginia Tech's corners. Other receivers, Ryan Whalen, Chris Owusu, Coby Fleener, Stepfan Taylor, and Griff Whalen each have 200+ yards in receiving, so Luck has other options if the Hokies can cover Baldwin. On the ground, Stanford really only has one go-to guy in Stephan Taylor. Taylor has amassed an 1023 yards in rushing this season. Luck himself holds the next most rushing yardage with 438. Anthony Wilkerson, the Freshman second string running back, has 409 yards on the season.
(Side Note--Here are some horrendous Andrew Luck puns from which I restrained myself from using in this post: "With Luck on their side", "When the Hokie defense blitzes, Luck will run out", "a quarterback standing 6'4" gives them all the Luck they need", "If the quarterback gets injured, they will be out of Luck." Well, I guess I didn't really restrain myself if I just used them, but you had fair warning to skip this part!)
On the Hokie injury front, Linebacker Lyndell Gibson injured his shoulder during the ACC championship game against Florida State. He underwent surgery and will take the next 6-8 months to recover. Redshirt fresham Tariq Edwards will take his place. This will add inexperience to the defensive squad that has spent most of this year maturing, and maturing quite well I might add. However, this could add a weak link to the chain, but I can only roughly speculate.
Overall, I think the biggest determining factors will lie in how well the Hokies defend the secondary. Standford's offense hasn't seen a ground defense quite like that of Bud Foster's, and I think they'll stop the Stanford run for the most part. But Stanford has a very deep and experienced receiver core that will probably have a few tricks up its sleeve for the Virginia Tech corners and safeties. Going the other direction, the only running game Stanford has faced that could measure up to that of Virginia Tech is Oregon, who rushed for 388 yards against the Cardinal. One or more of Ryan Williams, Darren Eveans, and David Wilson will in all likelihood make big gains on the ground. As for the Hokies' passing game, the Cardinal have also not faced anything like Tyrod Taylor combined with the Virginia Tech receiving core, with lots of experience of its own. While the Stanford defense without question will have strategized and drilled on how to contain Taylor, planning to do so makes for one thing while actually executing it with success makes for another. Taylor's passing game is not gong to go quietly in his last game in a Virginia Tech jersey.
And that brings me to my next point. Sadly, this game marks the last of Tyrod Taylor playing for the Hokies. Our program has
had the fortune of having some of the most dynamic and fun to watch quarterbacks. Michael Vick dazzled the college football world, Bryan Randall exceeded all expectations, and now Tyrod Taylor has given us quite a show as well. I remember the first game he took a snap, when he relieved Sean Glennon in the midst of suffering a shellacking against LSU. Through much of the seasons during which he split the spotlight with Glennon, he seemingly had a two-step thought process: (1) look for a pass and (2) when that fails, rush. That thought process has its limits, and while with it he showed athletic ability, it doesn't necessarily make for elite quarterbacking. I roughly place the time at which Taylor made a significant transition around the second quarter of the game against Nebraska of the 2009 season. He began to adopt the thought process of (1a) look for a pass, (1b) scrample to give the receivers time to make an opportunity for a pass, and (2) when those fail, rush. The insertion of step 1b is a big difference maker and has propelled Taylor into the realm of the best quarterback to come through Hokie football, especially considering that he played four years opposed to Vick playing two. And of course its also worth noting the breath of fresh air in a team leader that did not have the off field conduct issues of some of his predecessors. Tyrod Taylor, Hokie football shall miss and always remember you.
The numbers and statistics seem to give Stanford the edge, but I think there's a few other factors that could swing the pendulum in the Hokies' direction. While the Cardinal have made a big stride as a program this season, they have done so at a time when the Pac 10's typical power house, USC, is in the midst of an off season and dealing with the PR fallout from a scandal. USC's play in past seasons has elevated that of the entire conference. So the competition to get to this bowl is probably not as stiff as years past. Also, this will make for Harbaugh's first appearance at a BCS bowl game as a head coach, and it will be opposite BCS bowl veteran Frank Beamer. Stanford has some strong momentum, but the only conference champion they have met handed them a 21 point loss. The Hokies have strong momentum of their own, testament to their ACC dominance after a two-loss season opening. The statistics paint a very good picture for Stanford, but the differentiator doesn't always lie within the numbers. Let's hope that's the case on January 3!
LET'S GO HOKIES!