Bill Trocchi
Wednesday January 2nd, 2008

Last April, the Kansas athletic department passed out more than 700 Virginia Tech T-shirts to its student-athletes and officials as a tribute to the 32 victims of the tragic shooting spree at the Blacksburg, Va., campus on April 16. Women's basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson, who worked at Virginia Tech for 14 years before coming to KU, spearheaded the effort, and the baseball and track teams wore the shirts in competition that weekend.

Almost nine months later, the Kansas football team will be able to pay its tribute in person. The Jayhawks will stand with Virginia Tech and observe a moment of silence before the teams kick off the 74th Orange Bowl.

"God has blessed everything that has happened there," said KU safety Darrell Stuckey. "They persevered through that and came back to another bowl game."

Virginia Tech did more than persevere. The Hokies were one onside-kick recovery against Boston College away from possibly playing in the national championship game. Kansas? It, too, pictured itself in the title game when it was 11-0 and ranked No. 2 in late November. But the Orange Bowl is no consolation game. Both programs are motivated to leave Miami with the first BCS bowl victory in school history.

1) Kansas will bring a chip on its shoulder. Kansas has heard the talk. Why did the Jayhawks get the Orange Bowl nod when they didn't qualify for the Big 12 title game? How could KU be chosen over Missouri after the Tigers beat the Jayhawks 36-28? Who has Kansas beaten this year? Is this team for real?

All of the above questions are legitimate, of course. Kansas played just three teams with winning records -- Central Michigan, Texas A&M and Missouri -- and lost to one of them. Missouri finished the year 11-2 with both losses to Oklahoma (a team Kansas did not face), won the Big 12 North, yet somehow was sent to the Cotton Bowl. Kansas' eight-point win at Texas A&M stands as the best "W" on its slate, and in its one shot at true legitimacy in the regular season finale, Kansas trailed Missouri 28-7 after three quarters.

But all of those arguments can serve as a powerful motivating tool. Unlike West Virginia, which had its BCS title game hopes ripped away from it, Kansas is still living its dream season. Sure, losing to Missouri was a bitter pill, but the Jayhawks are still carrying momentum from their stunning 11-win season. KU brings the No. 2 scoring offense, the No. 4 scoring defense and the national coach of the year into this matchup. The Jayhawks know they have something to prove, and they know they have the weapons to do so.

2) The "other" matchup will be just as intriguing. The Orange Bowl is promoting the game as a "classic showdown between the nation's second ranked scoring defense in the Hokies against the nation's second ranked scoring offense in Kansas." The strength vs. strength matchup will be interesting to watch.

But the Virginia Tech offense and Kansas defense will not simply fulfill roles of place-holders. The Hokies' two-quarterback attack of Sean Glennon and Tyrod Taylor plus a talented group of receivers makes Virginia Tech's offense potentially explosive. Despite a disappointing season from Brandon Ore at running back, the offense was still able to crack the 40-point barrier five times, four of which came against ACC competition.

Kansas' defense allowed just 16 points per game and forced 32 turnovers. Senior defensive lineman James McClinton and linebacker Joe Mortensen were both named first-team All-Big 12, and the best player on either team is probably Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib, who should be able to slow down a deep Virginia Tech receiving corps. Speaking of Talib ...

3) The next Aqib Talib sighting may be at the NFL Draft. Talib is only a junior, but there are indications this will be his final game as a Jayhawk. The corner won the Jack Tatum Award for the nation's best defensive back, was an AP first-team All-America, a Bronko Nagurski Award finalist (nation's best defensive player) and a unanimous All-Big 12 selection. Talib has not discussed his post-bowl plans as of yet, but scouts project him as a late first-rounder and one of the first defensive backs to be selected if he declares.

Chris Howard, brother of Philadelphia Phillies star Ryan Howard and a Kansas associate athletic director, is advising Talib as he goes through the process. The deadline for underclassmen to declare is Jan. 15, and Talib has said he will not comment on his plans prior to the Orange Bowl.

Talib saw action as a wide receiver early in the season, making eight catches for 182 yards and four touchdowns over the first five games, but he does not have a catch in his last seven games. Expect some balls to be thrown his way when he lines up on offense against the Hokies. Talib has big-play capability, as shown in this 100-yard interception return against Florida International.

How has Virginia Tech's offense improved throughout the season? I spoke with a defensive assistant from a Hokies late-season opponent of the to evaluate what he saw on film and on the field:

"[Quarterback Sean] Glennon has really gotten better as the year has progressed. He got thrown into the fire against LSU before he got total control of the offense. During the season you've seen him mature and get a better grasp of the offense. He gets them into the right play and makes the right throw. He is much more exact. The other quarterback, [Tyrod] Taylor, he's obviously a wonderful athlete. He's best when things break down almost. He's athletic enough to create a number of issues for you. You can have guys in the right spot, and he can still make you miss.

"[The Virginia Tech coaches] have done a great job of learning how to manage both of them. They both do a good job of stepping in in mid-series without any hiccup or glitch, and jump in and run the play. Normally a quarterback has to get into a rhythm. They both handle it very well and understand what they are trying to get done.

"If you are Kansas, you want to make Taylor throw the football to beat you. You don't want to rush the passer. You don't want to rush past him. Keep him in front of you and try to make him beat you with his arm because he can definitely beat you with his legs. Glennon, he's a guy you want to [pressure], but they do a good job of protecting him and he also understands he has to get the ball out.

"Their offensive line is well coached, tough, physical, but not as dominating as in years past. The guys on the outside are the guys that scare you besides Taylor -- [wide receivers Eddie] Royal and [Josh] Morgan in particular. They get in space and they can create a play, and they are athletic enough to go up and get a ball over the top of one of your DBs."

Kansas gets a second chance to impress on a national stage after its disappointing performance against Missouri. Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, they may be up against a better team this time around. Virginia Tech was ranked No. 1 by the various computer polls in the final BCS standings, and put together a near-perfect run after its early season flop at LSU. Since November started, the Hokies are 5-0 and have won each game by at least 12 points, with four of those five opponents headed to bowls. Virginia Tech's special teams and defense are always strong, and the offense is hitting its stride with Glennon and Taylor understanding their roles. Kansas will move the ball, but the Hokies will be too much to handle in Miami. Virginia Tech 31, Kansas 23

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