Wednesday December 31st, 2008

Early this season, predicting that these two teams would win their conference titles and meet in a BCS game would have drawn a hearty laugh. Virginia Tech lost its season opener to East Carolina, while Cincinnati was blown out by Connecticut in its second Big East game. But the Hokies and Bearcats rallied, cobbling together offenses despite various quarterback issues. Cincy rides in on a six-game win streak, while Virginia Tech has won three in a row since losing to Miami at Dolphin Stadium -- the site of the Orange Bowl -- on Nov. 13.

1. Anybody might play quarterback. Ten different players have thrown passes for the Hokies and Bearcats this season. In the offseason, Cincinnati hoped the NCAA would grant veteran quarterback Ben Mauk a sixth year of eligibility. The Bearcats had already started preseason camp when Mauk learned he wouldn't be allowed to come back. The job went to senior Dustin Grutza, but he broke his right leg and severly sprained his ankle while being sacked in a loss at Oklahoma in Week 2. Junior Tony Pike took over for Grutza, but he broke his non-throwing forearm two games later. Freshmen Chazz Anderson and Zach Collaros helped fill in the gaps while Grutza and Pike recuperated. Pike will start the game on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech began the season with the idea that senior Sean Glennon would lead the team, allowing sophomore Tyrod Taylor to redshirt. That plan lasted through the loss to East Carolina. The redshirt came off the following week. Taylor sprained his ankle on the first play of a loss at Florida State and missed the Maryland game. Against Duke, Taylor was benched in favor of Glennon. But Taylor led the Hokies to a win against Boston College in the ACC title game, and he is set to start against the Bearcats.

2. Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin is one of the most versatile athletes in college football. Barwin played tight end for most of his career, but he switched to defensive end as a senior and led the Big East in sacks with 13. As a freshman and sophomore, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Barwin also helped the Bearcats' basketball program through its most trying time. After former Cincinnati hoops coach Bob Huggins was forced out, interim coach Andy Kennedy -- now at Ole Miss -- approached several football players who had been basketball stars in high school. Barwin, a Detroit native, played in 19 games as a freshman and in 23 games as a sophomore. In two seasons, Barwin scored 45 points.

3. Macho, Macho Man. Virginia Tech senior cornerback Victor -- "Macho" to his friends -- Harris has the coolest college football nickname since offensive lineman Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack exhausted his eligibility at Mississippi State following the 2000 season. Who doesn't want to watch a guy named Macho? Harris is a premium playmaker in the Hokies secondary, as evidenced by his six interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Pike would be wise to avoid Tech's star corner as much as possible.

As usual, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster's squad is among the nation's best. The Hokies rank seventh in total defense (277.08 yards) and 13th in scoring defense (17.5 points). How do you attack it? We asked a coach who faced Virginia Tech this season for some tips. Here's what he had to say:

"The first thing you better do is you better match them physically. Bud does a great job. He's as sound as anybody in the business. They're not going to beat themselves. They aren't going to give you easy points. You can't formation them and get an obvious mismatch. You have to execute to beat a Bud Foster defense. And to execute, you'd better be ready to match their toughness.

"With a trips formation [on one side of a four-receiver set], you can match up one-on-one on the back side. But here's the problem. You've got Macho Harris on the back side. You've got their best defender. They don't mind doing that. But sometimes, if you've got a good enough player [to match up with Harris], you can do something.

"The other thing is, you've got to be able to run the football. Even when you can't run it, you still have to keep trying. As soon as you become one-dimensional, and those front guys get to tee it up, they make it tough on you."

Virginia Tech 21, Cincinnati 17. The Hokies should be fast enough to contain Cincinnati's spread offense. The big question is this: Will the Bearcats be fast enough to contain Taylor, a polished runner whose passing keeps improving? Since this is a Frank Beamer-coached team, don't be surprised if the Hokies block a kick.

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