- David M. Hale, ESPN Staff Writer
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Military Bowl presented by Northrup Grumman: Virginia Tech (6-6) vs. Cincinnati (9-3)
Dec. 27, 1 p.m. ET, Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis, Md. (ESPN)
Key matchup: Cincinnati run game vs. Virginia Tech defensive line
Why it matters: The most intriguing matchup in this game is certainly the Bearcats’ star QB Gunner Kiel going against a Virginia Tech secondary that has at times been exceptional and at times been vulnerable to the big play. But while that matchup certainly matters, it may not be the one that decides the game. Just look at Cincinnati’s season: During a woeful 2-3 start to the year, Kiel topped 300 yards passing three times and tossed 18 touchdowns, but the ground game was awful, mustering a mere 3.6 yards per carry and just three scores. What turned Cincy’s season around during a seven-game winning streak was balance. From Oct. 18 on, the Bearcats averaged 201 rush yards per game, 4.9 yards per carry and scored 15 rushing touchdowns. Finding that same success against Virginia Tech, however, won’t be easy.
Who wins: Not counting sacks, Virginia Tech surrendered 173 yards per game on the ground this year, good for 54th nationally. More concerning for the Hokies, seven different players ran for 100 yards or more against them this season. But here’s the nuance to those stats: Aside from Miami’s Duke Johnson and Gus Edwards in what was undeniably Virginia Tech’s worst defensive performance of the year, the other five 100-yard rushers were all quarterbacks. While Kiel has some mobility, the bulk of Cincinnati’s ground game revolves around Mike Boone and Rod Moore, and Virginia Tech has done a nice job of shutting down opposing tailbacks. James Conner, Zach Laskey, Kevin Parks and Ezekiel Elliott all failed to move the ball consistently against the Hokies, which should bode well for this matchup, too. Kiel figures to convert a few big plays down the field as Virginia Tech plays a hefty share of zero coverage schemes, but with Dadi Nicolas, Chase Williams, Ken Ekanem & Co. up front, the Hokies are in good shape to slow down Cincy’s ground game and come away with a win. Our prediction: Virginia Tech 20, Cincinnati 17.
536dMatt Fortuna and Heather Dinich