What to watch in the FedEx Orange and International bowls
Here are seven story lines to keep an eye on during the final two Big East bowls this week, starting with Thursday night's FedEx Orange Bowl:
1. Cincinnati's defense vs. Virginia Tech's running game: It's no real secret what Frank Beamer and the Hokies want to do on offense. They're not going to line up five wide and throw it all over the field. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor may make some plays with his arm, but the strategy is for him and his running backs to pound the ball down Cincinnati's throat. Since 1999, Virginia Tech is 90-8 when outrushing its opponents and 9-20 when being outrushed. If the Bearcats can choke off that running game, the Hokies are going to have a very difficult time finding ways to score.
2. Cincinnati's passing attack vs. Virginia Tech's secondary: While the Bearcats do strive for some balance, they basically are the polar opposite to the Hokies on offense. Coach Brian Kelly's spread attack will feature multiple-wide receiver sets, and quarterback Tony Pike likes to heave it deep. Receivers Mardy Gilyard and Dominick Goodman are the team's top playmakers, though Goodman's effectiveness for this game is questionable since he's recovering from a separated shoulder. It should be a terrific matchup against Tech's talented and hard-hitting defensive backs, led by Victor "Macho" Harris.
3. Special teams in South Florida: Beamer-ball can be boiled down to strong defense plus big special-teams play. The Hokies, of course, are known for their ability to block kicks and make other things happen to provide field-position superiority. But the Bearcats can be pretty special in the kicking game, too. Punter Kevin Huber is an All-American who routinely drills 50-yarders with plenty of hang time, while Gilyard is one of the nation's top return men. You can bet Cincinnati spent extra time preparing its punt-protection unit for this game. Avoiding any costly mistakes in special teams is a must for the Bearcats.
4. Cincinnati's discipline: The Bearcats offense and the Virginia Tech defense is strength vs. strength. Special teams could be a wash as well. So, what, ultimately could be the difference in this game? One thing that's been lost in the excitement of an 11-2 season is that Cincinnati has been a heavily penalized team this year with a minus-5 turnover margin. That's one reason why most of the Bearcats' wins were close shaves. Those kinds of self-inflicted wounds will only get magnified under the glare of the BCS lights and against a fundamentally sound Virginia Tech team.
5. Donald Brown: The nation's leading rusher takes his show to another country as Connecticut travels to Toronto for the International Bowl. Brown will have had nearly a month to rest after a heavy workload this season, and he needs 178 yards to reach 2,000 for the season. Buffalo ranked 83rd in rushing defense this season, but the Bulls have some reason to believe they can at least slow down Brown. They held Pitt's LeSean McCoy to 93 yards early in the season.
6. Darius Butler: UConn's star quarterback missed the final three games with a knee injury. He's expected to be back and near full strength for this bowl game, and the Huskies sure need him. Buffalo quarterback Drew Willy threw for over 3,000 yards and had nine touchdown passes of 30 yards or longer this season. Butler may be able to shut down a portion of the field. And he also brings a dynamic presence on special teams and the occasional offensive snap for a team that struggles to score.
7. Turnovers in Toronto: Connecticut finished even in turnover margin this season, but the Huskies coughed it up too many times in big games. They had 13 turnovers in losses to North Carolina, West Virginia and Pittsburgh. They simply don't have enough firepower to overcome those giveaways. Buffalo, on the flip side, had a plus-15 turnover margin, which was good for eighth-best in the country. If UConn doesn't take care of the ball, it can't count on getting it back from the Bulls.