NCF Nation: Orange 0901

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

MIAMI -- Cincinnati players were understandably down after Thursday night's 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl.

 
 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
 Brian Kelly is confident his team is heading in the right direction.

"Disappointing is maybe not even the right word for it," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "But we're disappointed that we couldn't give the university and this city an Orange Bowl championship and leave on the best note possible.

"It's so sad. We wish we would have played better."

The Bearcats played uncharacteristically messy on their biggest stage, failing to score after their opening drive and turning the ball over four times. But while their moods were sour, the team couldn't remain completely distraught over the Orange Bowl outcome.

Just getting to a BCS bowl was in itself a major accomplishment and a first for the program. Cincinnati won a school-record 11 games this season and its first Big East championship while rising to No. 12 in the final regular-season rankings. Nothing that happened in the postseason can erase that.

"A loss is a loss; it stinks," coach Brian Kelly said. "It's lousy. But does the foundation crack in our program? No. Do the expectations change? Absolutely not. From a big-picture standpoint, the things we want for this program are in place.

"We're on a journey. We're not there yet. But if you keep knocking on that door, if you keep putting yourself in that position, we'll finish the deal. So, yeah, it doesn't feel good to lose, not when you put in as much time as we do. But I'm not going to be jumping off the Fontainebleau tonight."

Orange Bowl result aside, Cincinnati's program has never been in better shape. The school is building new practice fields and an indoor bubble. Nippert Stadium expansion is on the horizon. Most importantly, Kelly has pledged to stick around despite other schools' courtships.

At least 15,000 Bearcats fans attended Thursday's game at Dolphin Stadium, outnumbering Virginia Tech fans. It wasn't that long ago that Cincinnati couldn't convince 15,000 people to come to their home games.

"I've been telling people that it's official: A portable Nippert is a reality," Barwin said. "We're so thankful for that."

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Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

MIAMI -- The two offensive stars in Virginia Tech's first FedEx Orange Bowl win never figured to play such prominent roles on the team this season.

 
  Mark Zerof/US Presswire
  Virginia Tech running back Darren Evans had 28 carries for 153 yards and a touchdown in the Hokies' 20-7 win over Cincinnati.

Sophomore quarterback Tyrod Taylor was slated to redshirt before he became the starter in the third week of the season. Redshirt freshman Darren Evans never expected to be the main ball carrier and probably wouldn't have if Kenny Lewis didn't suffer a season-ending injury.

Fate works in funny ways. Taylor softened the Cincinnati offense up with his scrambling and passing skills in the first half, and Evans bulldozed his way game MVP honors in the second half, when he rushed for 101 of his 153 yards.

The two have suddenly made the perennially low-scoring Hokies look like a menacing offense. The team scored 30 in the ACC title game against Boston College and rolled up 398 yards over a veteran Cincinnati defense in Thursday night's 20-7 win.

"We couldn't listen to what other people were saying when they said we couldn't move the ball or that we had no passing game," Evans said. "We just had to go out and do what got us here and play with a lot of intensity."

Cincinnati was a team that had contained mobile quarterbacks Pat White and Matt Grothe in the Big East this season. But Taylor befuddled the Bearcats much of the first half with his speed and ability to keep his eyes upfield. He completed 11 of 16 passes for 125 yards in the half and juked out two defenders on his way to a 17-yard second quarter touchdown run.

"He's very elusive," Cincinnati defensive tackle Terrill Byrd said. "He's going to be a very good quarterback in the near future. He did a good job tonight doing what he does best."

Taylor got thrown into the fire as a freshman when he replaced struggling starter Sean Glennon. His passing skills still needed a lot of work, though, so the Hokies' coaching staff planned on giving him this year on the sidelines to improve. Instead, after Glennon was ineffective early, Taylor came back into the starting unit. Taylor had his own problems and missed time with an ankle injury, but he rebounded to win ACC title game MVP honors.

"It was unfortunate that things happened at the beginning of the year to take his redshirt off him," tight end Greg Boone said. "But I think we rallied around him as a team and kept this thing moving forward."

Leading 10-7 at halftime, the Hokies turned to what they traditionally do best to open the second half: pound the ball. That meant handing the ball 18 times to the 6-foot, 210-pound Evans, who plowed through gaping holes created by the offensive line. Virginia Tech had the ball almost the entire third quarter and won the time-of-possession battle by more than 19 minutes.

Evans ran for 1,112 yards and 10 touchdowns this season after coming in with modest goals.

"We had a lot of talent, so I thought the ball would be spread out a lot more," he said. "I thank the coaches a lot, because they put a lot of confidence in me, keeping me out there the whole season like that. They could have easily been switching and rotating running backs in, and I appreciate that."

Said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer: "To me he played faster as the year went along, and I think that came with confidence and getting more carries from that tailback position. And I thought here at the end, he really played fast.

"I like big old guys that run fast, too."

The Hokies' offense won't ever be confused for Florida or Oklahoma, who will take this same Dolphin Stadium field a week from now. Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said his senior-laden defense, which was one of the best in the Big East all season, didn't play bring its usual effort to the postseason.

"They didn't score 50 points against us; it was 20 to 7," Kelly said. "We had hats in position that normally make plays. If we're playing Pat White and West Virginia ... we would have given up 250 yards to their run game. We just didn't tackle the way we needed to."

Still, it's hard not to be impressed with how far the Virginia Tech offense has come this season -- and how much better it can be in the future.

Along with the Taylor and Evans, the Hokies' top three wide receivers in the Orange Bowl were freshmen, plus Evans' top backup, Josh Oglesby. The entire starting offensive line from Thursday night returns in 2009, including freshman guard Jaymes Brooks, who played admirably while replacing academically-ineligible senior Nick Marshman.

"There are no guarantees in this business -- you've got to get down to it," Beamer said. "But I do feel like we've got a lot of good players in our program and a lot of them are young, and a lot of them have got more time at Virginia Tech."

And when next season starts, no one will be surprised to see Taylor and Evans as the Hokies' two most prominent offensive stars.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

MIAMI -- In many ways, Mardy Gilyard has been the emotional center of the Cincinnati football team. One of the indelible moments of the Bearcats' season was seeing Gilyard on his back celebrating with oranges in each hand after his team clinched a spot in the FedEx Orange Bowl last month against Syracuse.

 
  Joel Auerbach/US Presswire
  Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike was intercepted four times in a 20-7 Orange Bowl loss to Virginia Tech.

Gilyard's emotions early Friday morning also summed up his team's mood after a 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech. He wasn't in tears. But he seemed dazed and confused, after his team's offense got battered and bruised by the Hokies. The second-highest scoring team in the Big East could not score after driving for a touchdown on the game's opening possession.

"I can't believe it," the junior wide receiver said. "That's probably why I'm so upset. It didn't seem like this was the offense that we were three weeks ago.

"We had good practices, really really good practices leading up to this game. And when our offense is clicking, we're pretty much unstoppable. But we played sloppy ball."

The Bearcats' offensive futility -- they had just 238 yards after that first scoring march, and quarterback Tony Pike threw four interceptions -- can be attributed to a mixture of their own mistakes and to Virginia Tech's defense.

Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly, a guy who's never lacked confidence in his playcalling ability, focused a lot on his team's errors after the game. There was the missed field goal by Jake Rogers in the first quarter, a Pike interception in the end zone and a fourth-down stop by the Hokies when Cincinnati had the ball inside the Virginia Tech 1.

"Well, most of them were mistakes," Kelly said about his team's stalled drives. "I want to be very careful. Virginia Tech has a very good defense. (Defensive coordinator) Bud Foster did a good job. In a lot of instances we didn't take care of the things that we needed to.

"We didn't make some great decisions when they brought some pressure. And then it's just one of those games where we got close every time and just couldn't put it in the end zone."

The most galling of those situations came midway through the fourth quarter, when Pike was stopped trying to run it in from inside the 1 on fourth down. Pike said the play had worked during practice and was designed for him to go to the pylon. Instead, he got forced inside and got stood up by linebacker Barquell Rivers.

"I didn't know why we called that," Gilyard said.

The first possession couldn't have gone any better for the Bearcats. They needed just six plays to score, as Pike hit a wide-open Gilyard for 38 yards and later found him in the end zone from 16 yards out. They were running no huddle, five-wide sets from the shotgun and looked to be on their way to a big scoring night.

But from then on, the Hokies' defense controlled the game. Three of the interceptions came on great plays by Virginia Tech defenders, including a diving grab of a throwback screen by defensive end Orion Martin and Stephan Virgil flying in out of nowhere to pick off Pike's throw to Dominick Goodman in the end zone late in the first half.

"We saw from them what we saw on tape," Pike said. "The big thing is they've got All-Americans back there.

"Their secondary is the best I've ever played against. They're the best I've seen as far as breaking on the ball in the air and the speed they have and also their athleticism. They had had some nice catches against me."

Hokies cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris said his defense just needed to settle down after a jittery start.

"That's the first real up-tempo team we've played this year," Harris said. "Our coach told us that they were up tempo and that we had to stay in our positions. But it's nothing like the game. After that first drive, we had to get the jitters out and settle down, and that's what we did."

Cincinnati's last offensive play resulted in, appropriately enough, another interception. The Bearcats had the best season in school history this year and made their first BCS game. They can only wonder about what it would have been like to win that game.

"We know leaving the game that we had our opportunities," Pike said, "and we left them out there."

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

 
 Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
 Quarterback Tyrod Taylor rushed for a touchdown and led the Hokies to a 20-7 victory over Cincinnati.

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was convinced his team had yet to play its best football game of the season, and he was right. The Hokies saved their best for last.

Cincinnati played not to lose, and Virginia Tech played like it had everything to lose.

Instead, the Hokies gained respect and redemption in this year's FedEx Orange Bowl with their 20-7 win over Big East champ Cincinnati. Virginia Tech represented the ACC well by playing a complete game and snapping the league's eight-game losing streak in BCS games. The win gave the conference a needed boost, as the ACC finished with a 4-6 bowl record, and it helped ease the sting of last year's Orange Bowl loss to Kansas.

Virginia Tech's youth, which was a frustrating hindrance for much of the season, has finally turned into an exciting foundation for next season. Even without three starters in the lineup because of injuries and academics, the Hokies got the job done. But that's how they roll. All season, game after game, they've proved their critics wrong and won despite setback after setback.

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor looked like a dual-threat quarterback, and added another dimension to his game, in addition to the Hokies'. He outplayed Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike, whose four interceptions were momentum killers, and the third was the difference in the game. Taylor made some impressive throws, save for his poorly thrown interception, and the defense, as usual, did its part.

The extra preparation time and focus and new mentality paid off. Virginia Tech got good blocking from everyone, including Darren Evans. The players weren't the only ones to made good use of their time off. This year, the coaches began planning earlier and showed some wrinkles in the offense. There was definitely more balance, and that kept Cincinnati's defense off-guard.

Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring got the receivers involved in the running game, tailback Darren Evans involved in the passing game and used the wild turkey formation, lining tight end Greg Boone up for the direct snap. Boone rumbled, and the revamped offensive line paved the way for him and Evans, who rushed for 154 yards and a touchdown.

Both teams had missed field goals and interceptions in the first half, but it was Pike's interception in the end zone that was like a punch to the gut for the Bearcats.

Cincinnati came out hot and scored quickly, but Virginia Tech's defense settle down and adjusted. Cincinnati had just 11 rushing yards in the first half, and the Bearcats' defense became visibly tired in the third quarter while Virginia Tech seemed to be re-energized with every big stop.

Cincinnati missed plenty of opportunities, and Virginia Tech took advantage of it.

Virginia Tech changed its philosophy about this bowl game, treating it more as a business trip than a reward, and in the end, they got the biggest reward of all.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

MIAMI -- Cincinnati had a great year. It did not have a great finish.

The Bearcats scored on their first possession and then never again, as Virginia Tech's defense overpowered them in a 20-7 Hokies win at the FedEx Orange Bowl. Quarterback Tony Pike threw four interceptions -- and could have easily had five if not for a replay overturn -- and he was stopped at the goal line in the fourth quarter on a fourth down run from inside the 1 yard line.

Virginia Tech earned a little ACC pride, snapping the league's streak of eight straight BCS losses. Tyrod Taylor and Darren Evans each had big games to power an offense that performed better than most expected.

It wasn't Cincinnati's finest hour -- the Bearcats had a season-low point total and made some costly mistakes -- but give most of the credit to Bud Foster and the Hokies' defense.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

MIAMI -- The lead is only six points with a quarter to play, but Virginia Tech seems to be in full control of things.

Cincinnati managed just 39 yards in the third quarter, and basically went the entire quarter -- from the end of the half to late in the third -- running just two plays. Tony Pike threw another interception, on another terrific play by a Hokies defensive back (this time safety Kam Chancellor).

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is far more physical on both sides, and the Bearcats defense looks like it's starting to wear down against the power running of Darren Evans, who's gone over 100 yards.

Unless Cincinnati can get a big play on defense or find some spark on offense, it's going to watch Virginia Tech grind out a much-needed BCS victory for the ACC.

The attendance tonight was announced at 57,851, which means there were about 16,000 no-shows at Dolphin Stadium.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

MIAMI -- Just looking at the score, you might think it is a boring game.

But it's actually been pretty exciting, with several big plays on both sides. Cincinnati is on pace for more than 400 yards and Virginia Tech for over 500. The problem is that each team is hurting itself with mistakes.

Each team missed a field goal, and both Tony Pike and Tyrod Taylor had interceptions that ended promising drives.

Pike threw an interception in the end zone to kill Cincinnati's chances of taking a lead into halftime. He had Dominick Goodman open, but Pike -- who was scrambling left and had to throw across his body -- floated the throw, and Stephan Virgil swept in and made a highlight reel pick. The Hokies then drove the other way for a 43-yard field goal to end the half.

Virginia Tech's offense has been far more balanced, with a nearly even split between running and passing and Taylor has reminded me of another No. 5 at quarterback: Pat White. Cincinnati has relied almost exclusively on the pass, with just 11 rushing yards, and the Hokies have been able to play a bend-but-don't break style against that. The Bearcats need to mix things up a little in the second half.

Punter Kevin Huber might be the most valuable Cincinnati player so far. He's averaged 52 yards on three kicks and pinned one on the Hokies' three.

The Doobie Brothers are providing the halftime entertainment. If you're wondering about tonight's attendance, there are about 10 empty sections up top, and the corners are sparse. But other than that, Dolphin Stadium has filled in fairly nicely. Cincinnati fans appear to outnumber Virginia Tech supporters, but not by a wide margin.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

MIAMI -- This isn't the defensive struggle most people expected.

The score is only 7-0, but that's because there have been two missed field goals. Both teams are moving the ball in large chunks. Virginia Tech's big-play ability has been the most surprising aspect thus far, as the Hokies already have seven plays of 10 yards or more. Tyrod Taylor has got Cincinnati on its heels with his ability to scramble and keep his eyes upfield to make throws on the run.

The Bearcats have spread out Virginia Tech's defense by frequently using five-wide sets and the no-huddle. Tony Pike has been under center only once by my count, and his favorite target has been Mardy Gilyard, who has catches for 37 and 39 yards. He also has the game's only score, a nifty reception on the left side of the end zone for 16 yards.

Still, Cincinnati has to be concerned by its inability to contain Virginia Tech's offense. Taylor's passing ability is only going to open things up for the power running game and Darren Evans later on.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

MIAMI -- The biggest question going into tonight's FedEx Orange Bowl seems to be: Is Cincinnati ready for this kind of stage?

The Bearcats had a great regular season. Then again, if you look at their schedule, you'll see that they didn't beat any elite teams. Their best wins came over Pitt and West Virginia. While Virginia Tech, at 9-4, wouldn't qualify for the nation's upper echelon this year, either, at least the Hokies have lots of big-game bowl experience.

We'll find out shortly how much that all matters. But I can tell you that coach Brian Kelly, his staff and players have sounded extremely confident going into this game that they're well-prepared and have the right game plan.

And make no mistake, playing Virginia Tech requires a different game plan than most weeks.

"Their style of defense and what they do is extremely unique to a spread offense," Kelly said on Wednesday. "As you know, its base roots are in the eight-man front. So ... there's a lot of different things that go along with preparing for Virginia Tech's defense than other defenses that you see during the year. It might look the same, but I can tell you, for a guy that's been in the spread offense for a long time, there's a lot of different things that I have to prepare our offense for that we don't see during the year."

Watch for Cincinnati to try some wide receiver screens to Mardy Gilyard. They made a living off that play in the regular season, but it remains to be seen whether it will work against a fast Hokies defense.

The flip side is, did Virginia Tech see a similarly prolific spread offense this season in the low-scoring ACC? Coach Frank Beamer certainly seems to have a healthy respect for the Bearcats.

"Offensively .. they know what they're doing," Beamer said. "They operate efficiently. (Tony) Pike, he gets the job done and he's very efficient. I don't think he's fast, but he's nifty, and he buys time and gets the ball out there to his good receivers."

A key matchup tonight will be Cincinnati's interior defensive linemen, led by Terrill Byrd and Adam Hoppel, against new starting right guard Jaymes Brooks, a freshman with virtually no playing experience. The middle is the place to get pressure on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, too, because the Bearcats don't want their defensive ends running up the field and leaving room for Taylor to scramble.

"It takes away from some of the different pass rush moves you can use," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "He feels pressure probably better than anyone we've faced, and he gets out of there quickly."

There's plenty more to say about this matchup, and I'll be saying a lot more as we go along. Stay tuned and enjoy the game ...

FedEx Orange Bowl preview

January, 1, 2009
1/01/09
12:12
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

A brief primer on tonight's FedEx Orange Bowl between Cincinnati and Virginia Tech:

What to watch: How will Virginia Tech generate offense? The Hokies are not a great passing team, and testing the talented Cincinnati secondary would be dangerous. So it appears that their hopes rest on tailback Darren Evans and shifty quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

"Everybody knows what Virginia Tech wants to do," Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin said. "Tyrod Taylor is a lot like Matt Grothe -- he's going to make his plays outside the pocket -- and then he's fast like Pat White when he takes off and runs. Just like we did against those guys, we have to contain him and not let him get out of the pocket."

Who to watch: Quarterback Tony Pike has been remarkably efficient in some of the Bearcats biggest games. He was 20-of-28 against South Florida and 26-of-32 versus Pittsburgh. He'll need to be sharp against Virginia Tech's aggressive defensive backs and avoid his tendency to force throws into coverage.

Why to watch: Casual observers may shrug at a BCS matchup between Virginia Tech and Cincinnati, but this shapes up as possibly the most competitive game of all the BCS bowls. Cincinnati is a fun team to watch, and if you're a Big East fan, you have to root for your league to win its fourth straight BCS game.

FedEx Orange Bowl preview

January, 1, 2009
1/01/09
12:11
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

WHO TO WATCH: Tailback Darren Evans. He has already set a school rushing record for a freshman with 1,112 yards and 10 touchdowns -- including at least one in each of the first six games. He'll face the No. 2 rushing defense in the Big East, as Cincinnati is holding opponents to 104 yards per game. Evans leads the team with 85.5 yards per game.

WHAT TO WATCH: Virginia Tech's passing defense against Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike. The Hokies have won games with their defense all season, and that's how they'll have to do it again -- with cornerback Macho Harris leading the way. Pike ranks 29th in the nation in passing efficiency with a 141.07 rating. Pike has completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 2,168 yards and 18 touchdowns with seven interceptions.

WHY TO WATCH: The Hokies are representing the ACC on the big stage for the second straight year and have an opportunity to stop the league's eight-game losing streak in BCS bowls.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

MIAMI -- The Fontainebleau, Cincinnati's home during FedEx Orange Bowl week, is a shrine to opulence.

Re-opened last month after a reported $500 million renovation, the Miami Beach resort is teeming with stars and stargazers around its 45,000 square foot lobby and lush pool cabanas. Bearcats players and officials have done double-takes while spotting Jamie Foxx, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Alex Rodriguez in their hotel this week.

Whenever they had to leave the decadent grounds this week, Cincinnati's entire entourage was given a police escort to and from their destinations. On Tuesday night, the team took in the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade showdown at a Cleveland Cavaliers-Miami Heat game.

Power programs like USC and Florida probably take this kind of royal bowl treatment as a given. But the BCS-newbie Bearcats are used to postseason trips to places like Birmingham, Toronto and Fort Worth. So you couldn't blame them for being wide-eyed and slack-jawed here, just happy for the opportunity to play on this stage Thursday night against Virginia Tech.

Except that they're not approaching it that way.

"Winning this game means everything," quarterback Tony Pike said. "It's a great honor to make the Orange Bowl. At the same time, down the road we don't want to just tell people we made it to the Orange Bowl. We want to say we got to the Orange Bowl and we won it."

It's debatable just how important winning a BCS game is to a program. Ask Louisville, which won its first BCS appearance in the 2007 Orange Bowl -- and hasn't made the postseason since. Or look at last year's Orange Bowl champion, Kansas, which finished 7-5 this year. Just getting here was enough to energize the Cincinnati fan base and provide immeasurable exposure.

But the Bearcats also take seriously the responsibility of carrying the Big East banner. They're very aware that since they joined the league in 2005, the Big East has gone 3-0 in BCS games. They do not want to be the ones to break that streak.

"We want to represent the Big East," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "We want to get more and more respect for the Big East, because we know how people talk about our conference."

On Wednesday morning, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly pointed to the Big East's 11-2 bowl record in its last 13 games.

"We can let the numbers speak for themselves," he said.

But when asked after last month's win over Syracuse about the league's credibility issue, here's what he had to say:

"I think validation is that you have to play well any time you're on a national stage. I don't think we have to apologize for anything, but we do a carry a burden, and that's that we have to continue to play well out of conference."

Kelly said whether Cincinnati wins or loses Thursday night won't do much to change the perception of his program. That only comes from repeated appearances in these kinds of games. And he has the perfect example on the other sideline.

Like Cincinnati, Virginia Tech had a modest college football history until Frank Beamer got things going in Blacksburg. The former Big East member has now been to 16 straight bowl games.

"There is no other perception than success when you go 16 straight," Kelly said. "So this is a journey; this is a process for us. We think we've made great strides. There's a long road ahead of us that we'll have to continue to work on."

Beamer said the Bearcats remind him of when his own team made its first trip to what are now known as the BCS games, when the Hokies beat Texas in the 1995 Sugar Bowl.

"I know that was a big steppingstone for us," he said. "But then when you get there, to win it,
it's another step. I think it's two big steps. I guess I'd say it that way."

Though the Hokies have the huge edge in big-game experience, Kelly and his staff are used to dealing with pressure situations. They successfully guided Grand Valley State through the Division II playoffs and have won two bowl games already at Cincinnati, including one just weeks after Kelly took the Bearcats job in December 2005.

Handling the trappings of South Beach is something new. But Kelly said his players faced similar distractions in their season-ending game at Hawaii, when the team stayed at a beachside hotel. This is just a little more opulent.

OK, a lot more.

"It's been unbelievable here," Barwin said. "Everything is top notch.

"But after it's over, you don't remember what the weather was like or anything like that. You remember if you won or lost the game."

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