The College Football Notebook

January 3, 2011 7:43 AM

Orange Bowl Preview: Stanford-Virginia Tech

AndrewLuckOrangeBowl.jpgTonight's Virginia Tech-Stanford matchup in the Orange Bowl promises the same elite-level showdown that we saw in Saturday's Rose Bowl between Wisconsin and TCU. The Hokies and Cardinal have each played their best football down the stretch and the winner of this one will finish in the Top 5 nationally.

Virginia Tech played the season's first big game, back on Labor Day when they took on Boise State in Fed Fex Field. They lost a heartbreaker in that one and five days later they were still sleepwalking when they lost to James Madison. But the running game was being established, and even when Ryan Williams missed some time he was ably replaced by Darren Evans. The Hokies moved into ACC play and beat Boston College & N.C. State. A key area of concern at this point had to be the pass defense. While Tech had shut out BC, the Eagles were a run-heavy offense, not capable of throwing the ball. Against quarterbacks who could put it up--Kellen Moore at Boise and Russell Wilson at N.C. State--the Hokie secondary had been vulnerable. Two more wins followed against Wake Forest and Duke, although Wake managed to pummel the Tech defense on the ground. Virginia Tech was undeniably turning a corner, but didn't look like a team that could win out. But that's exactly what they did against the toughest part of their schedule. They survived Georgia Tech and then beat North Carolina and Miami on the road. A victory over Florida State won the ACC championship. Hokie quarterback Tyrod Taylor had his best games down the stretch, and can both run and throw. The rush defense was pushed around by Miami, but was superb against Florida State. Frank Beamer had his third ACC crown in four years.

Stanford put the Pac-10 on notice early with crushing wins over UCLA, Wake Forest and Notre Dame. Oddly enough, they too, had problems defending the run against Wake. The Demon Deacons didn't run the ball well in their best years and they didn't this season, so it's strange they made such a splash against both of tonight's opponents. The Cardinal was picked apart by Oregon, with LaMichael James running wild and Darron Thomas having a huge game both running and throwing. Successive victories over USC, Washington State and Washington followed, although the first two were far from impressive and the pass defense left a lot to be desired. Stanford also closed the season strong though, hammering Arizona in a game that gave them the inside track to this bid, they escaped Arizona State and then buried Cal and Oregon State. Andrew Luck has gotten the attention at quarterback, as the frontrunner to be the first pick in the NFL draft. He spreads the ball around well and doesn't allow defenses to take away just one receiver. But the common thread in this team's best offensive games is that Stephan Taylor gets the running game going, with a little help from Anthony Wilkerson. Keep an eye on that tonight.

This is a game that's very tough to call. Since both defenses have shown some vulnerability this season, I'm expecting the running games to be established. The difference will be how the passing game flows. Can Virginia Tech pressure Luck, force him to make decisions quicker than he'd like and get some turnovers? That's a tall order, given Luck's precision and his use of his entire offensive package. Can Stanford pressure Taylor while keeping him in the pocket and preventing him from making plays with his feet or downfield as a play breaks down? That's a tall order too, given how Taylor came on down the stretch as a pure passer. Stanford can't just exclusively contain or Taylor will pick them apart. They have to break the pocket down and with that comes risk on the outside. I generally don't like to pick high-scoring games in a matchup between good teams, because the defenses are usually underrated. But I think this one will see the ball moved pretty well, and Tech ultimately prevails 35-31 thanks to Taylor's versatility. The closest thing Stanford's defense has seen to a player like Taylor is Oregon's Thomas. And the result of that experiment can't make the folks in NoCal feel good about tonight.

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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in the NFL, coverage of college basketball.  and bowl commentary in college football. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.

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