Virginia Tech endured its worst season in two decades this year, struggling to win two straight games in order to get back to a bowl. Rutgers, after getting themselves into the BCS Rankings’ top 15, lost three of three of their final five contests, and fell backwards into a four-way tie for the Big East title. Which team’s recent trend will continue?
Bowl Game: Russell Athletic Bowl
Location: Orlando, Fla.
First Year: 1990 (Blockbuster Bowl)
2012 Participants: Virginia Tech Hokies (6-6) vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (9-3)
Last Meeting: Virginia Tech over Rutgers, 48-22 (2003)
Virginia Tech (previous bowl game: 23-20 loss to Michigan in 2012 Allstate Sugar Bowl)
Before the season started, experts felt that Virginia Tech, while certainly adjusting to a ton of new faces on the O-line and in the backfield, could still succeed behind QB Logan Thomas and a staunch defense. Instead, the team tumbled to the brink of bowl ineligibility with a defense that was frequently put in poor field position, mostly be an offense that struggled mightily. Still, the team was top-40 nationally in passing and rushing yards per game, as well as points allowed per game (23.9). So that leaves this one up to the offense more than anything else. Thomas, who put on quite a performance in 2011, has regressed significantly in 2012, but has continuously been relied upon to carry this team by himself. While there’s no point in creating excuses for the junior passer, it’s hard to otherwise figure the increase in sacks and interceptions from one year to the next. The key for Tech in this one will be mixing it up — involving a running game that was middle-of-the-road at its best, and completely inefficient at worst. Rutgers’ defense found itself most effective this season when facing one-dimensional teams. If the Hokies allow them to generate too much pressure on Thomas, it’s sure to result in more costly turnovers. While Thomas’s mobility can also be an asset, it’s just too much pressure for him to be the only effective offensive player.
Rutgers (previous bowl game: 27-13 win vs. Iowa State in 2011 New Era Pinstripe Bowl)
Rutgers’ strength is obvious: a defense that allowed just 14.3 points per game (5th in the FBS) and was 11th in rushing yards allowed (105 per game). But they’re not unflappable. In all three losses, teams scored at least 20 points. And in two of those games, the opposition racked up 130 yards rushing or more (Kent State had over 220). So as I’ve been saying all season around these parts, the Scarlet Knights’ defense is all bluster; inflated by a subpar collection of opponents (proof? please consult these ratings, which show Rutgers playing the 98th-most “difficult” schedule in the country). Now, of course, they have managed to hold mobile quarterbacks in relative check, and in general, I’d say their run defense is still one of the 30 or so best in the country. So don’t think this is all a biased rant against them. The defense, especially with an All-American like Khaseem Grene, is not the problem. On offense, however, the team deals with a severe inability to move the ball, and a quarterback, Gary Nova, who’s had a rough second half of the season. If Rutgers’ defense fails to generate turnovers, or worse, sets up the offense to play from behind, it’s not going to go well.
As is pretty evident by the sections above, I believe this contest is coming down to Rutgers’ defense vs. Virginia Tech’s offense. If the Scarlet Knights get containment on Thomas, and force a few turnovers (far from unlikely given the quarterback’s play this year), they’ll come away with a victory. But from my vantage point, that’s the only way it happens. Rutgers only averaged 22 points per game (96th in the country), and if they’re faced with guiding this team to a win, there’s little chance it happens — even against a shaky Tech secondary. There’s no doubt that after the Scarlet Knights’ Orange Bowl dreams all season, this game is bound to be a bit of a letdown for their players. So will they be able to re-conjure the momentum that got them to a 7-0 start? It could happen, but this experienced Virginia Tech group may simply be more motivated, and have a greater ability to put points up on the board. Rutgers has also only beaten two teams all season that finished .500 or better. Prediction: Virginia Tech 26, Rutgers 23