Sugar Bowl Preview: Virginia Tech vs. Michigan

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Can David Wilson find running room against Michigan's much-improved defense?

<p> Athlon previews the 2012 Sugar Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Michigan.&nbsp;</p>

by Mark Ross

Allstate Sugar Bowl
Michigan (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech (11-2)
Date: Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, La.

Michigan and Virginia Tech seem to have a lot in common. Not only do they have similar statistics when it comes to offensive and defensive production, both teams have dual-threat quarterbacks, 1,000-yard running backs, didn’t win their respective conferences and don’t deserve to be in a BCS bowl.

While the first four claims are fact, it’s the last one that’s purely opinion, and it’s an opinion that seems to be shared by the majority of college football fans and pundits alike.

Surprise is probably the best word to use in describing the reaction after Sugar Bowl officials picked No. 13 Michigan and No. 11 Virginia Tech for its Jan. 3 match up. In the process, these same officials not only bypassed two teams — No. 7 Boise State and No. 8 Kansas State — that were ranked higher in the BCS standings, but also a Michigan State team that defeated the Wolverines earlier this season and was the runner-up to Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin in the Big Ten.

Regardless of your opinion of the BCS system and its flaws, this much is clear — Sugar Bowl officials wanted Michigan and Virginia Tech and that’s what they got. Now it’s up to both of these teams to seize the chance on the big stage and prove to the fans and pundits that the Sugar Bowl made the right choice.

For one, Michigan is more than happy to return to a BCS bowl for the first time since the 2007 Rose Bowl. The program is enjoying a revival under first-year head coach Brady Hoke, who led the Wolverines to double-digit wins for the first time since 2006.

That may not seem like a big deal to most programs, but this is Michigan we are talking about, who has the most wins (894) in college football history and had made a bowl game 33 straight years before going 3-9 in 2008 under Rich Rodriguez.

Michigan did get back to a bowl last year, its first in three seasons, but got thoroughly outplayed and embarrassed by Mississippi State in a 52-14 Gator Bowl debacle. So besides showing the nation that the football program is back among the elite, the Wolverines also want nothing more than to make last year’s poor bowl performance a distant memory.

Virginia Tech may have more than 200 less wins than Michigan, but as far as recent history goes, the Hokies arguably have more claim as one of the sport’s elite programs than the Wolverines. Virginia Tech currently has the third-longest bowl steak in the nation at 19 straight postseason appearances and has won 10 or more games eight straight seasons.

Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer has the most wins among FBS active head coaches with 250. He’s just 8-10 in bowl games, however, with a 1-4 record in BCS bowls, including last year’s 40-12 disappointing showing against Stanford in the Orange Bowl.

Virginia Tech made it to the ACC Championship Game once again this year, but fell to Clemson, 38-10, to deny the Hokies a fourth ACC title in five seasons. Clemson is the only team to defeat Virginia Tech this season, as the Tigers also beat the Hokies 23-3 in Blacksburg, Va., back on Oct. 1.

This will be the first-ever meeting between these two schools.

WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL:

The little engine that makes Michigan’s offense go is dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson. The junior, affectionately known as “Shoelace,” has kept opposing defenses in knots the past two seasons with both his legs and arm.

Robinson is averaging nearly 100 yards rushing a game, which ranks him 28th in the nation. His total rushing yards are down (1,163 to 1,702) compared to last year as is his yards per carry average (5.6 to 6.6), but he’s had fewer attempts (208 to 256) and scored more rushing touchdowns (16 to 14).

Robinson also has attempted fewer passes (237 to 291) to this point than last season, while throwing for 2,056 yards with 18 touchdowns. He’s not the most accurate passer, completing 56.1 percent of his attempts thus far, and has tossed 18 interceptions.

Even though his overall numbers are down compared to last season when he finished sixth in the Heisman voting, he is still an extremely dangerous weapon as he ranks 29th in the nation in total offense with 268.3 yards per game.

Part of the reason Robinson’s rushing attempts are down is because of the emergence of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. A sophomore, Toussaint established himself as Michigan’s lead back in the second half of the season. The first Wolverine not named Robinson to rush for 1,000 yards or more in a season since Mike Hart in 2007, Toussaint has 112 carries for 678 yards (6.1 ypc) in the past five games alone.

Robinson and Toussaint have combined to rush for 2,174 yards and 25 touchdowns. They are the main reason the Wolverines have the nation’s 12th-ranked rushing attack, averaging more than 235 yards on the ground alone.

Four different Wolverines have caught at least 18 passes this season led by Junior Hemmingway’s 32 receptions for 636 yards. Senior tight end Kevin Koger is the team leader in touchdown receptions with four.

Michigan’s offensive line has done a good job all season opening up running lanes and protecting Robinson when he stays in the pocket. The line is a veteran group led by senior center David Molk, who was awarded this year’s Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. Molk also was named the Big Ten’s top offensive lineman and has started 41 games in his career.

Michigan is averaging more 420 yards of total offense and 34 points per game. By comparison, Virginia Tech’s defense has allowed that many yards and points in a game twice. Once to Miami (Fla.) in a 38-35 win and to Clemson in the ACC title game loss. The Hokies will look to continue their defensive consistency against the Wolverines.

Virginia Tech has already faced several dual-threat quarterbacks similar to Robinson, most notably Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (twice) and Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington, so Robinson won’t necessarily be a new challenge. However, the Hokies will need to limit Michigan’s entire rushing attack if they want to force the Wolverines to throw more, which is not Robinson’s strong suit.

The Hokies are one of the more solid defenses in the nation, performing well against both the run (107.8 yards per game allowed, 17th in the country) and pass (206.2 ypg allowed, 40th). They also are giving up less than 18 points per game and are 11th in sacks per game with nearly three a contest. It will be interesting to see how much pressure they can get on Robinson, and if they will be able to bring him down before he gets out of the pocket.

Two Hokies to watch for on the defensive side are Jayron Hosley and Kyle Fuller. Not only are the two defensive backs good in pass coverage, combining for four interceptions, but they also are capable of rushing the passer. Fuller is fourth on the team with 4.5 sacks and it will be interesting to see if Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster uses him or Hosley as a “spy” on Robinson or blitzes with them often to try and pressure the Wolverine’s signal-caller.

As long as they can contain Robinson, the Hokies should be able to force a mistake or two out of him, as they have already picked off 15 passes this season.

WHEN VIRGINIA TECH HAS THE BALL:

Virginia Tech has its own dual-threat quarterback in Logan Thomas, but it also has David Wilson, the ACC Offensive Player and Player of the Year, in its backfield. Wilson is fifth in the country with 1,627 rushing yards (125.2 per game), is averaging more than six yards per carry, and has scored 10 total touchdowns.

The junior has rushed for 100 yards or more in 10 of 13 games and has a chance to break Virginia running back Thomas Jones’ ACC single-season record of 1,798 yards, which he set in 1999 in 11 games.

Wilson is a fast and explosive runner who is deceptively strong for his size (5-10, 205) and does not go down easily. He’s dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield and, when given the chance, as a returner. Josh Oglesby serves as the Hokies’ change-of-pace back for Wilson and has 336 rushing yards and six touchdowns this season.

While Michigan’s Robinson and Tech’s Thomas may both be dual-threat quarterbacks, they do it in different ways. Thomas is 6-6, 254, which has brought out comparisons to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and current Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

At times this season, Thomas has played like Newton, using his size and strength to bowl over defenders on quarterback draws and sneaks, or shaking off pass rushers long enough to prolong the play and come up with big yards. The sophomore is the latest in a line of successful dual-threat Virginia Tech quarterbacks, most notably Michael Vick and last season’s starter, Tyrod Taylor.

Thomas doesn’t rush nearly as often as Robinson, mostly due to Wilson’s presence in the backfield, but he does have more than 400 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He has completed close to 60 percent of his passes for 2,799 yards and 19 touchdowns with just nine interceptions.

Thomas has spread the ball out to his receivers with six different Hokies catching at least 14 passes. Jarrett Boykin leads the team with 57 catches, while Danny Coale has the most receiving yards (787) and Boykin and Marcus Davis are tied with five touchdowns each. Those three and D.J. Coles have combined for 172 catches, 2,466 yards and 16 touchdowns. 

The starting offensive line consists of four seniors and one sophomore and has done a good job of keeping Thomas upright, allowing just over a sack a game. Michigan’s defense comes into this game 27th in the nation in sacks with 2.3 per game and will try and get to Thomas and slow down Wilson with a trio of defensive linemen in Mike Martin, Craig Roh and Ryan Van Bergen.

The Wolverines are surrendering less than 130 yards rushing per game, so one of the key battles to watch is their run defense against Wilson and Ogelsby. If Virginia Tech can find success on the ground, it should open up things downfield for Thomas and the receivers to make some noise.

Michigan’s defense has been solid all year, one of the biggest reasons for its turnaround this season. Last year the Wolverines gave up nearly 450 yards and 34 points per game, which ranked them in the bottom 20 of the nation in both categories. This season, the Wolverines are currently 18th in the nation in total defense, surrendering less than 320 yards per game, and are giving up less than 18 points per game, which ranks them seventh overall.

With improvement like that, it’s easy to see why the Wolverines went from 7-5 last year to 10-2 this season. Now they get to see if they can maintain this level of performance against the Hokies.

Special Teams

Both Michigan and Virginia Tech rank near the bottom when it comes to net punting and kickoff returns. Virginia Tech is the only team with either a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown this season. Virginia Tech’s Hosley can be dangerous as a returner and has two punt return touchdowns in his career.

Virginia Tech has a reputation for its special teams play, most notably its propensity to block kicks, but the Hokies have just one punt block to this point. Michigan also has one blocked kick this season.

Michigan’s Brendan Gibbons has connected on all but one of his 53 PAT attempts. The sophomore has made 10 of 14 field goal attempts, but just two of those makes were between 40-49 yards.

Cody Journell, like Gibbons, is a sophomore and has missed just one PAT (43-of-44) this season. The Virginia Tech placekicker also hasn’t attempted a field goal from beyond 50 yards, but he has made 14 of his 17 field goal tries overall, including three of four from 40-49 yards.

Prediction

As noted above there are a lot of similarities between these two teams, but let’s concentrate on the ones that matter to the game itself. Both Michigan and Virginia Tech feature strong defenses that don’t give up a lot of yards or points. Both also have offenses led by dual-threat quarterbacks and 1,000-yard running backs. So either something has to give or this is going to be a low-scoring affair.

I’ll lean towards the former as while I see neither team exploding offensively, I do think Virginia Tech has a slight edge on Michigan when it comes to overall offensive makeup. Robinson is by far a better and more dangerous runner, especially in the open field, than Thomas, but Thomas has the edge as a passer and also has a better receiving corps. Toussaint has been extremely productive as the Wolverines’ lead back recently; while Wilson has been doing it all season for the Hokies.

Both teams are on a mission to prove to everyone that they belong in a BCS bowl, but as everyone knows, only one can win. Both teams are no stranger to a BCS bowl, but Virginia Tech was here just last year, and while the Hokies may not have the best record in the BCS spotlight, they are more familiar with it than the Wolverines, who haven’t been in a BCS bowl since 2007.

In the end, I think Virginia Tech’s experience, coupled with its offensive balance and special teams prowess, will be enough to slow down this “young” and hungry Michigan squad.

Virginia Tech 27, Michigan 24

CFB Conferences: 

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