Bearcats and Hokies face off in Annapolis for the second time in five years
For the second time in five years, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech will face off in the Military Bowl. In 2014, a Bearcats squad on the cusp of being ranked played a Hokies team that had achieved bowl eligibility with a season-ending win over Virginia.
This year, Cincinnati enters the Military Bowl at 10-2 and was ranked for three weeks this season. Virginia Tech’s postseason hopes were salvaged by another victory over Virginia and a make-up game win over Marshall the following week. While the 6-6 finish was not what they hoped for in 2018, Justin Fuente’s crew would love a repeat of that previous Military Bowl result as the Hokies beat the Bearcats 33-17.
Including the 2014 contest, the two programs have played 10 times with Virginia Tech holding a 6-4 advantage.
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman: Cincinnati (10-2) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 31 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (Annapolis, Md.)
Spread: Cincinnati -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Virginia Tech stop the run?
Since Oct. 1, at their best Virginia Tech has been mediocre against the run. At their worst, the term train wreck comes to mind. Over their last eight games, the Hokies’ best rush defense performance was against Virginia when they allowed 4.3 yards per carry and 164 yards on the ground. The ugliest of a bunch of bad showings was when Pitt averaged a staggering 13.7 yards per carry on their way to piling up 492 rushing yards. In those eight games, Virginia Tech allowed 268 yards a game and 6.3 yards per carry. And the Bearcats have the personnel to exploit that weakness. Sophomore Michael Warren II had 1,163 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns in the regular season and he was not the only Cincinnati player that did damage carrying the ball. As a team, Cincinnati is averaging 238 rushing yards per game, 18th in the nation and two spots above the Pittsburgh group that had nearly 500 against the Hokies. Stopping Warren and his friends will be a high priority for the Tech defense.
2. The Quarterbacks
As good as Warren has been for the Cincinnati offense, quarterback Desmond Ridder enters this game as the team's most important player. The redshirt freshman has had a fabulous year, completing 62.5 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Plus, he's been a factor in the Bearcats' 18th-ranked rushing offense with 574 yards and five scores on the ground. For Virginia Tech, Ryan Willis came up big during his first year in Blacksburg. The Kansas transfer also has shown himself to be a proficient passer that can make plays with his feet when needed. The two quarterbacks had roughly the same amount of total yardage during the regular season with Willis accounting for 25 total touchdowns while Ridder had a hand in 24. So which of these evenly matched quarterbacks will have the better Military Bowl?
3. The Bearcats' stingy defense
Looking at the statistics, Willis will face a greater challenge due to Cincinnati’s highly ranked defense. No matter the defensive category, the Bearcats excelled. They are 26th in pass defense, No. 8 in rushing defense, and when you combine the two you get the nation's eighth-ranked total defense. They are giving up just 16 points per game, also good for a top-10 national ranking. They can make plays behind the line of scrimmage, but they also don’t give up a lot of big gains. Cincinnati will make the Hokies go the length of the field by getting first down after first down and will force Willis to do much of the work. And it’s not just one or two Cincinnati defenders that can make plays. Jarell White leads the Bearcats in tackles with 53, but 16 players have at least 20 stops on the year. But if there is one guy Virginia Tech has to key on, it is defensive tackle Cortez Broughton, a senior with 18.5 tackles for lost yardage and 7.5 sacks.
The season wasn’t pretty but Virginia Tech did qualify for a bowl game for the 26th year in a row and with Florida State missing the postseason this year, the Hokies now hold the longest active bowl streak. Looking back, this fall's step back was a bit predictable. The Hokies lost a ton off last year’s defense both through natural attrition and suspensions. Plus, though Ryan Willis played very well following the Josh Jackson injury, the offense had to regroup this season after all-time leading receiver Cam Philipps used up his eligibility. With very few upperclassmen on this team, 2019 should be a breakout year for Virginia Tech and the Military Bowl could act as a springboard to next season. But Cincinnati is ready now. Head coach Luke Fickell’s team has talented young players like Desmond Ridder and Michael Warren, but also experience on both sides of the ball. Virginia Tech will find it difficult to throw the ball against the Bearcats and find it even harder to run successfully. The balance of the Cincinnati offense will allow Fickell’s team to move the ball more smoothly against the Hokie D. In a game that is close in the third quarter, Cincinnati pulls away late to take the 2018 Military Bowl.
Prediction: Cincinnati 28, Virginia Tech 17
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.