Stanford enters Monday’s Discover Orange Bowl as the higher-ranked team, the team with the better record, and the 3.5-point Las Vegas favorite. This could be Andrew Luck’s last game before he leaves for a big NFL payday, and it could also be Jim Harbaugh’s if he leaves for a big Michigan (or 49ers or who knows who else) payday. And while Stanford’s opponent, ACC powerhouse Virginia Tech, plays in a BCS bowl almost as often as any team in the country, it took the best season in Stanford history to get the Card to Miami. In other words, if this game were a sports movie, Stanford would be the surefire winner.
And if we only look at the superficial numbers, then Stanford is the favorite, as well. But Virginia Tech plays the style of football that stymied the Cardinal during their only loss, which came to Oregon in Autzen Stadium. Stanford’s strong first half was not enough to stop Oregon running back LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas, the Duck speedsters who dismantled the Stanford defense virtually by themselves. Oregon used their speed-based, no-huddle spread option offense to outrun Stanford’s defensive packages. Oregon’s speed on the edges led the way for James to pick up 257 yards and 3 touchdowns, and Thomas added another 117 yards rushing. When Stanford stacked the box to shut down the run, Thomas had plenty of open receivers and exploited the Cardinal secondary for 238 yards and 3 touchdowns–one of his best passing performances of the year–as a result of the single coverage.
No one believes that Virginia Tech has the talent of Oregon. But Hokie quarterback Tyrod Taylor is a more polished passer and more tested leader than Thomas, and Taylor also has the ability to get out of the pocket and pick up yards on both broken plays and option reads. Although the Virginia Tech offense has stayed exceptionally balanced throughout the season (209 rushing yards, 202 passing yards per game) they’ve shown that they’re most comfortable tucking the ball away and grinding out gains on the ground. Taylor will need his entire stable of running backs–Darren Evans, David Wilson, and Ryan Williams–to make productive carries and collectively play the role of LaMichael James.
If they can do that, and Taylor is able to pick up upwards of 70 yards rushing, then the senior quarterback should be able to hit open receivers downfield. His biggest weapon and favorite target is junior Jarrett Boykin, who leads the team in catches and receiving yards. Fellow junior Danny Coale has also been good for 3-4 catches per game, but his yardage per game has been shaky. Coale was non-existent in the Boise State game and didn’t add much in a close win over Georgia Tech, but caught 6 balls for 143 yards and a touchdown in the ACC Championship Game. If Boykin plays well and Coale can turn in a big game, Taylor will be at the helm of a very dangerous Virginia Tech attack.
We know what Stanford can do when it gets the ball, and it doesn’t appear that Virginia Tech’s defense will be able to halt the Card’s offensive barrage. Although the Hokies rank 15th in the nation in scoring defense by allowing just 19 points per game, they have not shut down a good team all year. Against VT, Boise State scored 33 points; NC State scored 30; East Carolina scored 27; and Florida State put up 33 points in the conference championship. Stanford averages 40 points per game, and Andrew Luck’s squad is, by all measures, significantly better than Boise State, NC State, East Carolina, and FSU. It seems all but certain that Stanford will score at least 30 points in the Orange Bowl, and the Cardinal’s scoring could be a function of how well Virginia Tech moves the ball. If the Hokies can follow the Oregon blueprint and exploit Stanford’s lack of speed to the sidelines, then Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh will open up the playbook and let the points fly. Luck will have wide receiver Chris Owusu back, which will open up the home run ball. With Owusu and Doug Baldwin running deep routes and Ryan Whalen and rapidly improving tight end Zach Ertz available for shorter gains, the VT secondary will have their hands full.
If Virginia Tech can score, we’ll be looking at a shoot-out. If the Hokies settle for a conservative tempo and a ball-control offense (however unlikely that may be), Stanford will use running backs Stepfan Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson to pick up tough yards behind one of the best and most underrated offensive lines in America. Also expect media darling and two-way starter Owen Marecic to get a few chances to finish drives in the final game of his collegiate career.
Virginia Tech may have a blueprint for beating Stanford, but Virginia Tech is not Oregon. The Hokies aren’t as fast and won’t be able to physically and emotionally exhaust the Cardinal like Oregon did. Look for Stanford to take its extra motivation and overall better football team all the way to a fairly easy win and cover of the 3.5 points.