Sugar Bowl Preview

The Sugar Bowl is on tap tonight and this one’s all about pressure. Michigan and Virginia Tech both need to justify their inclusion in the BCS over Kansas State and Boise State. Virginia Tech needs to win a major bowl game against someone besides a Big East opponent (they won the 2008 Orange Bowl over Cincinnati, otherwise lost that same bowl in 2007 and 2010 and lost the Sugar Bowl in 2004). And the Sugar Bowl itself has a lot to live up to after the thrillers we saw yesterday from Pasadena and Glendale. So as the Notebook did for the Rose and Fiesta, we’ll preview tonight’s game by first following the path each team took to New Orleans and then looking at how they match up head-to-head.

Virginia Tech (11-1, lost ACC Championship Game):  The Hokies opened the season with a credible, albeit not overwhelming conference schedule. They played future bowl teams from the midmajors, beating eventual Sun Belt champ Arkansas State and Marshall, along with a win over East Carolina who’s usually better than they were this year. To no one’s surprise, the tone was set with defense and the running game as the key to these four wins. Sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas was in a definite get-your-feet-wet stage, while David Wilson’s running led the way on offense and defensive coordinator Bud Foster again had a solid unit ready to keep the team afloat, as they started 4-0.

No one was overly impressed with Tech on a national scale and those doubts were vindicated when Clemson came to Blacksburg, took the game over in the second half and won 23-3. Even though Foster’s defense did a decent job in containing dynamic Tiger quarterback Tajh Boyd, the team did nothing well offensively and it looked like a conference title was a pipe dream.

Virginia Tech had the advantage of being in the ACC’s weaker division, a turnabout, as the Coastal had been the stronger entity the previous few years. Thomas stepped up with his breakout moment against Miami, completing 23 of 25 passes for 310 yards and leading his team to a thrilling 38-35 win that got the season turned around. Victories over Wake Forest, Boston College and Duke followed, with Wilson ruthlessly churning out 120-150 yard games. Even though they hadn’t played well against Duke and needed three interceptions to preserve a 14-10 win, Tech seemed to be peaking as they played three games that would settle the division title.

Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia, all division rivals and all bowl-bound were the final three games and the Hokies won them all. averaging 33 points a game in the process. Thomas continued to work both Danny Coale and Jarrett Boykin into the passing game and while Wilson was “held” to 82 yards against Carolina, the running game continued to set the tone for games. For the season, Wilson rushed for 100-plus yards nine times, the same number of times Ferris Bueller skipped class in the Matthew Broderick movie.

With everything seeming to come together in Blacksburg what happened in the championship game rematch against Clemson came as a shock. Not that Virginia Tech lost, but that they were thrashed 38-10, as the Tigers again blew open a close game in the second half and became the first team to truly shut down Wilson completely, holding him to 32 yards. Boyd carved up the defense and Andre Ellington had a big night running the ball. Any weakness the Hokies had was exposed in the ACC Championship Game.

Michigan (10-2): Like their opponent tonight, Michigan opened with a non-conference schedule that provided enough of a test to be interesting, but not enough to stop them from going 4-0. The highlight was a thrilling home win over Notre Dame, where Denard Robinson threw the winning touchdown pass with two seconds left to cap off a wild fourth quarter. The Wolverines also played bowl teams in Western Michigan and San Diego State, and even Eastern Michigan stepped up and was an improved MAC team this year. Robinson singlehandedly carried the offense with his running. Only against Notre Dame did he have a big day passing, but he consistently put up anywhere from 100-200 yards on the ground. More importantly, new head coach Brady Hoke showed ability his predecessor Rich Rodriguez didn’t have, and that was an understanding of defense. Michigan did a good job on pass defense against a solid Western Michigan quarterback in Alex Carder and only gave up nine points a game in the three non-ND games.

Big Ten play opened with wins over Minnesota and Northwestern as the offense averaged half a hundred a game (I love that phrase used by Rece Davis and Chris Fowler on ESPN. It sounds so much more dramatic than saying “50”). The offense was still Robinson’s baby, although Hoke was clearly trying to get running back Fitz Toussaint involved in the offense.

The inability of the offense to do anything that didn’t involve Robinson hurt them against Michigan State, a game that would ultimately settle the division title. The Wolverines got just 82 yards on the ground and in spite of winning the turnover battle 2-1 and having the Spartans commit 13 penalties, Michigan still lost by two touchdowns. That’s being dominated at the line of scrimmage.

Over the course of the next three games, which were wins over Purdue and Illinois and a loss to Iowa, the Michigan offense that we should see tonight really came into focus. Toussaint had big games in both wins, averaging over 180 yards a game and the inability of the rush defense to stop Iowa’s Marcus Coker underscored how important it would be for Michigan to win the battle of conventional running games if they were going to have success in the final two games to settle their fate.

A home game with Nebraska was a de facto game for this Sugar Bowl bid and both Toussaint and the defense were ready for the challenge. The running back had 138 yards, while the defense held Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead to 49. A battle between two teams that had versatile quarterbacks while trying to integrate running backs into the attack and playing average defense, saw Michigan emerge with a big 45-17 win. Even though the defense played its worst game of the year against Ohio State one week later, surrendering 34 points to a lousy offense, Robinson did the job both running and passing, while Toussaint had 120 yards. Michigan scored 40 against a good defense, a demonstration of what they can do when firing on all cylinders.

The Matchup: Virginia Tech has caught most of the heat from the media regarding the undeservedness of the bid, although that overlooks the fact that Tech ranks higher in the BCS standings that Michigan (11th to 13th) and that’s in spite of the fact that Michigan didn’t have to play and lose a conference title game. And the Big Ten’s bowl performance has been less than impressive in recent years, as the 1-9 record on January 1 the past two seasons demonstrates. Of course the ACC hasn’t been a lot better, at least against top-caliber conferences, but since the ACC already takes its knocks, it’s important to note that there is no real conference advantage in play here tonight.

If we base things on each team’s last game, then Michigan obviously has a huge edge. But if there’s one thing that is clear about the Wolverines its how important Toussaint is to the offense. If I’m Bud Foster I focus on taking him away and putting the game in Denard’s hands. He’s good, but he’s not so outstanding that he’ll win a game singlehandledly, unless Virginia Tech turns it over the way Notre Dame did back in September. Michigan’s defensive task is straight forward. Stack the box, take away Wilson and dare Thomas to beat you. This one is much tougher to predict, because Thomas has ranged from looking brilliant to looking like a green sophomore, and there’s no obvious patterns that tell us what he might do tonight. If he can make some plays to Boykin and Coale, it will open things up for Wilson and the Hokies will control the game.

The big X-factor in this game works against Tech though and it’s that the kickers are facing legal and disciplinary issues. Yes, “kickers” was supposed to be plural. The top two are expected to be out tonight and that puts a huge burden on the rest of the team to not just win, but to make sure it doesn’t come down to a kick either way. That’s a big bar to reach, so while I think Tech will control the flow of play, as long as Michigan can make some red zone stops, they’ll win the special teams battle and eke out a win.

The Notebook will be live blogging this game throughout when it kicks off at 8:30 PM ET on ESPN, just as was done yesterday for the Rose and Fiesta Bowls.