Annapolis, MD (SportsNetwork.com) - The Cincinnati Bearcats and Virginia Tech Hokies will close out their 2014 seasons in the Military Bowl on Dec. 27, as they take the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Tommy Tuberville's Bearcats closed the regular season with seven straight wins, earning a share of the American Athletic Conference crown, their fifth conference championship in the last seven years. Cincinnati opened the 2014 campaign with two straight wins, but then suffered three consecutive losses to Ohio State, Memphis and Miami-Florida. However, Tuberville righted the ship and the Bearcats responded with nothing but wins, finishing up the season at 9-3 and earning the conference title.
Tuberville knows how rare conference success can be.
"Yeah, 2004 (at Auburn in the SEC), 10 year reunion," said Tuberville. "It's been a long time. There are a lot of guys coaching in this profession that never win one. And I didn't have much to do with it, it's about the players. They did a good job. It's fun to watch kids win championships. I've been on several that have done great things like these kids did here and it's satisfying to be able to watch and listen to them out there celebrating then it is thinking about yourself."
Cincinnati is 8-7 all-time in bowl games and has participated in the Belk Bowl the last two seasons, beating Duke in 2012 (48-34) and losing to North Carolina (39-17) last year.
Frank Beamer's Hokies didn't have quite the same success in 2014. Virginia Tech was able to record a marquee win, handing Big Ten champion Ohio State its only loss of the season and in Columbus (35-21), but the Hokies really struggled to remain consistent and actually needed a 24-20 victory over rival Virginia in the regular-season finale just to become bowl eligible at 6-6. Still, the win over the Cavaliers extended Virginia Tech's streak of consecutive bowl appearances to 22, the second-longest active streak in the nation.
Beamer recognized this was a different kind of year for the Hokies following the win over Virginia.
"I really like this football team," Beamer said. "I know the record hasn't been as good as some of them, but the quality of kid, the determination and the hard play - we didn���t always play well, but we played hard. I really appreciate the type of kid we have in our program and particularly this group of players."
Virginia Tech is 10-17 in bowl games all-time and has lost three of its last four outings in the postseason, including a humbling 42-12 rout at the hands of UCLA in last year's Sun Bowl.
This marks the 11th all-time meeting between these two programs. Cincinnati tied things up at 5-5 with a 27-24 in 2012, the last time these teams met. These two teams met in the 2009 Orange Bowl, a game won by Virginia Tech, 20-7.
The Bearcats are a dangerous offensive squad, ranking 24th nationally in scoring (35.4 ppg) and 27th in total offense (457.8 ypg). The team's preference for moving the football is via the pass, where Cincinnati ranked 13th nationally at a hefty 300.2 yards per game.
Notre Dame transfer Gunner Kiel has settled in under center and had a tremendous sophomore season, completing 60.2 percent of his passes, for 3,019 yards and 30 touchdowns. Kiel was named an All-AAC honorable mention as a result.
The key to Cincinnati's strong passing attack is an array of weapons down the field. Three players finished up with 40+ receptions, led by Shaq Washington's 61 catches, for 661 yards and four scores. MeKale McKay (42 rec, 690 yds, 8 TDs) and Chris Moore (26 rec, 570 yds, 6 TDs) are big time playmakers as well.
The UC ground game produced almost 160 yards per game this season, led by tailbacks Mike Boone (601 yards, 9 TDs) and Rod Moore (596 yards, 5 TDs).
A lot of the offensive success was made possible by a strong offensive line, anchored by All-AAC first-team members Parker Ehinger (OG) and Eric Lefeld (OT).
The Cincinnati defense had its ups and downs this season. The numbers overall weren't anything to brag about, as the team allowed a generous 447.8 yards per game. Teams found success both running (181.5 ypg) and passing (266.3 ypg) against the Bearcats. Still, Cincinnati as a unit is capable of making big plays, with 32 sacks and 23 takeaways on the season.
Two of those superb playmakers reside in Cincinnati's front seven. Former Florida State Seminole Jeff Luc was a monster for Cincinnati this season. The 6-foot-1, 256-pound senior LB posted 121 total tackles, with 9.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks and an eye popping six forced fumbled, en route to All-AAC first team honors. Joining him on that elite list is senior defensive end Terrell Hartswell, who finished with 34 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 8.0 sacks and three fumble recoveries. Other defenders of note include sophomore safety Zach Edwards (110 tackles, 1 INT) and senior linebacker Nick Temple (108 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks).
Offense was not Virginia Tech's strength this season. The Hokies managed 23.3 ppg on a modest 367.9 ypg. Part of the problem was injuries decimating the backfield, resulting in rather bland rushing numbers.
The lack of balance put a lot on quarterback Michael Brewer's shoulders. He played brilliantly at times, but lacked consistency under center. Brewer completed 59.5 percent of his passes this season, for 2,598 yards and 17 touchdowns, but threw an alarming 14 interceptions as well.
Still, Virginia Tech has depth at the receiver position, including Isaiah Ford (53 rec, 665 yds, 6 TDs), Willie Byrn (44 rec, 374 yds) and Bucky Hodges (42 rec, 517 yds, 7 TDs).
While the Virginia Tech offense struggled at times, the defensive effort could be relied on week-in and week-out, despite injuries mounting on that side of the football as well, including losing stars like cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Luther Maddy. Still, the Hokies ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense (20.4 ppg) and finished among the nation's best in sacks with 46.
A strong secondary has anchored the defensive unit in Blacksburg, highlighted by safety Kyshoen Jarrett (86 tackles, 3 INT) and cornerbacks Chuck Clark (68 tackles) and Kendall Fuller (50 tackles, 1 INT), who earned some All-America accolades, as well as being tabbed All-ACC first team. With the secondary blanketing opposing receivers, defensive ends Dadi Nicolas (63 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 9.0 sacks) and Ken Ekanem (46 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks) were able to pin their ears back and get upfield.