I'll keep these previews relatively simple. For more, check out Gobbler Country's "What to Watch" and the Merc's matchup breakdown. I'll tackle the Stanford 'D' vs. the Virginia Tech 'O' on Friday and post a Cardinal Cram Session game preview over the weekend.
Stanford's remarkably balanced attack, led by Heisman runner-up Andrew Luck, averages 40.3 points per game, while the Hokies’ bend-but-don’t break defense holds opponents to 19.1 points per game. Virginia Tech has been especially vulnerable against the run this season, which is unusual for a Bud Foster-coached defense. Since 1995, the Hokies have finished in the top 20 in rushing defense 10 times, but they enter the Orange Bowl ranked 58th and are allowing nearly 150 rushing yards per game. Never was the Hokies’ ability to overcome their occasional defensive lapses more evident than in their ACC Coastal Division-clinching win against Miami. Virginia Tech allowed the Hurricanes to rack up 464 total yards, including 163 by running back Lamar Miller, but still won 31-17.
Pass Protection: The Stanford offensive line has allowed five sacks all season, but Chase Beeler and Co. will be tested by a Virginia Tech pass rush that helped the Hokies rank 13th nationally in sacks. When Andrew Luck has time, he's unstoppable. When he's pressured, he's apt to improvise. When he's on his back, he's not much help.
Time of Possession: Stanford is the only FBS team to average more than 35 minutes of possession. The Cardinal’s long, methodical drives are demoralizing to opposing defenses and help keep Vic Fangio’s defensive unit fresh. The best defense against Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor might be an offense that moves the chains and burns the clock.
Red Zone Conversions: Stanford started the season blistering hot inside the red zone before cooling off somewhat and finishing with an 88% conversion percentage that ranks the Cardinal 15th nationally. With as many turnovers as Virginia Tech forces, it'll be especially important for Stanford to capitalize when they move the ball inside the 20. The Hokies have allowed their opponents to score 30 times in 40 trips to the red zone.
Three Numbers of Note
57.5: Stanford's nation-best completion percentage on third down, which is a major reason the Cardinal leads the nation in time of possession and Daniel Zychlinski is the least used punter in college football. Virginia Tech is allowing opponents to convert on 35% of their third down attempts, which ranks 21st in the nation.
22: Interceptions by the Hokies, third-most among FBS schools. Virginia Tech leads the country in turnover margin (+18).
68: Runs of 10 or more yards the Hokies have allowed this season. Stanford, by comparison, has allowed 55. Opponents are averaging 4.4 yards per carry against Virginia Tech, which has allowed six runs of 40+ yards.
Three Players to Watch
Chris Owusu, Stanford WR: When Stanford goes to the air, you can bet Luck will be looking for his speedy playmaker, who was sidelined for much of the season. Reports are that Owusu is back to 100 percent and ready to test Virginia Tech's opportunistic secondary.
Stepfan Taylor, Stanford RB: Taylor’s workload decreased as the season wore on, which probably reflects a combination of fatigue on the part of the sophomore and the Cardinal coaching staff’s increased confidence in freshman Anthony Wilkerson. Taylor, who has 15 rushing touchdowns, ended the season with a 115-yard performance against Oregon State and should be well rested and ready to attack the Hokies behind Stanford's stout offensive line.
Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech LB: The linebacking corps was one of the weakest components of the Virginia Tech defense this season and that was before the Hokies lost Lyndell Gibson to a shoulder injury in the ACC Championship Game. Taylor, a first-year starter, was the steadying force and will need to have a big day to slow Stanford's offensive attack.