Two weeks from today, the Cincinnati Bearcats will return to college football bowl season as they take on the Virginia Tech Hokies in the 2018 Military Bowl. One of the most intriguing aspects of this matchup is that the Bearcats and Hokies have tangled in bowl games more than once before. The first time they did was in 2009. A lot has happened to both programs since that 2009 Orange Bowl, but let’s take a look back and remember how things worked out.
Before we get to the actual game, we should set the stage. The Bearcats were still riding the upward slope of their program resurgence. In a process that began when Mark Dantonio was hired prior to the 2004 season, the Bearcats had won three-straight bowl games entering the 2008 season and were coming off their first 10-win campaign in program history. They had also returned to the national rankings for the first time since 1976 in 2007, but were not given as much credit entering 2008, the second season under Brian Kelly.
The prognosticators looked foolish, especially near the end of the season, as the Bearcats rode a six-game winning streak into the postseason, rising to No. 12 in the AP poll along the way. During that win streak, the Bearcats defeated three ranked teams (No. 24 USF, No. 20 West Virginia and No. 20 Pitt). The win against West Virginia was easily the most impressive. The Bearcats did let a 20-7 lead slip away, but a two-yard touchdown pass from Tony Pike to Kazeem Alli in overtime left them as the conquerors of Morgantown. UC nearly let the Pitt game slip away as well, allowing the LeSean McCoy-led Panthers to score 14-unanswered points in the fourth quarter, but the game ended in a 28-21 victory.
When the dust finally settled, the Bearcats were crowned champions of the Big East, which earned them an automatic bid to a BCS bowl. That bowl turned out to be the Orange Bowl.
On the other side of the card was Virginia Tech, a program with a much longer history of football success, primarily fueled by the work of long-time head coach Frank Beamer. In 2008, the Hokies finished with nine wins before bowl season. That included a 30-12 rout of Boston College in the ACC championship game which allowed the Hokies to defend their 2007 title. Interestingly enough, they actually lost to East Carolina in their season opener and suffered a 1-3 stretch from mid-October to mid-November when they lost to BC, Florida State and Miami-Florida. Despite that, they managed to end the season on a high note largely due to a 20-17 win over Georgia Tech earlier in the year that served as the tiebreaker in the race for the ACC Coastal Division.
In terms of star power, there was plenty on both sides. This was a breakout season for a few Bearcat players, especially Pike and wide receiver Mardy Gilyard. Pike threw for 2,407 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first full season as the starter while Gilyard started his campaign to become an all-time favorite Bearcat by being a threat in the passing game (81 receptions, 1,276 yards, 11 touchdowns) and on kickoff returns (27.6 yards per return, two touchdowns). Gilyard’s returning prowess was not all that made UC’s special teams effective, as punter Kevin Huber was named an All-American for the second-straight season. Returning to the offense, Dominick Goodman put a cap on his senior year with 84 receptions for 1,028 yards and seven scores.
For how impressive the passing game and special teams were, UC was actually even better on defense. It ranked 26th in the country in defensive S&P+ and was powered by incredible pass-rushers like Connor Barwin (14.5 TFL, 11.0 sacks), Lamonte Nelms (14.0 TFL, 6.5 sacks) and Terrill Byrd (10.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks), as well as secondary ballhawks like Mike Mickens (four interceptions) and Brandon Underwood (four interceptions).
For the Hokies, Tyrod Taylor really became a star this season, despite throwing only two touchdown passes. While he went on to become better known as the ultimate streaming quarterback for fantasy football, Taylor rushed for a career-high 738 yards and seven touchdowns in 2008 and was named the MVP of the ACC title game.
The 2008 Hokies also featured the stunning freshman season of Darren Evans (1,265 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns) and a top 10 defense led by all-ACC safety Victory Harris and second-team defensive ends Orion Martin and Jason Worilds, not to mention Kam Chancellor.
Now to the game itself. The Bearcats came out of the gate firing, as they drove 72 yards in less than two minutes to score a touchdown on their opening possession. Pike was especially good on the drive, connecting on 3-for-4 passes for 66 yards and a touchdown. Gilyard brought in that score on a 15-yard connection.
When Virginia Tech responded by driving down into UC territory only to miss a field goal, it appeared like the Bearcats might have a chance to put the game away early. Unfortunately, they went three-and-out on their next drive and then had a missed field goal of their own on the drive after that.
Virginia Tech evened the score at 7-7 with a 17-yard rushing touchdown from Taylor early in the second quarter, and the Bearcats continued to struggle. Even after Underwood snagged an interception midway through the second frame, the Bearcats failed to capitalize, as Pike was picked off seven plays later in the red zone. From that turnover the Hokies ate up the rest of the half and finished it off with a 44-yard field goal to take a 10-7 lead.
The third quarter started the same way that the second one ended, with Virginia Tech going on a more than six-minute drive to get another field goal and extend its advantage to 13-7. Instead of quickly responding, the Bearcats quickly made things worse, as Pike was intercepted two plays later. The Hokies got no points off of that turnover, but the Bearcats punted on their only other possession of the third period.
With the game still within reach at the top of the fourth quarter, Pike was intercepted once again and this time the Hokies didn’t let it go to waste. With excessively generous field position thanks to the interception, Virginia Tech only had to go 10 yards to score a touchdown, with a six-yard scoring rush from Evans nearly knocking the Bearcats out.
However, UC rallied, driving down to the Virginia Tech one-yard line on the next possession. Unfortunately, the Hokies stood tall and pulled off a goal line stand. UC would get the ball once more before the end of the game, but Pike was intercepted on the first play of that drive and the Hokies just ran out the clock from there.
In a game in which they wasted far too many chances, the Bearcats were dominated in time of possession as the Hokies ran and ran and ran. They had 258 rushing yards, with Evans accounting for 153 of them. The freshman running back was named MVP for his effort. If UC had won, either Gilyard or Byrd probably would have gotten the call, as the former caught seven passes for 158 yards and a touchdown and the latter racked up 4.0 tackles for loss. Unfortunately, Pike’s four interceptions and the letdowns in the red zone cemented the loss for UC.
Much has changed since the 2009 Orange Bowl. There is no longer a BCS bowl system. The Big East isn’t a football conference and the Bearcats are in the American Athletic Conference instead. Beamer is no longer the head coach at Virginia Tech. The Bearcats have had three different head coaches since Kelly left following the 2009-10 season. The list goes on.
For the Bearcats, the hope is that there will be another major difference between the 2008-09 season and the 2018 one; that the Bearcats will beat the Hokies in a bowl game this time.