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Virginia Tech vs. Rutgers, 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl preview: The elbow drop game

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In a game with two strong defenses and two iffy offenses, a single big play, or a turnover advantage, could make all the difference. Dec. 28, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN.


5 Players To Watch

Brandon Coleman (WR, Rutgers, So.). Brandon Coleman might be the most important receiver in the country with fewer than 40 receptions. He is Rutgers' field-stretcher. If he is catching at least half of his passes and getting downfield, Rutgers is all but guaranteed to score enough points to win with its fantastic defense. In wins over Syracuse, UConn and Arkansas, Coleman caught 18 of 30 passes. But in a loss to Louisville and less impressive wins over South Florida and Howard, he caught just six of 20. With a solid contribution from Coleman, Rutgers is inefficient but explosive; without it, the Scarlet Knights are just inefficient. There is still plenty of potential in players like running backs Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins and receivers Tim Wright and Mark Harrison, but Coleman is the big-play guy. Rutgers needs him.

Antone Exum (CB, Virginia Tech, Jr.). Virginia Tech's defense may have only been good, not great, in 2012, but it wasn't the primary reason for the Hokies finishing just 6-6. Prototypical Tech linebackers like Jack Tyler and Bruce Taylor (combined: 133.5 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, eight sacks, six passes defensed) are great, but I'm highlighting Exum here for a few reasons. First, he is damn good (four picks and 15 passes broken up) and damn physical (6'1, 224 pounds). Second, it will be quite interesting to see how Tech uses him against Rutgers' offense. Does he line up most frequently against Coleman, a big (6'6, 220 pounds) deep threat, or is he used to dominate one of Rutgers' possession options? Finally ... he did this, which is pretty awesome.

Full bowl season TV schedule || Can Hokies stay above .500?

Khaseem Greene (WLB, Rutgers, Sr.) and Scott Vallone (DT, Rutgers, Sr.). By now, college football fans probably recognize Greene's name; the senior has been a tackling machine through the years, he was twice named the Big East's defensive player of the year, and he is probably Rutgers' best defensive player ever. Plus, people probably remember the gruesome leg injury he suffered in last year's Pinstripe Bowl win over Iowa State (there is no link here because you don't want to see it if you haven't already). He was fantastic once again in 2012 -- 10.5 tackles for loss, seven passes defensed, six forced fumbles -- but he got a lot of help from the undersized (275 pounds) Vallone, one of college football's more underrated players. Vallone led Rutgers with 12 tackles for loss and gives opponents two different players to account for on every offensive snap. Virginia Tech's offensive line has been an issue this season (to put it kindly), and it could struggle to handle these two playmakers.

Logan Thomas (QB, Virginia Tech, Jr.). It was pretty easy to see a tough year for Thomas coming. Here's what I wrote in my 2012 Virginia Tech preview:

Tech's leading returning running back carried the ball 16 times last year, its most experienced offensive linemen has started just 14 games, and it must replace five of the seven players targeted by more than seven passes last year. You don't win 10 games every year without figuring out how to replace stars, of course, but Beamer must replace a lot of key contributors at once, and this offense had already taken a step backwards with these pieces. Tech can win its division with defense and a better special teams unit (finding a punter would be a nice step in that regard), but the offense could open the door for a dark horse division champion.

Sure enough, Tech struggled to run the ball for what felt like the first time in decades, the line couldn't block anybody, and Thomas spent much of the season attempting to force the action with few reliable weapons around him. He had two semi-efficient big-play receivers at his disposal (Marcus Davis and Corey Fuller combined to catch 88 of 154 passes for 1,660 yards and 10 touchdowns), but he didn't always have time to wait for them to get open. The result: 22 sacks, 14 interceptions, 23 total turnovers, and about six punts per game. That said, Thomas is still big, still athletic, and has still had his moments in 2012. Against a typically inefficient Rutgers offense, the Hokies probably won't need to get too much from Thomas to win this game, but they will need a little bit.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. Both of these defenses are fun and aggressive. Led by Greene, Vallone and star cornerback Logan Ryan, Rutgers picked off 16 passes, forced 11 fumbles and logged 85 tackles for loss. With Tyler, Taylor, Exum and company, Tech basically matched those numbers (15 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, 87 tackles for loss). You can win plenty of games by playing bear-hug defense (just ask Notre Dame and Alabama), but it's fun to try flying elbow drops, too. Both Rutgers and Virginia Tech will make some risky, exciting plays on their way to good defensive efforts.

2. Everything about this matchup screams "CLOSE GAME." Rutgers' iffy offense will struggle to move the ball against Virginia Tech's solid defense. Virginia Tech's iffy offense will struggle to move the ball against Rutgers' solid defense. Both teams are comparable (read: decent to mediocre) on special teams. You never know how bowls will go -- there are unexpected blowouts and unexpectedly close games everywhere you look -- but on paper, this is a near tossup ... and that typically means some fun late-game drama.

3. Logan Thomas is fun to watch, even when he is not playing well. He makes spectacular plays and spectacular errors. And both are worth watching.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. A single big play. Virginia Tech won two games scoring 24 points or fewer and played in 10 games that saw 55 or fewer total points scored. For Rutgers, those numbers are six and 10, respectively. In fact, there haven't been more than 37 points scored in a Rutgers game since October. A single long pass to Brandon Coleman, Marcus Davis or Corey Fuller ... a single defensive breakdown in a run by Jawan Jamison, Logan Thomas or Random Tech running back ... that could make the difference in the game.

2. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Both teams force them and commit them, and in a low-scoring game turnovers (which are, on average, worth about five points each) quite frequently make the difference. They could also turn a tightly-projected game into a blowout one way or the other, especially if one team builds an early lead.

3. Turn opportunities into points. Barring an outbreak of turnovers, neither team will get more than a handful of scoring opportunities. It would be at least a little surprising if either team trekked inside its opponent's 40-yard line more than six times or so. On average, a team can expect to score around four to 4.5 points per such trip. If one team is finishing drives with touchdowns, it will probably win. Rutgers was a bit better than Tech when it comes to both finishing drives and finishing opponents' opportunities short of the goal line. If the Scarlet Knights have any overriding advantage in this game, it is that.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Rutgers by 1.1.
Bill's Pick: Virginia Tech by 1. Honestly, I don't trust either of these offenses, and I'm completely going with my gut on this one (and it's wrong a lot). What does your gut tell you?

1 Shutdown Fullback

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