Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State each looking for 10th win

Virginia Tech and Oklahoma State spent the first two months of the college football season positioning themselves for a shot at the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs.

But the No. 22 Hokies and No. 19 Cowboys used November to prove why they didn’t belong, which is why they’ll spend their postseason playing each other in the Camping World Bowl on Thursday in Orlando, Fla.

Both teams got to 9-3 in similar ways, starting 7-1 and then losing twice in November. Virginia Tech’s losses occurred in consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference games at Miami and Georgia Tech, while Oklahoma State dropped home games to Oklahoma and Kansas State two weeks apart.

“I know we all want to make the final four, but winning nine games is difficult,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said, “and I think the people will be really excited about being there.”

From Oklahoma State’s perspective, the excitement could be as much because Gundy stayed at his alma mater as compared to what he’s done in his 13 seasons as coach. Gundy, who has gone 113-53 at a school which traditionally plays second fiddle to the likes of Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12, was courted by Tennessee for its vacancy.

Many felt that Volunteers athletic director John Currie, who was ushered out the door after a failed attempt to hire Greg Schiano inflamed the fan base, would have eventually landed his target were it not for Gundy’s lifelong ties to Stillwater.

The former Cowboys quarterback, who handed off to Barry Sanders during his playing days and called plays for Les Miles as the program’s offensive coordinator from 2001-04, stayed at OSU for a pay raise that hiked his contract to $5 million a year.

While Gundy wasn’t too eager to talk about the brief dalliance with Tennessee, he was loquacious when the subject matter was changed to what should be this bowl’s prime attraction. Watching his offense try to score on Bud Foster’s Hokies’ defense figures to be worth the price of admission.

With quarterback Mason Rudolph throwing for 4,553 yards and 35 touchdowns with just nine interceptions, the Cowboys rolled up 46.3 points per game, third in FBS.

With long-time defensive coordinator Foster calling the shots, Virginia Tech has allowed only 305.3 yards per game and tossed three shutouts. That includes a 10-0 verdict at Virginia in the Nov. 24 season finale — the 14th straight Hokies’ win in one of the sport’s more lopsided rivalries.

“I’m sure we’ll have our hands full on offense trying to score some points,” Gundy said. “I’ve seen them play a lot through the years. He (Foster) is doing well as always.”

Although the Virginia Tech program has changed almost 180 degrees offensively, going from a run-first scheme under former coach Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente’s preferred spread offense which accents the pass, Foster’s defensive scheme remains the team’s identity.

If you’ve seen one good Hokies’ defense, you’ve seen about 10 of them. The formula remains the same — big interior linemen clog running lanes for free hitters to stop the running game. Forced to pass, the opponent has to deal with layers of pressure that make it hard to take advantage of one-on-one matchups on the outside.

Speed is favored above all else, and it will be speed that Virginia Tech needs to stop the big plays Oklahoma State produces. James Washington and Marcell Ateman have combined for nearly 2,500 receiving yards, and Justice Hill provides a nice complement in the running game with 1,347 yards and 14 scores.

Even when faced with a Cowboys’ defense that allowed 39, 62, 42 and 45 points in consecutive games, the Hokies might struggle if forced to win a shootout. Redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson threw for 2,743 yards and 19 touchdowns, but defenses appeared to have the book on him by November.

What’s more, Tech will have to do without its best receiver, Cam Phillips, in Orlando. Phillips, who caught 71 passes for 964 yards and seven touchdowns, will sit out the bowl game after undergoing surgery to repairing a sports hernia.

This will be the Hokies’ 25th consecutive bowl game — the longest-such streak recognized by the NCAA — a bit tougher to win.

“The opportunity to win 10 games for a second consecutive season is a challenge our squad will embrace,” said Fuente.