- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

— When Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer looks at Cincinnati, he might as well be seeing a years-old reflection in a mirror.

Not long ago, Beamer’s Hokies were exactly what the Bearcats are now: surging, surprising, emerging from relative obscurity to stand on the cusp of greatness.

So Beamer knows what players and coaches for No. 12 Cincinnati (11-2) will feel Thursday when they face No. 21 Virginia Tech (9-4) in the Orange Bowl - the biggest game the Big East champion Bearcats have ever played.

“You see this program, the state they’re in, Ohio, great football. Now they’re with a great conference,” Beamer said. “You just see it taking off. I think it’s a very, very good coaching staff, so yeah, I think this is just the start of things for Cincinnati.”

His chore: finding a way to slow that start, at least for one night.

There are plenty of reasons why Virginia Tech - which lost this game to Kansas last year - is aching to win the Orange Bowl. The Hokies would join Southern Cal and Texas as the only major-college teams to win 10 games each of the past five seasons, plus end the ACC’s eight-game losing streak in Bowl Championship Series matchups.

But Beamer knows the only way to do that is to match Cincinnati’s hunger - a drive his team felt when making its big-time bowl debut in 1995, topping Texas in the Sugar Bowl. That game vaulted the Hokies into the spotlight, and they haven’t left since. Cincinnati surely would love to emulate that run.

“They remind me now of how we were then,” Beamer said.

Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly obviously takes that as a compliment. Kelly is steadfast that merely getting to this stage doesn’t satisfy his team, which was picked fifth in the Big East’s preseason poll and didn’t receive any of the 24 first-place votes in that balloting. The Bearcats used five quarterbacks this year, got blown out at Oklahoma and Connecticut, and then put together six straight wins to cap a stirring run to Miami.

“Winning a Big East championship and getting here obviously gets you a lot of momentum,” Kelly said. “But that’s not enough for me, personally, professionally, and I believe that’s not enough for our football team. We like to play and we like to win. So winning the game, for us, it’s in our DNA.”

The matchup seems like a strength-against-strength scenario: Virginia Tech’s defense against Cincinnati’s offense.

Cincinnati has piled up 375 yards and 27 points a game this year and has been remarkably consistent, scoring between 24 and 30 points in every outing during this six-game winning streak.

“I know we haven’t seen a defense as good as Virginia Tech,” said Tony Pike, the Cincinnati starting quarterback who wasn’t even on the three-deep depth chart to open the year, yet took over after a rash of injuries and become the Bearcats’ budding star.

There’s no arguing that the Hokies are good - and surprisingly so, perhaps. The two-time defending ACC champions lost a slew of players from last year’s defense and moved two other returning starters, including top cornerback Victor “Macho” Harris, to new positions. In short, even the Hokies will acknowledge that they didn’t expect these kind of results.

Virginia Tech was seventh nationally in yards allowed (277 a game), 13th in scoring defense (17.0), and got back to the BCS even though its offense was - statistically, anyway - one of the least potent at the major-college level.

“Everything happens for a reason, and everything that happened to us, it was for a reason,” Harris said. “The younger guys, they’re doing a great job of just following the lead, not folding under pressure, and basically we’re here for a reason.”

So, too, is Cincinnati. Winning this game could enable the Bearcats to finish the season ranked in the top 10, provide a huge boost to recruiting and further remind football-crazed Ohio that the program is quickly on the rise.

But further, it would put Cincinnati on the path that Virginia Tech was on 14 years ago. Kelly, who insists he has no interest in other jobs and wants to build the Bearcats into a power, points to what Beamer has done, with 16 straight bowl appearances and annual visits to the national spotlight, as the model he’d like to follow.

Hoisting that bowl of oranges Thursday night would be a big step toward getting there.

“One win or loss won’t take away from the work,” Kelly said. “It’s winning. Winning changes perceptions, [and] 21 wins over the past two years is a good start. … So this is a journey. This is a process for us. We think we’ve made great strides.

“There’s a long road ahead of us that we’ll have to continue to work on.”

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