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Football: The day of the Orange Bowl has arrived

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The best season in Stanford football history will come to its conclusion tonight, as the Cardinal takes the field in its first BCS bowl game in over a decade, the Discover Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Fla.

No. 4 Stanford (11-1, 8-1 Pac-10) is set to face No. 13 Virginia Tech (11-2, 8-0 ACC). Both teams are among the hottest in the country heading into the game-the Card has not lost since a 52-31 defeat to Oregon on Oct. 2, while Virginia Tech has won 11 straight games.

Stanford’s appearance in the Orange Bowl represents a remarkable turnaround for a program that was the punching bag of the Pac-10 just a few seasons ago. In 2006, Stanford went 1-11, prompting the program to turn to current head coach Jim Harbaugh. In his tenure, the Cardinal has steadily improved, with higher win totals in each successive season.

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck (12), this year's Heisman runner-up, is poised to lead the Card in Miami tonight against Virginia Tech. (SIMON WARBY/ The Stanford Daily)

Even before this season, few thought that Stanford would reach such heights. The Cardinal was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-10 preseason media poll behind Oregon, USC and Oregon State. Aside from its loss to the Ducks, Stanford looked very strong during the regular season, winning most games by big margins. The Cardinal faced only two close games: a 37-35 victory over USC in early October decided on a last-second field goal and a tight 17-13 win over Arizona State in mid-November.

Virginia Tech will pose a challenge as formidable as any Stanford has faced this season. The Hokies are a perennial power in the Atlantic Coast Conference, winning three of the last four conference championships. The program’s last trip to the Orange Bowl, at the conclusion of the 2008 season, ended in a victory over Cincinnati.

However, after the season’s first two games, it didn’t look like Virginia Tech would be able to pull off another conference title. The Hokies lost both of those games, first to Boise State and then to James Madison, an FCS program. After the losses, head coach Frank Beamer managed to turn his team around, and it blazed through the ACC, going undefeated in conference play and winning the conference championship game over Florida State.

“I think as a player watching his team, you know they’re tough, they’re physical and disciplined. It’s quite possibly the best defense we’ll face all year,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck. “From my short history, growing up and watching Virginia Tech, you always knew they were going to be a tough football team that flew around with the football.”

As it has all season, Stanford will look to its offense to set the game’s pace and lead it to another victory. The unit is ranked eighth in the country in scoring.

With one of the best offensive lines in the country, Stanford is likely to utilize the same type of strategy that brought it success against Pac-10 defenses: punish the opposing defense with the power running game, opening up passing lanes as the front seven is forced to respect the ground game. Though many expected a drop-off in rushing production after Stanford lost Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart to the NFL, the Cardinal is better on the ground than it is through the air-it has the nation’s 17th-ranked rushing attack but only its 30th-ranked passing attack. Sophomore Stepfan Taylor is the team’s leading rusher, with 1,023 yards and 15 touchdowns for the season.

“Our offensive line has given up five sacks this year, I believe, and maybe seven the years before,” said assistant head coach Greg Roman. “For a drop-back passing team, can you really find anybody who’s ever really done that?”

“The offensive line has been excellent the whole year, and also the tight ends and receivers blocking downfield,” Taylor said. “We go out hard in practice everyday and are dedicated to the running game.”

Even then, the offense is still driven by the play of Luck, this year’s Heisman runner-up and the projected No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. He has had one of the best seasons for a Stanford quarterback in memory, passing for over 3,000 yards and throwing 28 touchdowns. He has also shown a great deal of athleticism and an ability to make plays with his legs, running for 438 yards and three touchdowns on the season.

While Stanford’s offense has been instrumental to its success this year, much of the Cardinal’s improvement this year can be attributed to its defensive renaissance. Last year, the defense was the Cardinal’s Achilles’ heel; this year, under first-year defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Stanford is ranked 11th in the country in scoring defense, giving up just 17.8 points per game. The unit shut out three conference opponents this year, and its only really poor performance came when it gave up 52 points to Oregon.

A very strong linebacking corps, comprised of sophomore Shayne Skov, senior Owen Marecic, junior Chase Thomas and senior Thomas Keiser, leads Stanford’s defense. That unit will be tasked with containing Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the ACC player of the year. Taylor is a classic dual-threat quarterback, with the ability to make plays with his arm or legs, and keeping him bottled up is the main priority for Stanford’s defensive coaches.

“He’s tough to contain,” Fangio said. “Very athletic, strong throwing arm, you know, playmaker. When you watch him play, he’s like the point guard of a great basketball team; the guy just makes plays many different ways.

“Our biggest challenge is going to be to tackle him in open spaces because you can see that’s where a lot of his stuff comes from, and their team feeds off of that,” he continued.

“He does a good job of using his legs,” Skov said. “I think Virginia Tech’s run game drives off what he is capable of doing and the intangibles he has at quarterback. We obviously have to have some awareness of where he is in the pocket and try to keep him in the pocket, but we are definitely going to [bring] pressure the same way we have all year.”

Stanford will square off against Virginia Tech tonight at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. Kickoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. PST. Follow The Daily’s live blog of the Orange Bowl at http://www.stanforddaily.com/2011/01/03/live-blog-the-orange-bowl-stanford-vs-virginia-tech/

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Kabir Sawhney is currently a desk editor for the News section. He served as the Managing Editor of Sports last volume.