By KYLE HIGHTOWER
ORLANDO, Fla. — A lot has changed since the last time Rutgers and Virginia Tech met on a football field.
The Hokies dominated the Scarlet Knights during their time as Big East Conference rivals before Virginia Tech left for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004.
But as they prepare for their 15th all-time meeting in Friday’s Russell Athletic Bowl, Rutgers is no longer anybody’s whipping boy, while Virginia Tech is the team with something to prove following a disappointing season.
The Scarlet Knights (9-4) are in a bowl game for the seventh time in eight years and are looking to win their sixth straight bowl game after just missing out on a Bowl Championship Series berth following in loss in their regular-season finale.
Today is an opportunity for them to not only win 10 games for the first time since 2006, but go into their final Big East season next year with momentum after announcing plans to join the Big Ten in 2014.
“I think 10-win seasons in college football are the standard for elite programs,” first-year coach Kyle Flood said. “I think that puts you in an elite status, and certainly at a university where it’s only been done twice in the past, I think you better take those things very seriously. These opportunities have not come around as often for us as maybe for Virginia Tech, but this is an opportunity for us to do that.”
For Virginia Tech, 10-win seasons were pretty much the norm. The Hokies had eight straight before and 11 in the past 13 years this season.
To say the Hokies (6-6) have had a disappointing season is an understatement a year after appearing in the Sugar Bowl. They stumbled out of the gate losing three of their first seven, and dropped three straight conference games before winning their final two.
It’s a tumble that coach Frank Beamer said isn’t lost on his players, and particularly a senior group that is trying to avoid Tech’s first losing season since 1992 as it makes its 20th straight bowl appearance.
“They’re very aware of that,” Beamer said. “I’m really proud of this football team because we’ve lost some games in tough ways, we’ve had some unusual things happen, we haven’t always played great or as well as we need to play. And had some disappointments, had some setbacks, had adversity.
“But the football team always stayed together. They never pointed fingers; they always stayed together, played hard for the most part and ended up winning their last two games when things just didn’t look very good. So if we win this game it would make a statement.”
To do that, the Hokies will need a big effort from quarterback Logan Thomas.
The redshirt junior saw all his key passing numbers drop from a year ago as he struggled at times to mesh with a new group of receivers, following the departures of top targets Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale.
Rutgers’ defense is also expected to try to limit his rushing ability with a group that features the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in senior linebacker Khaseem Greene. The Scarlet Knights ranked 14th in the nation in total defense, surrendering 321.25 yards per game.
Thomas said he isn’t worried about anyone who thinks the Hokies will have trouble moving the ball in this game.
“I’m not really offended by it,” Thomas said. “We take pride in what we do, just like everyone else does, and we’re excited to go play ball and hopefully we can show that it won’t just be a defensive game.
“We’ve had times when we’ve been unstoppable where we’ve had series where whatever we did worked. And there have been some times we’ve been bad, just inconsistent.”
Whatever the Hokies do produce, the Scarlet Knights will try to counter it by leaning heavily on sophomore running back Jawan Jamison, who became just the third Rutgers player since 1976 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Flood said he is as close to 100 percent as he’s been since a mid-November ankle injury, and Jamison said he and his teammates are eager to prove they aren’t the team that lost its final two regular-season games.
He said their goals are clear.
“To show everybody that we didn’t get down, that we’re not hanging our head,” Jamison said. “We can still get the job done. Virginia Tech is a really good team and we just got to come out and let them know we can play with the best of them.”
Thomas said his teammates are equally aware of the magnitude of this game, and are getting their confidence from their experienced coach.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Thomas said. “He’s been here 20 straight times now and that’s a testament to him. He understands what’s going to happen when we step on the field on Friday. He’s had all week to prepare now, 20 times. So it’s nice to have his experience on our side.”
Rutgers (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6), 12:30 p.m. EST (ESPN)
Line: Virginia Tech by 2
Series Record: Virginia Tech leads 11-3.
What’s at stake: Rutgers has won five consecutive bowl games and is making its eight bowl appearance in school history. The Scarlet Knights are looking to shake off the disappointment of missing out on a BCS berth, and are also hoping to notch their first 10-win season since 2006. Virginia Tech is looking to end its 2012 season on a high note after stumbling to their first single-digit win season since 2003. Still, the Hokies are making their 20th consecutive bowl appearance, joining only Florida State and Florida as teams to do that over the past two seasons.
Key matchup: Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas had his ups and down this season, throwing for 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, after losing top targets Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale to graduation. He’s still a big threat in the air or on the ground, though, where he led the team in rushing yards (526) and touchdowns (nine). He’ll matchup with a stout Rutgers’ defense that features the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in senior LB Khaseem Greene. The Scarlet Knights also ranked 14th in the nation in total defense, surrendering 321.25 yards per game.
Players to watch: Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights will need a big boost from a pair of sophomores to contend with a Hokies’ defense that was third in the ACC in total defense (allowing 344.6 yards per game). RB Jawan Jamison became came just the third Rutgers player since 1976 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season and said he’s comfortable again on the ankle he injured in mid-November. QB Gary Nova is also a threat to post big numbers after becoming the second player in school history with 22 touchdown passes in a season.
Virginia Tech: While Thomas led the Hokies offense this season, junior DB Antone Exum clearly was the standout defensively. He floated between the rover and free safety spots on defense last season before making a move to cornerback this year. It didn’t slow him down on the ACC’s second-rated passing defense, though, with Exum snaring four interceptions to tie him for the third-most in the ACC.
Facts & figures: Thirteen players that started for Virginia Tech in last season’s Sugar Bowl overtime loss to Michigan are on this year’s roster. … The Hokies are 1-1 all-time in games played in Citrus Bowl Stadium. Losing to Florida State 33-20 in 1991 and beating Central Florida 44-21 in 2000. This is the Hokies’ 10th visit to the state of Florida for a bowl (five Gator Bowls and four Orange Bowls). …Virginia Tech is 18-33 all-time in games played in the state of Florida and 149-128-19 all-time in neutral site games. … Rutgers and Mississippi State own the nation’s longest active bowl winning streak at five games. … The Scarlet Knights are 1-0 all-time vs. ACC opponents in a bowl game, having beaten N.C. State 29-23 in the 2008 PapaJohns.com Bowl. … With the matchup against Virginia Tech, this marks the seventh consecutive season Rutgers has played against an ACC opponent. Since 2006, the Scarlet Knights are 3-3 in those games.