Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
MIAMI -- In many ways, Mardy Gilyard has been the emotional center of the Cincinnati football team. One of the indelible moments of the Bearcats' season was seeing Gilyard on his back celebrating with oranges in each hand after his team clinched a spot in the FedEx Orange Bowl last month against Syracuse.
Gilyard's emotions early Friday morning also summed up his team's mood after a 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech. He wasn't in tears. But he seemed dazed and confused, after his team's offense got battered and bruised by the Hokies. The second-highest scoring team in the Big East could not score after driving for a touchdown on the game's opening possession.
"I can't believe it," the junior wide receiver said. "That's probably why I'm so upset. It didn't seem like this was the offense that we were three weeks ago.
"We had good practices, really really good practices leading up to this game. And when our offense is clicking, we're pretty much unstoppable. But we played sloppy ball."
The Bearcats' offensive futility -- they had just 238 yards after that first scoring march, and quarterback Tony Pike threw four interceptions -- can be attributed to a mixture of their own mistakes and to Virginia Tech's defense.
Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly, a guy who's never lacked confidence in his playcalling ability, focused a lot on his team's errors after the game. There was the missed field goal by Jake Rogers in the first quarter, a Pike interception in the end zone and a fourth-down stop by the Hokies when Cincinnati had the ball inside the Virginia Tech 1.
"Well, most of them were mistakes," Kelly said about his team's stalled drives. "I want to be very careful. Virginia Tech has a very good defense. (Defensive coordinator) Bud Foster did a good job. In a lot of instances we didn't take care of the things that we needed to.
"We didn't make some great decisions when they brought some pressure. And then it's just one of those games where we got close every time and just couldn't put it in the end zone."
The most galling of those situations came midway through the fourth quarter, when Pike was stopped trying to run it in from inside the 1 on fourth down. Pike said the play had worked during practice and was designed for him to go to the pylon. Instead, he got forced inside and got stood up by linebacker Barquell Rivers.
"I didn't know why we called that," Gilyard said.
The first possession couldn't have gone any better for the Bearcats. They needed just six plays to score, as Pike hit a wide-open Gilyard for 38 yards and later found him in the end zone from 16 yards out. They were running no huddle, five-wide sets from the shotgun and looked to be on their way to a big scoring night.
But from then on, the Hokies' defense controlled the game. Three of the interceptions came on great plays by Virginia Tech defenders, including a diving grab of a throwback screen by defensive end Orion Martin and Stephan Virgil flying in out of nowhere to pick off Pike's throw to Dominick Goodman in the end zone late in the first half.
"We saw from them what we saw on tape," Pike said. "The big thing is they've got All-Americans back there.
"Their secondary is the best I've ever played against. They're the best I've seen as far as breaking on the ball in the air and the speed they have and also their athleticism. They had had some nice catches against me."
Hokies cornerback Victor "Macho" Harris said his defense just needed to settle down after a jittery start.
"That's the first real up-tempo team we've played this year," Harris said. "Our coach told us that they were up tempo and that we had to stay in our positions. But it's nothing like the game. After that first drive, we had to get the jitters out and settle down, and that's what we did."
Cincinnati's last offensive play resulted in, appropriately enough, another interception. The Bearcats had the best season in school history this year and made their first BCS game. They can only wonder about what it would have been like to win that game.
"We know leaving the game that we had our opportunities," Pike said, "and we left them out there."