Kentucky is in the postseason for the fourth year in a row and the Wildcats have made the bowl trip to Charlotte to face an ACC foe. Under fourth year head coach Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech has gone with an all out youth movement to reach eight wins and a bowl game for the 27th consecutive season.
The Belk Bowl is set to be a battle of two defensive driven football teams who have ridden explosiveness on offense to close each of their seasons very strong. Both squads will be returning a lot in 2019 and will be looking to use this bowl game on New Year’s Eve as a springboard into 2020.
Nuts and Bolts
Frank Beamer arrived in Blacksburg and inherited the program in 1987 and before that the Hokies had not seen much success. The former Murray State head coach took over for Bill Dooley after some NCAA recruiting violations and had a long rebuild ahead of him. After winning just 24 games in his first six seasons, things looked bleak for Beamer.
However, in their third year in the Big East after a run as an Independent, Virginia Tech would win nine games and the Independence Bowl to cap off a top 25 finish. That season in 1993 would start a bowl streak for the program that is still alive today and Beamer would go on to have a hall of fame career.
Thanks to stingy defense, strong special teams, and some big time recruiting in the Tidewater region, the Hokies would win double-digit games 13 different times with a national championship appearance with Michael Vick in 1999. Tech would move to the ACC after dominating the Big East and would collect three league titles in their first seven seasons. In all, Beamer would lead the Hokies to seven top-10 finishes and collect 238 wins before calling it quits at the end of the 2015 season. Whoever the school’s administration brought in next would have some big shoes to fill.
Former TCU offensive coordinator Justin Fuente performed an impressive turnaround job at Memphis and that would help the Murray State alum land at Virginia Tech. That was a tie he had to Frank Beamer and many believed this was a slam dunk hire and a near perfect culture fit. It looked that way after two seasons when Fuente won 19 games with two top 25 finishes and an ACC Championship Game appearance. It seemed to be smooth sailing for the Hokies before adversity hit.
Virginia Tech had a rocky 6-7 campaign in 2018 that needed a season ending victory over Marshall to extend that bowl streak. After a loss to Cincinnati in the Military Bowl, things didn’t get much better. The Hokies opened this season 2-2 with losses to Boston College and Duke combined with very uninspiring wins over Old Dominion and Furman. Things needed to change fast.
A youth movement (12 freshman/sophomore starters) most notably led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Hendon Hooker allowed the Hokies to finish 8-4 and that started with a monster road win at Miami. Despite some quarterback injuries, the Hokies finished ACC play at 5-3 and nearly pulled off an upset over Notre Dame in South Bend. They ended up playing for the ACC Coastal title on Black Friday.
After some trying situations, Virginia Tech responded with some young players and put themselves in position to be a preseason top-20 team and ACC Coastal favorite in 2020. This was a big test passed by Justin Fuente.
This will be 20th meeting between the two programs and Kentucky currently owns the series lead by a count of 11-6-2. The last meeting occurred in 1987 with Jerry Claiborne’s team collecting a 14-7 win over Frank Beamer’s first Virginia Tech squad at Commonwealth Stadium. These two programs met 10 times in 17 seasons from 1971-1987 with UK owning a 7-3 advantage.
Out in the desert, Virginia Tech is a 2.5 point favorite with a total of 46.5. That’s a projected final score of 24.5-22. The Hokies are 6-6 against the spread, but 6-2 since making Hendon Hooker QB1. They are 2-6 against the number as a favorite this season. Kentucky is 8-3-1 ATS and is currently on a 5-1 run. They have been an underdog is seven consecutive bowl games. The under is 6-3 in UK’s last nine games while it is 5-2 in Virginia Tech’s last seven.
Offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen has been with Justin Fuente since he became a head coach at Memphis and he took over primary offensive coordinator duties when the staff moved to Blacksburg. In his fourth season at Tech, the Hokies are putting up 5.65 yards per play (78th nationally) and scoring 30.9 points per game (50th nationally). The Hokies run about 70 plays per game with around 44 rushes and 25 pass attempts. They lean on the ground game despite plenty of inefficiency.
The Hokies rank 92nd nationally in yards per carry (3.89) and leading rusher Deshawn McClease has 717 yards with just a 4.32 yards per pop average while RB2 Keshwan King averages just 4.38 yards per attempt. Hendon Hooker can be a reliable run threat from his quarterback spot, but he’s a plodder who is really the most effective on short-yardage situations. They have some home run ability, but for the most part this ground game gets the offense behind the chains. However, these run actions have helped open up some things in the pass game and Hooker has made defenses pay.
The former blue-chip recruit became the starter after the 2-2 start and is completing 62.1 percent of his throws, averaging 10.3 yards per attempt, with a solid 11-to-2 touchdown/interception ratio in seven starts. Hendon Hooker has posted at least nine yards per pass attempt in every start and that is something only Jarrett Guarantano and Kyle Trask accomplished against Kentucky this season. He throws a very good deep ball.
This is a very balanced passing attack with four players with at least 18 receptions and leading wideout Tre Turner only has 33 grabs. There is no alpha at receiver and this can make this passing attack tough to defend. The Hokies target running backs and tight ends in addition to three of the top four receivers averaging at least 16.4 yards per grab. This can be a dangerous passing game.
On the line of scrimmage, Virginia Tech starts three sophomores and two true freshman. Former UK target and Scott County alum Bryan Hudson starts at center for the Hokies in his first season in college. This group has gone through some growing pains ranking 79th in sacks allowed and 65th in tackles for loss allowed in addition to a struggling ground game. This line has a chance to be really good, but they are super young and it shows.
One thing that this staff does a good job of doing is mixing in a lot of misdirection. You will see Virginia Tech get the ball to their skill players in a lot of unique ways whether it be jet sweeps, screens, end arounds or reverses (wideouts Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner have a combined 62 receptions and 32 carries). They don’t ask Hendon Hooker to traditionally dropback very often and they really use play-action in a lot of their pass actions. They like to get their big quarterback on the move and really test the eye discipline of opposing linebackers and safeties. When playing this attack you must read your keys and not get too aggressive.
It’s Bud Foster’s final ride as the defensive coordinator at Virginia Tech after roaming the sidelines for 32 seasons. The last man left from the Frank Beamer era has produced multiple top-five defenses and is the main reason Virginia Tech had a decade-plus run as a top-10 program in the sport. After a very disappointing 2018, the group has bounced back this season with just one senior starter.
Per SP+’s adjusted defensive rankings, the Hokies entered bowl season ranking in the top-40 after finishing 78th last season. Virginia Tech ranks 32nd in yards per play allowed, 31st in yards per carry allowed, and is 32nd in red zone touchdown rate. Despite the 4-2-5 scheme, the Hokies have good positional size at linebacker in secondary with each backer at least 230 pounds and both safeties checking in at 220-plus pounds. It all starts with a bowling ball in the middle.
Rayshard Ashby is a second-team All-ACC selection who recorded over 100 tackles for the second season in a row. The former three-star recruit had 10 non-sack tackles for loss and is a key cog in this solid Virginia Tech run defense. He can wreak a ton of havoc, so it will be important for UK’s interior line players to get to the second level and get No. 23 blocked.
Tech leans very heavily on their safeties to make stops and that is exactly what they do. Free safety Divine Deablo is second on the team with 75 tackles while rover Reggie Floyd is used all over the field and will be around the ball constantly at Bank of America Stadium. However, the most productive player has been nickel Chamarri Conner who is having a Mike Edwards type impact for the Hokies (62 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 8 pass break-ups, 7 QB hurries).
This group has size, athleticism, and playmaking ability. It will be a unique attack for UK to get blocked due to how Bud Foster moves around his personnel and shows a lot of exotic blitz looks that can be bluffs or bring a lot of pressure.
On the line of scrimmage, Virginia Tech has some very nice depth on the defensive line. The Hokies have seven players with at least 15 tackles this season and will roll bodies in and out of the lineup all 60 minutes. This group has no stars, but where they beat you is with strength in numbers. They want to occupy blockers and allow their linebackers and safeties to flow freely and make plays.
It’s worth noting that Virginia Tech has some absolute ballhawks at corner. Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller have combined for seven interceptions and 22 pass break-ups and both are only sophomores. However, Farley missed the Virginia game due to injury and was not practicing with the team during this week. In bowl games, you see teams occasionally go against the grain and that would mean the forward pass for UK. I’m not sure this is a secondary you want to challenge.
In his last season, Bud Foster really did a great job with this defense. The Hokies start five sophomores and should return 11 starters next season. They have pitched two shutouts and are a big reason why this squad will be playing in Charlotte. Despite all that, they have been susceptible to big plays on the ground. Virginia Tech ranks 70th in 20-plus yard runs allowed and this should play into Kentucky’s favor.
Special Teams Breakdown
We all know about Max Duffy, but Virginia Tech has a pretty good punter of their own. Oscar Bradburn is averaging 46.7 yards per punt and this ranks eighth nationally. Don’t be surprised if a puntfest breaks out. At kicker, Brian Johnson has been very efficient hitting 16 of 20 field goals with each miss coming from beyond 40 yards. He is a big reason why this offense ranks seventh in red zone efficiency.
In the return game, true freshman Tayvion Robinson is a very dangerous returner averaging over 12 yards per return so it will be very important for Max Duffy to limit his opportunities.
It should not surprise you that the program that turned special teams into something cool with Beamer Ball continues to be very good in the third phase.
Keys to Victory
- All signs point towards this game being a slugfest. Virginia Tech will easily be the best defense UK has faced since the Tennessee loss while you could make the argument that the Kentucky defense is quite possibly the best one Virginia Tech has seen this season. With both teams having great punters, we could see some long fields and scoring points could be very difficult. Therefore, takeaways could play a major role. The Hokies are minus-five in the turnover column with 14 fumbles lost and that ranks 127th nationally. If Kentucky is able to protect the ball, they should be able to force some turnovers which could really swing a close game.
- The pass defense for Kentucky has been spectacular all season, but there’s no denying that they have benefitted from some nasty weather conditions. Virginia Tech’s vertical passing game will really test a group that has played well all season. If Kentucky’s strength is able to remain a strength they should have no problem slowing down this offense.
- Virginia Tech is very stingy against the run and their depth at defensive line should give them some success against UK’s Big Blue Wall. Therefore, you will see some UK three-and-outs at the Belk Bowl, but big play opportunities will come. When they present themselves, Kentucky must stretch 20-yard runs into 40 yards to help itself against a good defense. Creating big plays will determine the offense’s success.
- I think it is safe to assume that Lynn Bowden is going to get his at the Belk Bowl. Georgia was the only team to really slow him down and I think you can pencil him in to gain between 120-140 yards. Where Virginia Tech will be keying is stopping UK’s three running backs. It will be important for Eddie Gran to find out who has the hot hand early and ride him as much as possible. Against Tennessee, Kentucky didn’t go to Christopher Rodriguez Jr. until late and that played a big impact. Kentucky needs to get all three backs multiple touches early to figure out what is going to work best against this 4-2-5 scheme.
- Always remember that bowl games can get really weird. Special teams can play a big factor and you could see a handful of gadget plays from each side. Always expect the unexpected.
The Lunch Pail
One of the things that separates college football from every other sport is all of the weird traditions and quirks that programs have. Whether it is all of the random rivalry trophies given out in about every Big Ten game, people “calling hogs” in Arkansas, fan dressed in their Sunday best at The Grove, or cheerleaders wearing sweatshirts at USC. Nearly everyone has something odd and Virginia Tech’s is really unique.
Back in 1995, co-defensive coordinator Rod Sharpless acquired an old lunch pail that was used by a retired coal miner. Along with fellow co-defensive coordinator Bud Foster, they used it as a rallying cry for the defense that season. That year, the Hokies would win 10 consecutive games to end the season and give Frank Beamer his first double-digit win season. Tech knocked off Texas in the Sugar Bowl and finished the season in the top-10. Since then the lunch pail has been in Blacksburg to stay.
Each year the lunch pail is assigned to a defensive leader who is responsible for it and carries it out onto the field for each game. Inside the pail, Virginia Tech will place written team goals in addition to turf from away sites after road victories. Bud Foster helped create this tradition and this will be his last time with it at the Belk Bowl.