The speculation is over and after what appeared to be some backroom politics, Kentucky will be heading to Charlotte for the first time to play in the Belk Bowl. The Wildcats will be playing in their fourth bowl game under Mark Stoops and awaiting them at Bank of America Stadium will be a program making their 27th consecutive postseason appearance.
Under fourth-year head coach Justin Fuente, the Hokies have won 33 games and are fresh off their third eight-plus win season. The former TCU offensive coordinator and Memphis head coach was lauded as a slam dunk hire when athletic director Whit Babcock plucked him following the 2015 season. Playing just 170 or so miles away from campus and in the middle of ACC Country, expect a very heavy Hokie crowd on New Year’s Eve.
Our more detailed scouting report will be released later this month when we get into game week, but first here are some of the bare bones to know about this Virginia Tech squad. After an awful 2018 and slow start to this season, Fuente has rallied the troops and has young Hokies squad playing really good football entering the postseason.
Bud Foster’s Final Ride
The Somerset, Kentucky native is finally calling it quits at 60 years old after roaming the Virginia Tech sidelines for 32 seasons. The Murray State alum followed Frank Beamer to Blacksburg and helped turn this no name school into a college football powerhouse that has now won multiple ACC titles and competed for national championships. He stayed on with Justin Fuente for the transition and has done a very good job.
This year Foster’s unit ranks 32nd in yards per play allowed and has pitched two shutouts. When you add in the fact that the Hokies only start one senior on defense, it has really been a strong season for Foster to go out on. The Lunch Pail Defense has been known to force turnovers and to be flat out dominant. This group hasn’t been dominant, but the table is set for safeties coach Justin Hamilton who is being promoted to the coordinator chair in 2020.
College football will be losing an iconic coach on New Year’s Eve and it should result in an emotional effort from Virginia Tech. The Hokies carried him off the field following senior day at Lane Stadium and they would probably like to do the same thing at the Belk Bowl.
Inefficient Run Heavy Offense
The Hokies aren’t going slow on offense. They run nearly 70 snaps per game, with 61 plays as their lowest output of the season. Despite all of the action, Virginia Tech has had some quarterback issues with three different players getting starts under center. This year they have developed into a rush heavy attack, but they’ve struggled with efficiency.
The Hokies rank 93rd in yards per carry and none of their primary ballcarriers average higher than 4.38 yards per attempt. Virginia Tech has rushed for over 200 yards five times, but it’s taken at least 40 carries to get to that number each time. Despite the inefficiency, the Hokies rank in the top-50 in 20-plus yard carries. They lean heavily on the quarterback run.
Starting quarterback Hendon Hooker is a big boy (6-foot-4, 228 pounds) and the former blue-chip recruit is 6-1 as a starter this season. He has taken some sacks, but is a very effective runner. For really the first time since the Mississippi State game, UK will have to be ready for some designed quarterback runs.
Star at Mike
Rayshard Ashby will receive All-ACC honors and the Mike linebacker has been spectacular for Virginia Tech this season. Ashby leads the team with 106 tackles and 10 non-sack tackles for loss. He is a bowling ball second level defender (5-foot-10, 237 pounds) and has been excellent for a good defense.
We have seen a few Mike linebackers have some big days against Kentucky’s rushing attack this season. Florida’s David Reese II recorded 16 tackles and Tennessee’s Daniel Bituli collected 19 tackles. Both of these outing were easily a season-high. If Kentucky is unable to get movement against four-man front it could allow Ashby to wreak havoc in the run game.
Explosive Pass Game
Virginia Tech has dealt with some major quarterback issues most of the season, but it was a very promising sign when redshirt sophomore Hendon Hooker took the reins and posted some big passing numbers.
The Greensboro, North Carolina native has averaged at least nine yards per attempt in each of his starts and has given Virginia Tech a much needed chunk play boost. The Hokies have produced nine pass plays of 50-plus yards and their big armed quarterback is a huge reason why. Look for Virginia Tech to try to lull Kentucky to sleep with the run game before taking their fair share of shots deep.
If they don’t get the big plays in the pass game this is an offense that can really struggle to move the football.
Strong Special Teams
One of the staples of Virginia Tech’s rise to stardom was the institution of Beamer Ball which was where the Hokies became one of the most dominant special teams units year in and year out. The group under Justin Fuente is not necessarily dominant this season, but they are very good.
The Hokies have hit 16 of 20 field goals and this has played a big part in them ranking seventh nationally in red zone efficiency. Virginia Tech also averages 46.75 yards per punt as Oscar Bradburn might be college football’s best punters not named Max Duffy.
We could very well see the “punt to win” strategy being used heavily at the Belk Bowl.