The results have not been good. Last year, the offense was poor, but this year it was even worse. The Hokies averaged just under 360 yards per game, which was good for 98th in the country. In terms of scoring, the team is not much better, with just 23 points per game, good for 95th in the country. It's a completely inept offense, one that is among the worst big conference offenses in the nation.
Thomas is probably the most dynamic player in the offense, or at least the one with the most chance of potentially being a game changer. He's had an up and down year, but against the best teams that Virginia Tech has faced, he's struggled. Against Alabama to open the year, Thomas was an astounding 5 for 26 for 59 yards, an interception, and two yards rushing on five attempts. Against Duke in late October, Thomas was arguably worse in the passing game, throwing four interceptions, but did contribute over 100 yards rushing. The thing with Thomas is that he has the ability to make big plays with his legs, and when he's on, can make all of the throws. His decision-making, though, has been his biggest issue.
It's downhill after Thomas. The offensive line isn't good, giving up two and a half sacks per game in pass protection, and "helping" the running game so much that the offense is averaging just 3.11 yards per rush, which puts the Hokies at 110th in the country. The Hokies have a true freshman left tackle in Jonathan McLaughlin (6'5, 313), but the rest of the line is fairly experienced, with three juniors and a senior rounding out the starting unit. The right side has seen some tumult, with redshirt junior right tackles Laurence Gibson (6'6, 290) and Brent Benedict (6'5, 292) flipping back and forth throughout the year. Gibson is probably the more athletic of the two, and is expected to get the starter.
|Receiver Joshua Stanford.|
Hurting the running game even more is that starter Trey Edmunds broke his leg against Virginia in the last game of the season and will not be available for the bowl game. Sophomore J.C. Coleman (5'7, 191) will likely start in his place after playing in nine games this season. Coleman is a strong, undersized runner who can be difficult to tackle, but hasn't shown a great deal of explosion this season. Thomas is probably the next biggest running threat on the team.
In the passing game, the Hokies have spread the ball around quite a bit, with five players having more than 20 catches each, and three players with over 600 yards. Redshirt junior Willie Byrn (5'10, 186), redshirt sophomore Demetri Knowles (6'1, 180), and redshirt freshman Joshua Stanford (6'1, 196) are the three main threats out wide, with Stanford probably being the best big play threat, with an average of 16 yards per catch. What's hurt the passing game has been much more the difficulties along the offensive line and Thomas' own poor decision-making rather than a lack of ability at the skill positions. Freshman Kalvin Cline (6'4, 238), at tight end, and redshirt senior D.J. Coles (6'4, 234) will also see some looks in the passing game.
UCLA's defense has been generally above average all year, but there's an argument to be made that the sum of all the parts should add up to better results than we've seen this year. The defensive line has developed considerably since the beginning of the year, with the line coalescing around a starting unit that includes Kenny Clark at nose tackle, Eddie Vanderdoes at one end, and Cassius Marsh at the other end. Ellis McCarthy has been a super sub of sorts, with the ability to play all three spots, and Keenan Graham has also played a significant role as a designated rusher.
At linebacker, this game will mark the final one for Anthony Barr and Jordan Zumwalt. Barr has been excellent most of the year, and should move into the NFL as a first round pick. Zumwalt, who started strong this year, tailed off through the last few games, and seems more like a fringe NFL prospect at this point, particularly because of his sometimes undisciplined play. Eric Kendricks, who battled injuries all year, will undergo ankle surgery and sit out the bowl game, leaving his spot to Isaac Savaiinaea, the true freshman who has played considerably this year. Of course, the big star for UCLA's linebackers, Myles Jack, will continue to start for the Bruins on defense.
UCLA's secondary has made it through the year mostly unscathed, and the expectation is that Fabian Moreau should be fully back for the bowl game after dealing with some leg injuries over the last couple of games. If he's unable to play, Brandon Sermons should see most of his reps, with Priest Willis also possibly working into the rotation.
There's really no question about it, even though UCLA's defense has shown some weaknesses this year. Virginia Tech has a very bad offense, similar in quality to some of those awful Rick Neuheisel offenses from years past. The Hokies are poor running the ball and wildly inconsistent throwing it. They also don't do a good job of protecting the quarterback, which leads to Thomas making poor decisions. In short, UCLA's defense should be able to have its way with the Hokies.
If we had to guess, we'd say that UCLA will look to use the same strategy against Thomas that its used against most running quarterbacks its faced this year: contain, and force him to throw from a pocket. The thing is, Kenny Clark and the defensive line should be able to generate pressure on its own against the Hokies' poor offensive line. So, we doubt that the Bruins will bring too much extra pressure, allowing more guys to drop into coverage and make the passing lanes a bit more crowded.
For Virginia Tech to win this matchup, Thomas would have to play the game of his life, akin to what Zach Maynard did against UCLA in 2012. We really just don't see it—he has looked bad this year against much worse defenses than the one he'll see from the Bruins.