Sun Bowl: Virginia Tech Preview

Virginia Tech will face UCLA in the Sun Bowl with an elite-level defense and an offense that ranks among the worst in the country...

Facts and Factors

• UCLA travels to El Paso, Texas, to take on Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 31st. The game kicks off at 11:00 a.m. PST, and will be televised by CBS. Verne Lundquist, Gary Danielson and Tracy Wolfson will call the action.

• UCLA is ranked #17 and #18 in the AP Poll and USA Today Coaches Poll, with a 9-3 record, and 6-3 in the Pac-12.

• The Hokies are 8-4, and were 5-3 in the ACC, which tied them for second in the Coastal division of the conference.

• UCLA and Virginia Tech have never played each other in football. UCLA's all-time record against the ACC is 17-14, with its last game against an ACC opponent in the 2006 Emerald Bowl when the Bruins lost to Florida State.

• UCLA and Virginia Tech have only played each other in one sport, softball, in 2008 and last season, with the record being 1-1.

• VT's biggest win of the season was perhaps on the road against then-#14 Miami, 42-14. It played #1-ranked Alabama in its first game of the season and lost (35-10), but then didn't play another ranked team besides Miami all season, and Miami isn't currently ranked. Virginia Tech's non-c onference wins were against FCS Western Carolina, East Carolina, and Marshall. Its five conference wins came against teams with a combined record of 29-30.

• It's UCLA's fourth appearance in the El Paso bowl, with a 2-1 Sun Bowl record. It's the 80th Sun Bowl, dating back to 1902.

• Virginia Tech is 0-3 all-time against teams currently in the Pac-12, having lost once each to USC, Cal and Stanford.

• It will be VT's second appearance in the Sun Bowl, but its first in 67 years. The Hokies appeared in the 1947 Sun Bowl, which was actually the school's first ever bowl game.

• With his win over USC, Jim Mora has 18 wins in his first two seasons as head coach, a school record for the most ever during the first two seasons as a Bruin head coach.

• It's the first time since 1998 UCLA has put together consecutive seasons with at least nine wins.

• If UCLA beats Virginia Tech it will be its first 10-win season since 2005.

• It would be UCLA's first bowl win since 2009 (30-21 over Temple in the Eagle Bank Bowl).

• Virginia Tech is coached by Frank Beamer, considered one of the elite long-time head coaches in college football. Beamer (59), who has been the VT head coach since 1987, is 224-108-2 all time, which makes him the winningest active coach in the FBS. The Sun Bowl will be VT's 21st consecutive bowl game under Beamer, which is the longest active streak for a coach. He led the Hokies through a greatly successful stretch in the late ‘90s to the mid 2000s, when he won seven Big East and ACC titles. It was marked by the 1999 season when Beamer took an undefeated Hokies team to the Sugar Bowl, and then lost to Florida State and missed his best chance at a national championship. The last two seasons Beamer's teams have dipped a bit, going 15-10, being the only two seasons in which VT will finish unranked in the last 21 years in Blacksburg. His style of play is known as Beamer Ball, which emphasizes all phases of the game and generating points on special teams and defense. Since Beamer's first season in 1987, a player at every position on the defensive unit has scored at least one touchdown and 35 different players have scored touchdowns on VT's special teams.

• A "Hokie" is a meaningless noise created for a contest by VT cheerleader in the 1800s. For some unknown reason, in the intervening years, Virginia Tech has started to use a turkey as the mascot, referring to the mascot as a Hokie Turkey.

• UCLA's Anthony Barr, winner of the Lott Impact Trophy, was a consensus All-American, being ranked 4th in the nation in TFLs (1.7/game); 2nd in forced fumbles (.42/game); 5th in fumbles recovered (0.33) and 13th in sacks (0.8).

• Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA's junior offensive lineman, was also named to some All-American teams. As BRO reported, the feeling is that Su'a-Filo is leaning toward forgoing his senior season and putting his name in the NFL Draft.

• Freshman Myles Jack was named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive and Offensive Player of the Year, the first time one player had received both honors since the award began in 1987.

• Senior wide receiver Shaquelle Evans has caught at least one pass in the last 27 games.

• Quarterback Brett Hundley leads the team in rushing with 587 yards. He also leads the Pac-12 in completion percentage (67.8).

• Under Jim Mora, UCLA is 14-3 when scoring first and 16-0 when leading at halftime.

• The 2013 season marks the first time UCLA since 1998 has opened a season ranked by the AP and remained so throughout the season.

• UCLA established a school record this season by playing 18 true freshmen.

• UCLA is favored by 7 points.

• The weather forecast calls for a high of 60 degrees on Dec. 31st in El Paso, and clear skies.

Virginia Tech Offense vs. UCLA Defense

It's safe to say that Frank Beamer didn't get the results he might have desired from his overhaul of the offense this offseason. After scoring just 25 points per game last year, Beamer brought in a new offensive coordinator in Scot Loeffler (from Auburn), a new wide receivers coach in Aaron Moorehead (from Stanford), and a new offensive line coach in Jeff Grimes (also from Auburn). The goal was to install a West Coast offense and hopefully get redshirt senior quarterback Logan Thomas (6'6, 254) back to 2011 levels rather than his poor 2012 showing.

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.
On the interior, Virginia Tech has experience, and each of the three has started every game this year, but they just simply don't generate much push. Junior Caleb Farris (6'3, 308), redshirt junior David Wang (6'2, 299), and redshirt senior Andrew Miller (6'4, 296) are the starters from left to right on the interior, and as you can tell, they're perhaps a touch undersized for interior linemen.

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.
Eddie Vanderdoes.


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.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

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.

UCLA Offense vs. Virginia Tech Defense

While the offense might be one of the worst in the NCAA this year, the Virginia Tech defense might be one of the best that Frank Beamer and long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster have had in their time together. By the traditional statistical metrics, it's among the best in the country, with the Hokies ranking 8th in scoring defense at 17.4 points allowed per game, 4th in total defense at 269.6 yards per game, and 13th in tackles for loss per game at 7.5. It's a stout defense, easily among the best that UCLA has faced this year.

The strength of the defense, especially in light of injures in the secondary, is probably its front. Foster mostly runs a 4-4 style defense based on attacking principles, with a cornerback-size "rover" splitting time between pass coverage and playing in the box. The Hokies will blitz from a variety of spots, which can make the defense a confusing one for offenses to deal with.

The defensive line is led by the interior tandem of senior Derrick Hopkins (6'0, 311) and redshirt sophomore Luther Maddy (6'1, 296). Hopkins is the stouter of the two, and generally acts as the nose tackle, with the ability to hold the point against multiple blockers. Maddy, in turn, gets to work as more of a playmaker, and he's been able to make significant plays all year, with a somewhat shocking 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from the defensive tackle spot. The two are bookended by redshirt senior James Gayle (6'4, 255) and redshirt senior J.R. Collins (6'2, 248), who will often rush the passer and are also used to contain outside rushes. Both have good quickness, with the ability to play almost like linebackers at times, especially in pursuit of ball carriers. Redshirt sophomore Dadi Nicolas (6'3, 224) will often act as a situational rusher, with his quickness and speed presenting serious problems for many offensive tackles he's been lined up against.

The linebacker corps is led by former walk-on and redshirt senior Jack Tyler (6'1, 230), who has turned himself into a potential NFL prospect. Though undersized, Tyler puts himself in position to make plays and has good speed, with the ability to pursue sideline to sideline. Redshirt senior Tariq Edwards (6'2, 234) and redshirt sophomore Josh Trimble (6'0, 216) fill out the starting rotation, but Trimble, the outside linebacker, generally gets pulled on passing downs when the Hokies drop into nickel or dime.

Cornerback Kendall Fuller.
Part of what makes the defense unique is the use of the rover player. Junior Kyshoen Jarrett (5'11, 198), who starts as the rover, has made a huge impact this season, as the second leading tackler. Jarrett has cornerback size, but has played well in both run support and pass coverage throughout the year. The secondary in general, though, is a bit depleted. Redshirt senior Antone Exum (6'1, 220), who has missed most of the year after All-ACC campaigns in 2012 and 2013, will miss the bowl game. Perhaps even more debilitating, senior Kyle Fuller (6'0, 194), the senior leader of the secondary, will likely miss the game after having surgery on a core muscle. Fuller is arguably the most talented player in the secondary. Even without those two, though, the secondary is still considerably talented. Kyle Fuller's brother, true freshman Kendall Fuller (5'11, 193), has been exceptional in his first season, recording six interceptions and breaking up a total of 16 passes. Virginia Tech will actually start a couple of super-frosh in the secondary on Tuesday, with Brandon Facyson (6'2, 188) (fresh off a 3rd team All-ACC selection) likely starting opposite Fuller at the other corner spot. Between Facyson and Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech has recorded 11 interceptions this season. At free safety, redshirt junior Detrick Bonner (6'0, 194) is the old man of the unit and has started every game this season.

UCLA, after having a frustrating stretch through the middle portion of the season against Oregon and Stanford, gradually rediscovered its offensive rhythm of the last four games of the season, culminating with a 35-14 win over USC to end the season that was probably UCLA's best offensive performance since the non-conference part of the season. Brett Hundley, who had some struggles through the middle part of the season, looked more comfortable than he had all season, which was especially impressive given that the Trojans had one of the best defenses UCLA had faced all year.

The offensive line, which has had to mix and match players throughout the year due to the loss of Torian White, Simon Goines, and Connor McDermott, finally gelled a bit against the Trojans, with true freshmen Scott Quessenberry, Alex Redmond, and Caleb Benenoch all seeming to find some comfort with each other. The expectation is that all three, Xavier Su'a-Filo, and Jake Brendel should start the bowl game as well, which, after a month of practice time, should give them a sense of continuity that might have been lacking during the back half of the season.

As Coach Mora has mentioned, UCLA has gotten healthier at running back after having a bevy of injuries throughout the year. Damien Thigpen, Jordon James, Steven Manfro, and Malcolm Jones have all missed time at various points, but with the improved health of James and Thigpen, and the emergence of Paul Perkins as a legitimate threat as a runner and pass catcher, UCLA should go into the bowl game with the best depth its had at running back since the beginning of the year.
Devin Lucien.


At receiver, the back half of the season has marked the emergence of Devin Lucien as potentially the next No. 1 receiver for UCLA. Lucien, who has flashed considerable potential since his redshirt year, struggled to start the year, battling some confidence issues. Over the last five games, though, he's been much improved, and his confidence has seemingly returned to its previous heights. As Lucien has emerged, he has taken more snaps from Jordan Payton, who has also had a pretty nice year.

Advantage: Virginia Tech

You have to say that Virginia Tech has a very good defense, even acknowledging the fact that the Hokies play in the ACC, which is a weak league this year. UCLA's offense, aside from the USC game, has struggled against good defensive fronts, with Hundley in particular struggling when faced with a strong pass rush. Based simply off the way the two teams have played this year, it's difficult to say that UCLA has an advantage. The question is, simply, how much of an advantage Virginia Tech has.

You'd have to admit, though, that Hundley and the offensive line seemingly passed a pretty big test in their last regular season game, using a variety of quick passes and well-designed quarterback runs to deal with the Trojans' strong defensive front. If UCLA opts for a similar game plan and scheme against the Hokies that the Bruins used against USC, you could see a scenario where the Bruins have a similar amount of success.

In many ways, this game will require Noel Mazzone and the offensive coaching staff to scheme around the offensive line and Hundley's issues with the pass rush. Like we've said through much of the last half of the year, if UCLA can put together a game plan that relies on short passes and quicker-developing runs, the Bruins could look much more like the offensive unit that opened the season.

Special Teams

Frankly, though Virginia Tech has a reputation for always having good special teams, the Hokies have actually been pretty atrocious on special teams most of the year. Virginia Tech gave up an average of 12.6 yards per punt this season, along with two touchdowns. On kickoff returns, the Hokies are mediocre, ranking 71st in the country, with Virginia Tech having given up a kickoff return for a touchdown this season, as well as an average of 21.6 yards per return.

With their own returns, the Hokies have averaged a middling 21.5 yards per kickoff and a miserable 4.79 per punt return—although, in fairness, Virginia Tech has scored a touchdown on a punt return.

The Hokies punter, sophomore A.J. Hughes (6'1, 199), is good enough, but he's not helped by the awful punt return coverage. He average 44.5 yards per punt. The starting kicker, Cody Journell, wasn't good, missing 6 of 16 kicks before being dismissed from the team. His replacement, freshman Eric Kristensen (5'11, 165), wasn't asked to do a whole lot, but made 4 of 5 with a long of 38 before he too lost the job to Michael Branthover, who has never attempted a college kick.

UCLA's special teams, on the other hand, has generally been excellent on return coverage this year (ranking in the top 25 in both kickoff return defense and punt return defense), and also ranks pretty well in terms of punt returns (44th) and kickoff returns (5th in the country, at 25.73 per return). The return game has been helped immensely by the emergence of Ishmael Adams as a legitimate threat from the return spot.

Sean Covington has been serviceable as the punter this year, which is astounding for a true freshman . Ka'imi Fairbairn has been much the same as last year—generally consistent from under 40 yards, and a bit of an adventure beyond that.

Honestly, if there were ever a game for UCLA to score a touchdown on a return, this would be the game.

Advantage: UCLA

Prediction

Even if you concede that Virginia Tech should win the matchup with UCLA's offense, it's hard to see this game going the Hokies' way. Virginia Tech's offense is far from good, and should have difficulty against UCLA's fast defense that pursues so well to the sideline. The Hokies have feasted, to a certain extent, on some bad teams in the nonconference schedule and the ACC, which has actually helped to pad their offensive statistics. Also, even though we gave Virginia Tech the advantage against UCLA's offense, if the Bruins use a similar game plan against the Hokies that they used against USC, we could see the offense holding its own.

You also have to say that Virginia Tech's 8-4 record is a bit of a mirage. The Hokies avoided Florida State and Clemson, the two best teams in their league, and won a game over Western Carolina. The Hokies lost to probably the best team they faced, Duke, by three.

What the game will ultimately come down to, in our estimation, is the motivation of UCLA and its coaching staff. Last year, there were questions about the intensity of preparation and the seriousness with which UCLA approached the game (which has, historically, been a problem for the Bruins in bowl games).

From what we've seen over the last month, though, UCLA is approaching this game with a much greater level of intensity than the level with which the Bruins approached the Baylor game last year. The coaching staff appears much more serious about the game this year, and there's seemingly been much more of a focus on preparation for the game, with UCLA spending much of the last two weeks in game preparation, as Mora has talked about.

So, with UCLA preparing better this year for a team that is much worse than that surging Baylor squad from a year ago, we have to imagine that the Bruins will be able to grab a fairly comfortable win in El Paso and record UCLA's first ten win season since the last time the Bruins won the Sun Bowl.

UCLA 31
Virginia Tech 14

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