Sun Bowl Preview: Hokies vs. UCLA

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The Sun Bowl seems to have snuck up on us all, but tomorrow afternoon the Hokies will be playing #17 UCLA in El Paso.  The Bruins are 9-3 on the season, they have a lot of talented young players on their roster, and they are a rising program on the national scene.

UCLA is 9-3 this season, with their only losses coming to Stanford (24-10), Oregon (42-14) and Arizona State (38-33).  They rallied from a 21-3 deficit to beat Nebraska 41-21 on the road, they beat a 9-4 Washington team, and they blew out LA rival USC 35-14 in their final game of the season.  This is a good football team that has won four of their last five, and they will be looking to use the Sun Bowl as a springboard for a possible top 10 preseason ranking in 2014.  Jim Mora, Jr. has the Bruins heading in the right direction.

It would be a big win for Tech if they can pull this one off.  9-4 sounds a lot better than 8-5, to me at least.  Do the Hokies have a shot?  Read on…

The UCLA Offense

If I had to use one word to describe the UCLA offense, it would be “balanced.”

Rushing: #36
Passing: #44
Total: #37
Scoring: #23
Pass Efficiency: #14
Third downs: #10

This is a team that can run it and throw it efficiently, and they do a terrific job on third downs.  Though the offense as a whole is young, they are very talented, and they are the reason UCLA will be a Pac-12 favorite next season.

The offense revolves around quarterback Brett Hundley (6-3, 222, r-So.).  Hundley leads the team in passing and rushing, and he is easily the most important player on this UCLA team.  Here’s a look at his stats for the season:

Passing: 232 -of-342 (67.8%) for 2,845 yards, 22 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, 153.7 eff.
Rushing: 150 carries for 587 yards, 3.9 ypc, 9 TD

Despite being sacked 34 times this year, Hundley still led the team in rushing and still managed to average 3.9 yards per carry.  That’s very impressive.  Bud Foster says Hundley reminds him of Donovan McNabb at Syracuse, and I think that’s a fair comparison.  He’s pretty advanced for a r-sophomore, and he’s got an excellent arm.  He is going to be one of the top quarterbacks selected in the NFL Draft in either 2015 or 2016.

Hundley has help from a group of skilled players around him.

WR Shaq Evans (6-1, 204, r-Sr.): 43 catches, 617 yards, 14.3 ypc, 8 TDs
WR Devin Fuller (5-11, 195, So.): 42 catches, 464 yards, 11 ypc, 6 TDs
WR Jordan Payton (6-1, 212, So.): 36 catches, 416 yards, 11.6 ypc, 1 TD
WR Devin Lucien (6-0, 195, r-So.): 17 catches, 298 yards, 17.5 ypc, 2 TDs
WR Darius Bell (5-11, 210, r-Sr.): 16 catches, 159 yards, 9.9 ypc, 0 TD
WR Thomas Duarte (6-3, 221, Fr.): 15 catches, 206 yards, 13.7 ypc, 2 TDs
WR Grayson Mazzone (5-8, 195, r-Sr.): 12 catches, 173 yards, 14.4 ypc, 0 TD

That’s obviously a lot of targets at wide receiver, and like Brett Hundley, many of them are young.  I’m sure UCLA fans are very excited about the future of this offense, particularly when we look at the youth at the other positions as well.

RB Paul Perkins (5-10, 195, r-Fr.): 126 carries, 570 yards, 4.5 ypc, 5 TD, 23 catches, 283 yards
RB Jordon James (5-9, 194, r-Jr.): 96 carries, 525 yards, 5.5 ypc, 5 TD
RB Myles Jack (6-1, 225, Fr.): 37 carries, 269 yards, 7.2 ypc, 7 TD
RB Malcolm Jones (6-0, 224, Sr.): 51 carries, 247 yards, 4.8 ypc, 3 TD

The Bruins find a way to get four different running backs involved, including freshman phenom Myles Jack.  Jack also starts at outside linebacker for UCLA, and he was named Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year. He’s a very dynamic athlete…overall, the best athlete on the field on Tuesday.

To get an idea of Jack’s versatility, click here.  He is obviously capable of making an impact on offense, defense and special teams, and the Hokies will have to account for him at all times.

Obviously the Bruins have a lot of talent – yet a lot of youth – at the skill positions.  It’s the same story up front.  Here’s a look at the UCLA offensive line, which is Virginia Tech’s key to victory.

LT Xavier Su’a-Filo (6-3, 305, Jr.)
LG Scott Quessenberry (6-3, 288, Fr.)
C Jake Brendel (6-4, 285, r-So.)
RG Alex Redmond (6-5, 305, Fr.)
RT Caleb Benenoch (6-5, 320, Fr.)

It’s very, very rare that you see a major college football team starting three true freshmen on the offensive line.  It’s even rarer that a team that starts three true freshmen on the offensive line manages to win nine games and run a balanced offense!  These UCLA freshmen are good.

That said, they still play like freshmen at times.  The Bruins are #112 in the country in tackles for loss allowed, and #105 in sacks allowed.  They’ll be facing a Tech defense that is #13 nationally in tackles for loss and #5 in sacks.  The Hokies play in the backfield a lot, and that’s the weakness of the UCLA offense.  That’s a good matchup for Tech that I feel like nobody is talking about.  If VT wins the game, that will be the reason most likely.

Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone (previous stints as OC at NC State, Ole Miss, Arizona State, Auburn and Oregon State) has done a very good job with this offense this season, despite the youth.  It will looks similar to Virginia Tech’s offense in terms of plays and formations, and they will run their share of read option.

Because of UCLA’s youth, and the talent level of the Virginia Tech defense, I do think Bud Foster’s unit will play well tomorrow.  That’s the least of my concerns.  My biggest concern is, well, you know…

The UCLA Defense

Statistically, UCLA’s defense hasn’t been as good as their offense…

Rushing: #74
Passing: #46
Total: #55
Scoring: #37
Pass efficiency defense: #59
Third down defense: #40

The Bruins have had trouble stopping the run, and that would normally be a good sign except for the fact that the Hokies are without their best running back and they’ve struggled to run the ball for most of the season.

UCLA plays a 3-4 defense that can obviously also show 4-3 looks, and they’ll bring to El Paso the best pass rusher the Hokies have faced this season.  Outside linebacker Anthony Barr (6-4, 248, Sr.) had 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks on the season, and he also forced five fumbles.  This guy is a major playmaker, and he’ll be facing true freshman left tackle Jonathan McLaughlin.  Expect Tech to double him with other true freshmen such as tight end Kalvin Cline and fullback Sam Rogers.  That’s a major mismatch in UCLA’s favor, and there isn’t a heck of a lot Scot Loeffler can do about it except throw a wave of true freshmen at the guy who is expected to be top 10 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.  Logan Thomas should perhaps consider growing eyes in the back of his head overnight.

Here’s how the front seven looks…

LDE Ellis McCarthy (6-4, 330, So.): 8 starts, 4 TFL, 2 sacks
NT Seali’I Epenesa (6-1, 310, Sr.): 7 starts, 1 sack
RDE Cassius Marsh (6-4, 260, Sr.): 11 starts, 10.5 TFL, 6 sacks
LOLB Myles Jack (6-1, 225, Fr.): 11 starts, 70 tackles, 5 TFL, 11 passes defended
ILB Jordan Zumwalt (6-4, 235, Sr.): 12 starts, 83 tackles, 5.5 TFL
ILB Eric Kendricks (6-0, 228, r-Jr.): 11 starts, 106 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks
ROLB Anthony Barr (6-4, 248, Sr.): 12 starts, 20 TFL, 10 sacks

A big issue is that UCLA will load the left side of Tech’s offensive line up with their All-American linebacker Anthony Barr and their best defensive lineman Cassius Marsh.  Those guys combined for 30.5 TFL and 16 sacks on the season.  They are going to be a very tough task for Jonathan McLaughlin, Caleb Farris, and at times Kalvin Cline and Sam Rogers, or whoever else draws the unfortunate assignment.  Quick hitting plays will be Tech’s best bet in this game I believe, because I don’t think Logan Thomas will have a lot of time to throw because of the type of pass rush he’ll be facing from his blindside.

I do believe the Hokies could have some success running against this front if they had Trey Edmunds, but unfortunately he’s out with a broken leg.  Sophomore J.C. Coleman will get the start, but it sounds as of true freshman Jerome Wright (6-2, 221) will get a lot of work.  The Tech coaches really want to see what he can do.  He had no carries and just three catches as Sam Rogers’ backup at fullback this season.  He played all of 14 offensive plays and 59 special teams plays in 12 games.  Considering the Tech coaches are talking a lot about playing him in the Sun Bowl, it makes me wonder what they really think about Chris Mangus and Joel Caleb at tailback (but I’ll save that article for another day).

UCLA’s secondary looks like this:

CB Fabian Moreau (6-0, 193, So.): 11 starts, 4 passes defended
CB Ishmael Adams (5-8, 190, So.): 12 starts, 4 interceptions
S Anthony Jefferson (6-1, 185, r-Jr.): 12 starts, 82 tackles, 2 interceptions
S Randall Goforth (5-10, 190, So.): 12 starts, 3 interceptions

With three true sophomores in the secondary, I do believe the Hokies can have some success in the passing game if they can keep the pass rush of Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh off Logan Thomas.  However, that’s one big if.

On the whole, I believe this UCLA defense is very attack-able, but I don’t think Tech has the horses to attack it.  I think the Bruins will come right after the Tech offense with a bunch of blitzes and try to get the Hokies in long yardage situations.  In the end, I see a Tech offense that will struggle to move the ball, sustain drives, and score.

Special Teams

Shudder.  All I need to do is type two sentences to show you why special teams make me shudder in this game…

UCLA is #5 in the country in kickoff returns, and Virginia Tech is #71 in kickoff return defense.  UCLA is #43 in the country in punt returns, and Tech is #110 in the country in punt return defense.  Ouch!  However, their punt return number is deceiving.  Shaq Evans has 16 of UCLA’s 23 returns, and he averages just 7.2 yards per return.  That being said, the big worry isn’t Evans or anyone else the Bruins can throw on the field.  The big worry is Virginia Tech’s punt coverage personnel.

Kaim Fairbairn (5-11, 185, So.) is a solid placekicker who went 14-of-20 with a long of 48 yards this season.  He’s not a world beater, but Frank Beamer will use Michael Branthover as his placekicker in this game.  Branthover will be Tech’s fourth starting kicker this season (say it with me, all at once…Thanks, Journell!), and he has never attempted a field goal in a college game.

Because of UCLA’s major advantage in the return game, plus the fact that Tech is very much unproven at kicker, you have to give the Bruins the advantage on special teams.  If the Hokies manage to break even on special teams, I’ll consider that a victory.

Final Thoughts

I don’t like how this game sets up.  It reminds of the Gator Bowl against Tennessee at the end of the 1994 season.  UCLA is a rising program with a good, young quarterback that could begin next season ranked in the top 10 and challenge for the Pac-12 title.  I believe this Sun Bowl matchup is being viewed by them as a springboard to bigger and better things next season.  They know Jim Mora, Jr. has them moving in the right direction.  They are a program on the rise under a veteran, energetic NFL coach.

Meanwhile, the Hokies are a program with an aging head coach, and his future retirement is something that is being discussed more and more by Tech fans.  The program has leveled off to a certain extent, the talent level on offense is down, and it appears it’s going to take 2-3 years to rebuild it.  Tech fans are NOT excited about this bowl game either…I know that because it’s the day before the game, and I haven’t gotten one single email asking why our preview hasn’t been posted yet!

I just think that all the momentum is in UCLA’s favor right now.  I do like the matchup of the Tech front seven against the young Bruin offensive line, and if the Hokies win, I think we’ll be able to point to that matchup as a big reason.  If Tech can get the UCLA offense in long yardage situation, they’ll have a chance.

However, I just don’t see Tech scoring much, particularly without their best running back.  When I look at UCLA, I see a team with more overall athletes and more overall playmakers on offense, not to mention a team that is way better on special teams.  Even if the Tech defense plays a great football game, it would be really hard to pick Tech to win this game.

Prediction: UCLA 27, Virginia Tech 10

Will Stewart’s Take: I don’t like the way this one is shaping up at all. UCLA is a young team on the rise … really on the rise, not UVA-on-the-rise … with a lot to prove and looking to make a name for themselves. They have a lot of upward momentum, whereas the Hokies are a team that is 15-10 in the last two seasons, struggling greatly on offense, and in rebuilding mode.

VT has gone up against highly rated PAC 12 QBs in bowl games before. Cal and Aaron Rodgers shredded VT for 52 points in 2003, and Andrew Luck and Stanford hung 40 on the Hokies in 2010. That’s an average of 46 points. Both QBs used bowl victories over Virginia Tech as springboards to great final college seasons; Rodgers’ Cal squad went 10-2 in 2004, and Luck’s Stanford team went 11-2 in 2011. The Hokies caught both guys and their teams on the way up and paid for it, and they’re catching Hundley and the Bruins on the way up.

The Hokies will counter with an offense that typically performs below its season average in bowl games — and that’s scary, considering how much the Hokie offense has struggled this season. Tech needed overtime to score 13 on Rutgers last season; failing to break 20, with Trey Edmunds out, is a distinct possibility.

Virginia Tech is down its best rusher (Trey Edmunds), will get just limited contributions if any from their best defensive player (Kyle Fuller), is starting a new placekicker, and is badly outmatched in the return game.

If Virginia Tech wins this game, it will be because the defensive coaching staff and players prepare and execute a great game plan, and because Scot Loeffler is much better at preparing an offensive game plan than his predecessor. But if VT doesn’t show any improvement or life on offense, and if the defense doesn’t pull a Herculean effort out of the hat, this game won’t be close.

Will’s Prediction: UCLA 30, Virginia Tech 13

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