2019 Belk Bowl Preview: Virginia Tech vs. Kentucky

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Mark Stoops Belk Bowl
Kentucky Head Coach Mark Stoops (UKAtheltics.com)

2019 Belk Bowl Preview

  • Virginia Tech vs. Kentucky, 2019 Belk Bowl: Noon, ESPN
  • Virginia Tech vs. Kentucky Betting Line: VT -2.5 (VegasInsider.com)
  • Virginia Tech-Kentucky roster cards: Click here
  • Game notes from Hokiesports: Click here
  • Charlotte weather: Click here
  • Gameday information: Click Here
  • Tickets from StubHub: 

Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3) will face the Kentucky Wildcats (7-5, 3-5) in the Belk Bowl on December 31 in Charlotte, with both teams looking to create some positive momentum heading into 2020.

Mark Stoops has done a great job with the Kentucky program.  After going 2-10 in his first season in 2013 and 5-7 in 2014 and 2015, he took the Wildcats to a bowl game in each of the next three seasons, culminating in a 10-3 season and a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl last year.  Kentucky finished the 2018 season ranked No. 11 in the Coaches Poll and No. 12 in the AP Poll.

Stoops has his team in a bowl for the fourth straight year, and because of a massive shift in strategy in the middle of the season, they are a tough team to evaluate offensively from a statistical standpoint.  Let’s get this preview started with a look at the guy who makes the Wildcats go.

Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden, Jr.

Lynn Bowden, Jr. (6-1, 199, Jr.) took over the starting quarterback position in the sixth game of the season after being a staring wide receiver for first five games.  Desperate times called for desperate measures, and though Bowden was a good wide receiver, the coaching staff determined that he was needed at quarterback.

You can’t argue with the results.  Here are Kentucky’s numbers before and after Bowden became the starter. (FCS opponents not included)

Pre-Bowden: 164.8 rushing ypg, 377.6 total ypg, 23.4 ppg, 2-3 record
Post-Bowden: 334.5 rushing ypg, 388.5 total ypg, 24.8 ppg, 4-2 record*

*Kentucky also holds a win over UT-Martin during Bowden’s time as starting quarterback

The total yards per game isn’t much different, and the Wildcats aren’t scoring a lot more points.  However, their rushing totals have more than doubled, which has of course been a boost to an already very good Kentucky defense. 

Lynn Bowden, Jr.
Lynn Bowden, Jr. (UKAthletics.com)

Bowden has been a dominant runner for the Wildcats.  Here are his game-by-game numbers since he took the reins, again not including FCS competition.

Arkansas: 24 carries, 199 yards
Georgia: 17 carries, 99 yards
Missouri: 21 carries, 204 yards
Tennessee: 26 carries, 114 yards
Vanderbilt: 17 carries, 110 yards
Louisville: 22 carries, 284 yards

Georgia was the only defense that managed to keep him under 100 yards, and they just barely did it.  He rushed for over 200 yards against Missouri and Louisville, and nearly did it against Arkansas as well.  He’s a big time runner, and though he’s already declared for the NFL Draft (as a receiver), he’s still going to play in the bowl game.  His running ability is sure to cause plenty of issues.


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But Kentucky’s overall offense is one-dimensional with Bowden at quarterback.  Of course, it was zero-dimensional before he took over, so that’s an improvement.  Here are his game-by-game passing numbers as the starter…

Arkansas: 7 of 11, 89 yards
Georgia: 2 of 15, 17 yards
Missouri: 3 of 7, 54 yards
Tennessee: 4 of 7, 25 yards
Vanderbilt: 8 of 10, 104 yards
Louisville: 1 of 2, 4 yards

That’s not particularly impressive.  He even had a bad passing game against FCS opponent UT-Martin, going 1 of 6 for 9 yards.

It’s also fair to point out that Kentucky didn’t exactly beat top competition with Bowden at quarterback.  Their SEC wins came against Missouri, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, who combined to go 4-20 in the SEC, with Missouri picking up three of those four wins.

It’s very probable that Bowden will rush for over 100 yards against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl, and it’s also possible that he tops the 200-yard mark.  However, that doesn’t mean that the Kentucky offense as a whole will have a productive game.  This game is more likely to be decided by what the Virginia Tech offense does against the Kentucky defense than by Bowden’s performance.

Calvin Taylor
Kentucky defensive tackle Calvin Taylor heads up a tough defense. (UKAthletics.com)

The Kentucky Defense: Massive Up Front

Kentucky’s defense has been downright dominant at times, both in the traditional statistics as well as the more analytical Pro Football Focus metrics.  According to PFF, the Kentucky defense  is tied with Missouri as the No. 4 stop unit in the SEC, which ranks them slightly above defenses such as LSU and Florida, and slightly behind Auburn, Georgia and Alabama.  Their pass rush ranks No. 2 in the SEC, barely behind Alabama and well ahead of third-place Florida.  

Here’s how the Wildcats rank in the more traditional metrics…

Rushing Defense: No. 57
Passing Defense: No. 4
Pass Efficiency Defense: No. 10
Scoring Defense: No. 12
Total Defense: No. 19

Kentucky has been slightly above average at stopping the run, but they’ve been dominant against the pass, and they are allowing just 18.4 points per game.  Suffice to say that this will be one of Virginia Tech’s most significant challenges of the season.

The Wildcats run a hybrid 4-3/3-4 defense, and it can morph into either alignment at any time.  One spot on their depth chart is called “defensive end/outside linebacker” which is a clear indicator that they can run multiple fronts, and they can’t be pegged as either a traditional 4-3 or a 3-4.  However, they have tremendous size up front, which is more indicative of a traditional 3-4 scheme.

DT Calvin Taylor, Jr. (6-9, 300, Sr.), backed up by Abdule Abadi-Fitzgerald (6-6, 290, So.)
NG Quinton Bohanna (6-4, 364, Jr.), backed up by Marquan McCall (6-3, 371, So.).  No, those aren’t typos.
DE TJ Carter (6-4, 287, Sr.), backed up by Kordell Looney (6-3, 292, Jr.)

Even defensive end/outside linebacker Josh Paschal (6-3, 284, So.) is huge.  Taking into account the entire two-deep, this is the biggest defensive line that I can ever remember the Hokies facing, and I’ve written a game preview for every Virginia Tech game since the start of the 2005 season.  That’s a whole lot of football games, and yet this is the biggest front that I can remember.

Taylor is probably Kentucky’s best player up front.  He and Bohanna, and to a lesser extent TJ Carter, represent the biggest physical challenge that Virginia Tech’s interior offensive line has faced all season.  True freshman Bryan Hudson has had a solid season for a guy his age with no experience at center, but moving 364- and 371-pound nose guards is a tough thing to ask of a true freshman who hasn’t gone through an offseason in a college strength and conditioning program.  We’ll likely see lots of misdirection in the Virginia Tech rushing attack in this game.

Going by PFF grades, Kentucky’s weak spots on defense are at linebacker.  Middle linebacker Kash Daniel (6-1, 226, Sr.) and weakside linebacker DeAndre Square (6-1, 217, So.) have been liabilities at times this year.  Cornerbacks Brandin Echols (5-11, 178, Jr.) and Cedric Dort (5-11, 182, So.) have been good, especially Echols, though true freshman Jordan Griffin (6-1, 196) has been a liability when he’s been in the game.  If Griffin is on the field a lot against the Hokies, I would expect Tech to go after him with Damon Hazelton and Tre Turner.

Kentucky punter Max Duffy led the nation in punting and was voted the 2019 Ray Guy Award winner. (UKAthletics.com)

Special Teams

Kentucky’s special teams ranks No. 8 out of 14 teams in the SEC, according to Pro Football Focus.  Virginia Tech’s special teams rank No. 2 out of 14 ACC teams.  Here’s how Kentucky’s special teams break down according to the FEI special teams ratings…

Overall: No. 25
FG Efficiency: No. 89
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 52
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 23
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 73
Punt Efficiency: No. 1

Kentucky has one of the best punters in the country in Max Duffy, who like Virginia Tech’s Oscar Bradburn, is from Australia. Duffy was this year’s Ray Guy Award winner, which goes to the top punter in the nation.

Here’s how the Hokies rank in the FEI ratings…

Overall: No. 18
FG Efficiency: No. 55
Kick Return Efficiency: No. 38
Kickoff Efficiency: No. 21
Punt Return Efficiency: No. 49
Punt Efficiency: No. 34

There isn’t a big difference in the two special teams units according to FEI, though it’s worth nothing that Tayvion Robinson didn’t take over as VT’s punt returner until late in the season, otherwise Tech’s punt return efficiency ranking would probably rank higher than No. 49.  In a game that most people expect to be close, a big play or two on special teams could potentially decide the outcome.

(UKAthletics.com)

Belk Bowl Final Thoughts and Predictions

As I sit here writing this section of the preview the day after Christmas, it’s odd to me that the Belk Bowl is just a few days away.  It has snuck up on me, thanks to Virginia Tech’s flurry of coaching changes to close the regular season.  I’ve been much more preoccupied with that since the season ended.  As much as we all want to win the Belk Bowl, those coaching changes are much more important for the future of the program than anything that happens in Charlotte.

As far as the game itself goes, I don’t like the matchup of the Virginia Tech offense vs. the Kentucky defense.  Brad Cornelsen has done a very good job of designing what I’ve called a “smoke and mirrors” offense to hide Tech’s major weakness: a very young and inexperienced offensive line.  It worked just about every week, until UVA had basically three weeks to prepare for those misdirection plays, and they snuffed all of them out.  Kentucky’s defensive coaching is excellent, and like the Hoos, they’ll have had the better part of a month to prepare.  The Tech offense will have to win this one straight up, and I don’t think they are physically mature enough to do that quite yet.

Kentucky is pretty one-dimensional offensively, but I’m not sure how I feel about that matchup.  On the one hand, Bud Foster has had nearly a month to prepare.  On the other hand, there are interim coaches running the defensive line and the cornerbacks.  Also, how is this game being handled?  Is it all Bud Foster, or will Justin Fuente and Foster decide that it’s a good opportunity to Justin Hamilton to shoulder the burden of gameplanning and preparation in an effort to get a jumpstart for next year?  Will Tech even have Caleb Farley?  I’m not so sure that they will.  He recently told Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch that his status was unknown due to his back injury.  I’m thinking that’s a little more serious than a muscle pull.

And of course, there’s the basic knowledge that bowl games can be crap shoots.  We don’t know which team wants it the most.  We don’t know which team is the most mentally dialed in.  We don’t even know that either team particularly cares.  Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.  

I’m picking Kentucky for one main reason: like UVA they’ll have had multiple weeks to prepare for Virginia Tech’s misdirection.  With so many young players up front, some of which who haven’t even been through a college strength and conditioning program yet, I can’t see the Tech offense doing enough straight up against that massive Kentucky defense.  Power 5 teams only averaged 19.2 points per game against Kentucky this year.  FBS teams with winning records averaged just 20 points per game.  On the other hand, FBS teams with winning records only averaged 19.3 points per game against Virginia Tech’s defense.  I’m not expecting offensive fireworks in this one, though as we all know bowl games can be a roll of the dice.

As far as my confidence level of that pick goes, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a magic 8-ball and 10 being “take it to the bank”, I’m at about a 1.5 or 2.

Chris’s Prediction: Kentucky 24, Virginia Tech 20

Will Stewart’s Take:  I just went back and looked at my prediction record for the season, and I’m only 6-6 this year. According to TSL picks database keeper Jeff Holland (Virginia Tech defensive tackle, lettered 1993-1995), I’m in danger of my worst year ever. I went 7-6 in both 2014 and 2015, so if I’m wrong here, it’s my first losing record in 15 years of picking games.

Here we are for the bowl game pick-em, where things are often a crapshoot. Not always, mind you. I remember knowing that UCLA was going to truck the Hokies, and that wound up happening, especially once Logan Thomas was knocked out of the game. But that’s the only bowl game I recall where I had a very strong feeling about what was going to happen, and I was also right.

That’s a couple of paragraphs of CYA, so let’s get to the pick. I’ve never seen anything like this Kentucky team. In Brandon Patterson’s preview of the Kentucky defense, I came away thinking the Cats can throw anything from a 3-4-4 to a 4-2-5 to a 5-2-4 at you … and will. And as Chris detailed above, they’re huge.

As for the Kentucky offense, I experienced something I’ve never experienced before when writing up the roster card for the game. Lynn Bowden isn’t Kentucky’s leading passer in terms of attempts or yards, but I listed him as their passing stats leader on the card, because he starts for them. Then I listed their top two rushers, where Bowden is their leading rusher. Then I listed their top two receivers … and Bowden is their leading receiver. So that part of the roster card looks like this (red arrows added for emphasis):

I’ve never seen that — a player leading his team in all three categories — in over 15 years of making up roster cards. That’s not any sort of harbinger in either direction, it’s just odd.

Lastly, there is turnover in the Virginia Tech coaching staff. Zohn Burden, Charley Wiles, and Brian Mitchell will not coach in the bowl game. Their responsibilities will be taken on by Adam Lechtenberg (replacing Burden on a permanent basis as RB coach), Zach Sparber (a GA who will coach the DL on an interim basis), and Pierson Prioleau (a Director of Player Development who will coach the cornerbacks on an interim basis). That’s a lot of moving parts and guys doing things for the first time.

I don’t like the uniqueness of the Kentucky challenge both offensively and defensively, combined with Virginia Tech’s coaching staff turnover, and I think the most likely outcome is that Virginia Tech loses this game. I think Kentucky wins, but as the No. 85 scoring offense in the country, it’s not like the Wildcats pile up the points, so just a few plays here and there could swing the outcome. I haven’t been particularly hyped about this game, but now that it’s just a few days off, I’m more into it, and it should be very interesting.

Will’s Prediction: Kentucky 27, Virginia Tech 24

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58 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Someone check the cookie jar as I think Will and Chris went to Canada, Colorado or San Francisco and got into some edible items and they are not thinking clearly. VT 31 Kentucky 13

  2. Both Chris and Will’s previews lack one major factor in our favor, should we decide to spurn Beamer Land of Offense and GO FOR IT: TIGHT END PLAY. We should get some good seal blocks for outside runners and wide open TEs against those UK LBs. I’ve been saying it for 20 years – Use the damned TEs guys. They are good this year and can get the job done.

  3. I’m sorry Chris, I’m not buying the “Kentucky’s defensive line is so awesome we’re bound to loose the bowl game” hype. If we’re looking for an excuse for loosing, this is not it. Take a look at the SEC rankings and Kentucky’s defensive line is rated 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC. Their running game is legit, so that’s something we should be worried about. Let’s not hyperventilate about things we shouldn’t.

  4. Chris and Will are afraid or have no confidence in the Hokies so VT should win this one. UK defense will not beat the Hokies this year. Just pick Hokies every game and Will is 8-4 vs 6-6. Go hokies! Go cbf!

  5. What does it say about the current state of our program that Chris and Will both think we can’t beat Kentucky? My, how our program has declined!

  6. Not to be mean, but if I was on the coaching, staff every time I passed Bud in the hall I would tease him saying “they say you can’t beat a running QB” . . . “hmm, a running QB, whatever will we do?” . . . “Welp, you had a good run Bud but a running QB is your Waterloo.” Oh we’d laugh and laugh, but I KNOW he’d design a plan to mess that running QB up! Dat dare boys is “country boy motivation” and it WORKS! Let’s “make his Momma cry” for you fellas that recall the Bud defenses of old.

  7. Not drinking the kool aid on a 7-5 Kentucky team whose marquis wins were over Loserville and UT Martin..tic on Martin of course.
    Lots of mis direction and screens, plus Turner and Hazelton will get us 24-30 points. UGA had tough time with the Ky defense and now we know why-UGA ‘s QB mailed it in , on several key games this season. Plus we faced a defensive front in Notre Dame who are much better athletes and relatively equal in size to the round ballers.

    I am worried about the coaching changes ,but remember our guys have had an extra month to prepare and our defense has gained a lot of experience . Plus it is purely one dimensional team…Bud Foster knows how to stop the run…don’t think that AJ Dillon EVER rushed for over 100 years against CBF…..sure hope I am right but cannot see us losing our third consecutive bowl game under CJF

  8. You talk about VTs “smoke and mirror” offense and that it worked until the UVa game, when they had 3 weeks to prepare. VT had almost 500 yards of offense against UVa and had the lead twice in the 4th quarter, only to lose it when the VT defense couldn’t cover an average UVa passing game. I’m not worried about our offense.

    1. I am really interested in this game/. A 9-4 record sounds much better than 8-5 and will likely get us ranked in the top 25.

  9. First of all, Jeff Holland doesn’t need an introduction. Every Hokie knows the legend of JH. Honestly surprised he wasn’t selected as DC or at least DL coach. Jeff could block a kick while eating pancakes off the Kentucky DLs head and shotgunning a case of PBRs.
    Hokies by 21. And Bud gets 1 more shutout.

  10. If Will is wrong… first losing record in 15 years…. uVa didn’t lose to our Hokies…. first time in 15 years…. coincidence???…. take it to the bank!!!

  11. Chris and Will,
    Interesting observations by y’all as usual.
    Regarding UK D line how does it rank with ND’s D line. I know we played QP in the ND game but we held up pretty good against ND at ND.
    I believe our TE’s will have a major role in this game regarding run blocking and in the passing game!
    Happy New Year!
    Go Hokies! 👍

  12. Hokies win b/c,
    1. Unlike UVA this team is really
    dimensional and Foster WILL have a plan. (He is not going to show up for a bowl game and NOT BE COACHING THE D….REALLY!!)
    2. I also watch Kentucky play this year and those BIG defensive lineman had major issues moving east/west.
    3.Their linebackers are really bad!!
    4. Short passes, misdirection, reverses and quick horizontal passes is just the recipe to beat their defense.
    If the Hokies show up as they did for Wake, GT and Pitt then we win going away and give Foster a HAPPY NEW YEAR!

    1. yeah . . . yeah . . . good point. Heck, after reading the writeups on Kentucky I thought we were playing the winner of the SEC. Geez

  13. CJF has been so “ho hum” about this game.. talking about getting young players read to contribute in the future. Therefore; I expect our HOKIES to come out “flat” and KU gets up two scores.. We battle back and lost by 7-10. Sure hope I’m wrong.. The ACC has not looked good so far in the Bowls.

  14. Running Qbs need to be able to pass too. That’s how Perkins beat us in the second half. Feel good about a one dimensional QB…go Hokes!

  15. I’m surprised a lot of people are picking KY over VT?
    No way. I predict in Buds last game he comes up with gem against one dimensional KY offense. We get a blocked punt and a defensive TD to win 34-17. If we get up on them early, they will be screwed. They are designed for close games and to play with the lead. We absolutely cannot fall behind.

    1. But the one statistic that bothers me is that in the Foster era, when a QB ran for over 100 yards, Bud has lost 14 of 15. Hope it’s better this time. Go Hokies.

  16. I watched some of Kentuckys games …the big defensive linemen are great north/south …but slow east west….I look for a lot of wide receiver sweeps and qb options with a few reverses …. Make those big defensive boys run ….and screens … we win by 2 yds. 👍

      1. I agree.

        I think this is a fair match up, should be a competitive game, but in the end we should win by 10 to 14 points.

  17. Watched the UT versus Kentucky game. VT ‘s defense is on par or maybe slightly better than UT. The key is offense. The Kentucky WR/QB will gain yards and most likely account for 2 TD’s. If VT’s offense shows a pulse and scores at least 20, VT wins. Kentucky’s offense is almost nonexistent beyond the Qb. I see VT winning a close one. I am more confident since CC and Will picked a loss. Those guys have money at being wrong this season. VT 20 Kentucky 17!

  18. Scrambling QBs are our kryptonite and that D line is massive. Throw in a noon kickoff and this has all the makings of a forgettable bowl matchup on the cusp of a major rebuilding effort. I’m not optimistic about the game but I’m optimistic about the direction the program is heading.

    1. This isn’t a scrambling QB. This is a running back/Wr playing QB. Much different scenario for the D who would have to pant defense on a pass and then transition mid-play to tracking down the QB.

      This guy is going to mainly run on designer runs – more like old school GT in some ways. This guy is a dynamic athlete and will make some plays, but they aren’t running up lots of points on anyone (minus Louisville) really.

    2. Please tell me what makes you optimistic about the direction of the program? That we are predicted to lose to a lower-half level SEC team? That we will have a new DC who has little experience coaching at the P5 level? That we can’t seem to get a stud running back? That we lost to UVA? What do you base your optimism on ?

  19. Gee if you know that a team is one dimensional you should be able to put 8 men in the box and stuff them. I see us winning 24 to 3

    1. I see I’m not the only one who doesn’t like this game for the same reasons: There is no way we stop there offense. We might slow it down. But I believe their WR turned QB is going to eat us alIve like most running QBs do and Kentucky’s defense will make it hard for us to do much of anything on offense. I think Kentucky will embarrass us based on how bad we match up with them. Really did not want to see this game. Would have rather played UT. It is what it is. Gosh I would love to be wrong. But I don’t think so.

      1. So you’d have rather played UT? UT beat UK. I’m confused. Wild you rather have played UT or think we had a better chance of winning?

        I’m opposite y’all on this one. Usually one dimensional offenses don’t do well (unless it’s triple option) vs a Bud Foster D.
        I am a bit concerned about their D front vs our young guys, but we do have Dzansi and TJ Jackson if needed. I happen to like our matchups of Mitchell and Keene vs their LBs too

        1. Yep, Charley Wiles and Brian Mitchell have been preparing all 30 day……..oops.

          Coaching change can really muck up preparation.

      1. Perkins beat us with his arm. After the first quarter, he did not kill us with his legs, but he kept hitting open receivers.

        IF we are able to slow Bowden down on the ground, will he be able to start slinging it around?

        1. And Petkins (2 Td runs, 1st qt) took advantage of a De that couldn’t keep containment all year long.

      2. Amen! We couldn’t stop UVA; don’t feel too good about any different outcome in this game. We are still just an average team, but improving.

      1. Because Paul Johnson’s GT offense was light years different than a one dimensional offense with a running quarterback.

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