Kentucky and Virginia Tech meet in the Belk Bowl to kick off a busy bowl slate on Tuesday, Dec. 31 in the first meeting between these two teams since 1987. This game marks the final appearance for two key cogs in the success of both teams this year. Long-time coordinator Bud Foster is coaching the Hokies’ defense for the final time, while all-purpose weapon Lynn Bowden will wear a Kentucky uniform for one more game before heading off to the NFL.
The Belk Bowl trip marks the fourth consecutive postseason appearance by Kentucky under coach Mark Stoops. The Wildcats have made considerable progress since the beginning of Stoops’ tenure. After a 12-24 start to his career in Lexington, Stoops has guided the program to 31 victories over the last four years. Additionally, Kentucky won 10 games in 2018, which marked the first double-digit win total by the program since 1977. The Wildcats had to fight through some adversity this year, as an injury to quarterback Terry Wilson forced the offense to undergo a midseason renovation. After a 2-3 start, Kentucky rebounded to win four out of its final five games and closed the year by defeating rival Louisville 45-13.
Virginia Tech entered the year looking to rebound from a disappointing 6-7 campaign last fall. The season didn’t start well for the Hokies, as they dropped a 35-28 matchup to Boston College in the opener and had sluggish performances against Old Dominion and Furman. However, a 45-10 loss to Duke represented a turning point for the season. Coach Justin Fuente made a few tweaks after that game – including a quarterback change to Hendon Hooker – and the program went on to win six of its final eight matchups. If Virginia Tech can knock off Kentucky, Fuente will have at least nine victories in three out of his four years in Blacksburg.
Kentucky holds an 11-6-2 series edge over Virginia Tech. These two teams have never met before in a bowl game.
Belk Bowl: Kentucky vs. Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Spread: Virginia Tech -2.5
When Kentucky Has the Ball
A quick glance at the stat sheet doesn’t reflect the type of season Kentucky has experienced on offense this year. The Wildcats enter the Belk Bowl matchup averaging 26.3 points a game and 5.4 yards a play in SEC matchups.
Kentucky lost starting quarterback Terry Wilson to a season-ending injury in the second game of the year against Eastern Michigan and is a big reason why the offense only had eight passing touchdowns all year. While Wilson’s injury was a huge setback, Stoops and coordinator Eddie Gran quickly regrouped to ensure the Wildcats had an effective offense in the second half of the season. Sawyer Smith started the three games after Wilson’s injury, but receiver Lynn Bowden shifted to quarterback for the remainder of 2019. With Bowden under center, Kentucky leaned heavily on its ground game behind a standout offensive line. The Wildcats finished the regular season atop the SEC in rushing yards per game (274.4), with the offense recording at least 40 attempts in six out of the last seven matchups. Additionally, this offense recorded at least 400 rushing yards in each of its last three games. Bowden won’t throw it often, but his running ability and athleticism is a tough matchup for opposing defenses.
Although Bowden leads Kentucky’s offense with 1,235 rushing yards, he’s not the only threat for Gran. Three running backs have accumulated at least 500 rushing yards, including Asim Rose (757) and Kavosiey Smoke (609). The combination of Bowden, a deep backfield and standout offensive line is a tough matchup for Virginia Tech’s run defense. The Hokies gave up over 200 rushing yards a game last fall but cut that total to 123.3 in 2019. Linebacker Rayshard Ashby (14.5 TFL) has developed into one of the ACC’s best at his position and was instrumental in creating negative plays (14.5 TFL) this season. The Hokies need players like Ashby and lineman DaShawn Crawford to win battles up front and keep Bowden in check.
With Kentucky’s ability to consistently churn out yardage behind the ground attack, Bowden hasn’t had to make too many plays through the air. He’s attempted only 62 passes all season and just 18 over the last three contests. Ahmad Wagner (15 catches) and Josh Ali (19) top the stat sheet for weapons on the outside. Virginia Tech’s cornerback Caleb Farley is one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks but may not play due to injury. Even though Farley is a huge absence, Kentucky’s run-first approach could minimize his absence.
It sounds simple, but this matchup is going to hinge on how well Virginia Tech can slow down Bowden and the Kentucky ground game. If the Hokies slow Bowden and force this offense into obvious passing downs, that’s a huge win for Foster in his final game on the sidelines. The battle in the trenches is going to be critical to the outcome of this matchup.
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
Virginia Tech’s 45-10 loss to Duke on Sept. 27 was one of the biggest surprises from the ACC during the 2019 season. The Hokies had sluggish performances in wins over Old Dominion and Furman to start the year, but a 35-point defeat at home prompted a lot of questions about the future of this program under Fuente. Fast forward to December and it’s easy to see why Virginia Tech could be the favorite in the Coastal Division for 2020. Quarterback Hendon Hooker was inserted into the starting lineup after the loss to Duke and provided a spark, as the offense scored at least 30 points in six out of his seven starts. In Hooker's seven starts, the Hokies are averaging 427 yards a game compared to 337.8 in the other five games.
Hooker is only averaging 19.7 pass attempts a game, but he’s completed 62.1 percent of his throws over the season and tossed just two picks to 11 scores. Hooker eclipsed 300 yards in Virginia Tech’s loss to Virginia and delivered clutch performances (184 passing yards) against Miami and Wake Forest (242). The sophomore is progressing as a passer, but he’s also a huge part of the team’s rushing attack. Hooker had at least 10 carries in six out of his seven starts and posted two contests (Pitt and Virginia) with at least 20. He ended the regular season with 306 rushing yards and five scores, and his mobility adds an extra element for the defense to account for in the box. Running backs Deshawn McClease (717 yards) and Keshawn King (315) will team with Hooker to handle the duties on the ground. Jalen Holston suffered an injury in the opener against Boston College and has not played over the last 11 games. It’s uncertain if he will return to the lineup on Saturday.
As mentioned in the previous section, a key part of Tuesday’s matchup will be the matchup in the trenches. Every starter on Virginia Tech’s offensive line from the projected depth chart is a sophomore or freshman. This unit allowed 28 sacks in the regular season and will have its hands full against a massive Kentucky defensive line. The Wildcats boast two starters (Calvin Taylor and Quinton Bohanna) over 300 pounds, with T.J. Carter (287) and edge rusher Josh Paschal (284) also helping to key a rush defense that limited teams to 4.2 yards per rush.
Despite a revamped secondary in place this year, Kentucky finished third in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. The Wildcats have picked off eight passes and allowed only seven passing scores through 12 games. However, the defense didn’t face a gauntlet of quarterbacks, so big-play receivers Tre Turner (33 catches for 542 yards) and Damon Hazelton (30 for 406) could find opportunities downfield. Kentucky’s defense is holding teams to 5.2 yards per snap and just 18.4 points a game. And thanks to a run-first approach on offense, the Wildcats have played the fewest snaps (741) of any defense in the SEC. This unit has recorded six sacks in back-to-back games, giving Kentucky 32 for the season.
The Belk Bowl should be an entertaining send-off for Virginia Tech’s Bud Foster and Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden. Motivation is always a question mark in bowl games but it shouldn’t be an issue here. The Wildcats want to establish the run behind Bowden and a standout offensive line, but the Hokies have held seven out of their last eight opponents under 150 rushing yards. Of course, Kentucky’s offense will be the toughest rushing team played in that span. If Virginia Tech stops the run, Hooker and the offense should do just enough to leave Charlotte with a victory. If Bowden gets on track early, the Wildcats will win back-to-back bowl games for the first time under Stoops. This matchup in Charlotte might be one of the toughest bowl games to predict this year.