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Sun Bowl Preview and Prediction: Virginia Tech vs. UCLA

Brett Hundley

Brett Hundley

What happens when one of the nation’s stingiest defenses goes head-to-head with one of the most explosive offenses? We will find out when Virginia Tech and UCLA face off on the gridiron for the first time ever in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

Virginia Tech extended its bowl streak to 21 seasons after finishing 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the ACC’s Coastal Division. With Florida’s postseason streak coming to an end at 22, the Hokies now have the nation’s second-longest active bowl streak, behind only fellow ACC member Florida State (32).

Now in his 27th season at his alma mater, head coach Frank Beamer has won at least eight games in 19 of the past 21 seasons. The Hokies are just 9-11 in bowl games under Beamer, but were victorious in last season’s Russell Athletic Bowl, defeating Rutgers 13-10 in overtime.

UCLA is playing in its third straight bowl, as the Bruins have gone two-for-two in Jim Mora’s brief tenure. The Bruins went 9-3 and finished second to Arizona State in the Pac-12’s South Division with a 6-3 record.

The Bruins are 14-17-1 all-time in bowls, and have lost their last two postseason appearances. Last season, UCLA fell to Baylor 49-26 in the Holiday Bowl.

Both teams have played in the Sun Bowl before, with Virginia Tech losing its only appearance way back in 1947 and UCLA going 2-1 in its previous three (1991, 2000 and ’05) trips. El Paso also holds special significance for Virginia Tech, as the Sun Bowl loss to Cincinnati more than 60 years ago was the Hokies’ first-ever postseason appearance.

Virginia Tech vs. UCLA

Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: UCLA -7

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No. 23 vs. No. 8
These are the respective national rankings of UCLA’s scoring offense and Virginia Tech’s scoring defense. The Bruins are averaging 36.5 points per game while the Hokies are giving up 17.4 points per contest. As the saying goes, “something has to give,” and considering Tech’s own offensive issues (see below), it’s critical that the defense limit the damage done by the UCLA offense. The key there is stopping Bruin quarterback Brett Hundley. The sophomore may not have enjoyed the same statistical success that he did last year, but he is still a force to be reckoned with. Hundley is similar to his Virginia Tech counterpart Logan Thomas, in that both are dual threats who can make plays with their arm and legs. Hundley leads the Bruins in rushing with 587 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground, and also has thrown for 2,845 yards with 22 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. The Hokies are third in FBS in passing defense and eighth against the run, but haven’t faced a quarterback quite like Hundley this season, unless you count practice reps against Thomas. One of the strengths of the Tech defense is its defensive line, which is a veteran group that goes pretty deep, as evidenced by the 37 sacks (tied for ninth) the Hokies have amassed. This an area in which UCLA has struggled, due in large part to an inexperienced offensive line that features three true freshmen starters. If the Hokies can get consistent pressure on Hundley and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, the Bruins will be hard-pressed to reach their season averages on offense.

Can the Hokies Find Their Offense?
Virginia Tech is 96th out of 125 teams in FBS in scoring offense. Of the 70 teams playing in a bowl game, no team has scored fewer touchdowns than the Hokies’ 34. Running the ball, which has been a staple of Tech offenses in years past, has been an ongoing struggle for the past two seasons. This fall the Hokies are averaging 117.8 yards per game on the ground and a measly 3.1 yards per carry. That puts them 111th in the nation in rushing offense. To make matters worse, running back Trey Edmunds, the team’s leading rusher with 675 yards and 10 touchdowns, broke his leg in the regular-season finale against Virginia. With Edmunds out, the leading rusher on the team is quarterback Logan Thomas, who has a total of 295 yards on 159 carries (1.1 ypc). Thomas is capable of making big plays with his legs, but it’s his arm that has been the issue this season. After bursting onto the scene with a scintillating sophomore campaign in 2011 during which he threw for 3,013 yards and accounted for 30 total touchdowns (19 pass, 11 rush), Thomas has seen his numbers decline in each of the past two seasons. The senior is completing 57.3 percent of his passes, but has seen his passing yardage drop to 2,861 (238.4 ypg) and has nearly as many total touchdowns (20) as turnovers (16). Virginia Tech’s defense is among the best in the nation, but unless the offense can put some drives together and score some points, it won’t matter how well the Hokies’ unit fares against Brett Hundley and the Bruins’ offense.

Two-Way Bruins
Even with dynamic dual-threat Brett Hundley under center, UCLA head coach Jim Mora hasn’t stopped looking for impact offensive players, going so far as to employing several of his guys on both sides of the ball. Six Bruin defenders have seen time on offense, as linebackers and defensive linemen have not only caught a pass or carried the ball, several of them have scored.  Those who have done double duty this fall are defensive linemen Kenny Clark (FB), Keenan Graham (FB), Cassius Marsh (TE) and Eddie Vanderdoes (FB), along with linebackers Myles Jack (RB) and Jordan Zumwalt (FB/TE). Marsh, Vanderdoes and Zumwalt have combined to catch three passes for 32 yards and a touchdown (caught by Marsh), while Jack and Vanderdoes have each carried the ball at least once. In fact, Jack has done much more than merely moonlight as a running back. He is fourth on the team with 269 yards rushing and second only to Hundley with seven touchdowns on the ground. A true freshman, Jack didn’t even get a carry until injuries thrust him into backfield duty against Arizona on Nov. 9. Six carries and 120 yards later, he forced the coaching staff to stay with the experiment. He has scored on the ground in four straight games, including four rushing touchdowns against Washington, a new UCLA true freshman record. How effective has Jack been in his new role? Consider that his 269 yards would place him third on Virginia Tech in rushing, and he’s done this in just four games on offense. As versatile as they come, Jack also has posted 70 tackles, 10 pass breakups, two fumble recoveries, an interception and a blocked kick at his “true” position, which is linebacker. An Athlon Sports first-team All-American and All-Freshman all-purpose player, Jack figures to be all over the field against Virginia Tech, as the Hokies will have to account for him on both defense and offense.

Key Player: Anthony Barr, LB, UCLA
Myles Jack may be stealing some of the spotlight due to his two-way exploits, but there’s no question that Barr is the star of the Bruins’ defense. A senior, Barr has seen his NFL Draft stock rocket up the charts this season, which is quite impressive since this is just his second year as a defensive player. A 6-4. 248-pound athletic freak, Barr has already been named the recipient of the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which is named in honor of NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott and is awarded to the collegiate defensive player having the biggest influence on his team. His statistics speak for themselves, as he has recorded 62 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. He is ranked in the top five in the nation in tackles for a loss, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, has received numerous first-team All-American accolades, and was a finalist for the Bednarik, Butkus and Lombardi Awards. Barr is considered a virtual lock as a first-round pick come draft day in May, and this is last opportunity to make a lasting impression on NFL scouts and front office personnel in a game. Virginia Tech’s defense may have the better statistics as a unit, but UCLA has Barr, and this Bruin is capable of causing plenty of damage all by himself.

Final Analysis

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Winning seasons and bowl games have become par for the course at Virginia Tech during Frank Beamer’s 27 years as head coach of his alma mater. However, the Hokies saw their lengthy 10-win season streak come to an end two seasons ago and have struggled to find consistent production on offense. The defense is among the best in the nation, which is why this team was able to win eight games. UCLA has won nine games in each of Jim Mora’s first two seasons at the helm, as the Bruins have NFL-caliber talent on both sides of the ball and have seen several freshmen emerge as consistent contributors this fall. Virginia Tech’s defense boasts several pro prospects of its own, and will do all it can to keep the Hokies within striking distance. In the end, however, Tech just doesn’t have enough offense to keep up with the Bruins and UCLA pulls away late to finish the season with 10 victories.

Prediction: UCLA 27, Virginia Tech 17