EL PASO — Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer stood beside a podium and took only a few seconds to ponder the question. After going to 21 straight bowl games and winning just nine of them, what are the telltale signs that his team is ready to play in Tuesday’s Sun Bowl against No. 17 UCLA?
Though he went through several factors such as practice intensity and off-the-field discipline, the real answer lies in what Beamer simply refers to as “reality.”
“When you’re playing an opponent and you look at the video and you can see how good UCLA is, that’s reality,” he said. “They put on that tape and ‘we should beat these guys,’ or whatever, then maybe you’re not as much into it. But you put on the tape and it’s pretty accurate how you need to prepare. . . . It gets back to personnel and their personnel is good.”
Virginia Tech enters Tuesday’s game as a seven-point underdog, and Beamer has talked openly about how a victory over the Bruins could vault the Hokies back into the national rankings to end the season. How does Virginia Tech go about doing that? Well, here are three questions and three players that could come to define the 2013 Sun Bowl.
1) How will Virginia Tech’s RBs and OL handle Anthony Barr?
The biggest mystery for the Hokies heading into this game will be at running back. Redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds, the team’s leading rusher this season, suffered a broken tibia against Virginia in the regular season finale and won’t play Tuesday.
Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and running backs coach Shane Beamer have both said sophomore J.C. Coleman will get the first carry of the game and likely see a good amount of the workload in Edmunds’s place. But Edmunds was also Virginia Tech’s best pass-blocking tailback, and given Coleman’s slight stature (he’s listed at 5 feet 7 and 191 pounds, but that’s generous) the Hokies might need to turn to other alternatives.
UCLA all-American linebacker Anthony Barr (10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss this year) usually rushes from the right side of the Bruins’ defense, meaning he will likely go up against Virginia Tech freshman left tackle Jonathon McLaughlin. Ordinarily Edmunds would be called on to help in that situation.
Without him, though, Beamer has indicated freshman Jerome Wright (6-2, 221 pounds) could see more playing time. Redshirt freshmen Chris Mangus and Joel Caleb could also be involved with the game plan. In Virginia Tech’s past two losses (at Boston College and Maryland), it has allowed 11 combined sacks.
2) Who wins the quarterback battle: Brett Hundley or Logan Thomas?
It’s well known at this point that Tuesday will be Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas’s final game as a Hokie, but a big topic of discussion since the regular season ended has been whether UCLA signal-caller Brett Hundley is playing his last game with the Bruins. The redshirt sophomore, like Thomas two years ago, is projected as a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
“I don’t think it will be. I’m hopeful it won’t be,” Bruins Coach Jim Mora said Monday.
Regardless, the battle between Thomas and Hundley will likely define this bowl game, even though neither will be on the field at the same time.
If the Hokies are to win, Thomas will have to be the catalyst in the much the same way he was when Virginia Tech upset Miami on the road last month, especially now that Edmunds is sidelined. In that game, Thomas completed 25 of 31 passes for 366 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and it will likely take a similar performance to best the Bruins given the Hokies’ lack of weapons elsewhere on offense.
Hundley, meanwhile, is the sort of dual-threat quarterback Virginia Tech’s defense has had some issues with this season and he led UCLA in passing and rushing. The Hokies’ defensive players have mentioned the team’s loss to Maryland, when Terps quarterback C.J. Brown did much of his damage running the football and using Virginia Tech’s aggressiveness to his advantage, as a template for what to avoid against the Bruins.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster even compared Hundley to Donovan McNabb, “but he’s bigger.” It will be interesting to see if the Hokies use a spy on Hundley, a tactic that worked after halftime against the Terrapins.
“He does a great job of creating when things aren’t there,” Foster said. “When you have that element . . . there’s always concern.”
3) Can Virginia Tech’s defense take advantage of UCLA’s inexperienced offensive line?
The Hokies finished the year ranked within the top five in the country in total defense, sacks, passing efficiency defense and third-down conversions. So it’s safe to say they should have an advantage facing a UCLA offensive line that has had to rely on three freshmen this year.
But backed by a Virginia Tech offense that has been sporadic, the Hokies may need to dominate this matchup in the trenches, particularly because Hundley’s running ability could negate Foster’s penchant for blitzing. They certainly have a defensive line capable of doing just that.
“Sometimes it seems like he’s got frickin’ 14 guys in the box,” UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said of Foster’s scheme.
Defensive ends James Gayle, J.R. Collins and Dadi Nicolas and defensive tackles Derrick Hopkins and Luther Maddy helped Virginia Tech finish with 37 sacks this year. But corralling Hundley and company would be the latest proof that they helped spearhead one of the nation’s best defenses this year.
Three players to watch
Virginia Tech CB Kyle Fuller
Fuller’s status for this game has been up in the air since he underwent core muscle surgery at the end of the regular season, but Beamer said Monday the Hokies “expect” Fuller to play against UCLA. His role, though, will likely be limited to nickel situations if he proves to be close to 100 percent during pregame warmups. When healthy, Fuller is the best tackler in Virginia Tech’s secondary and those skills would come in handy against a running threat like Hundley.
UCLA RB-LB Myles Jack
The do-everything freshman had 70 tackles and led the Bruins in pass break-ups as a linebacker and then rejuvenated the team’s rushing attack down the stretch, scoring seven touchdowns and running for 267 yards over the final four games. Mora and Mazzone have revealed little in the way of specifics about Jack’s role Tuesday, but he’s another dynamic weapon the Hokies will have to account for at all times.
Virginia Tech PK Michael Branthover
The All-Met from DeMatha, who has previously served as Virginia Tech’s punter and kickoff specialist, will supplant walk-on Eric Kristensen as the team’s place kicker after an impressive string of practices over the past month. But Branthover, a junior, hasn’t attempted a field goal in a game since his senior year of high school. Kristensen had replaced senior Cody Journell, who was kicked off the team last month for a violation of team policies. The last time the Hokies used the back-up kicker’s back up in a bowl game – the 2012 Sugar Bowl – a missed field goal in overtime ultimately cost Virginia Tech a win over Michigan.