Belk Bowl, Kentucky vs. Virginia Tech: Scouting the Hokies
After a final few minutes of turmoil, Kentucky found its landing spot for the team’s 4th consecutive bowl appearance, and it’ll be in Charlotte for the Belk Bowl against ACC foe Virginia Tech. Kickoff is at noon, ET on Dec. 31.
Kentucky used to play the Hokies regularly in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s — well before Tech enjoyed its period of major success under former coach Frank Beamer. The teams will meet for the 20th time on New Year’s Eve in Charlotte (Kentucky leads the series 11-6-2, although the last meeting was in 1987).
Here are 5 things you need to know about Virginia Tech.
How the Hokies got here
Virginia Tech ended its regular season with a 39-30 loss to Virginia that placed the rival Cavaliers in the ACC title game and sent Tech to Charlotte. That ended the Hokies’ 15-game winning streak in the series.
The Hokies finished 8-4, including a 5-3 mark in league play. Tech had its fair share of early struggles, losing in Week 1 at Boston College and struggling to overcome FCS Furman in Week 3.
Tech’s best effort came in a tough 21-20 loss at Notre Dame. The week before, the Hokies had survived a 6-overtime matchup with North Carolina, and the following week featured a 36-17 beatdown of then-ranked Wake Forrest. Tech also finished strong on defense, shutting out 2 of their past 3 opponents.
Tech switched QBs late in the season, and the move paid dividends. The team began the year with former Kansas transfer Ryan Willis running the offense. Willis played well in 2018, passing for 2,716 yards and 24 touchdowns. But he struggled early in the season and was eventually supplanted by sophomore Hendon Hooker. Hooker is a more mobile quarterback and he has struggled with leg injuries, which brought Willis back into the fold at times.
For the season, Hooker has taken the most snaps, passing for 1,445 yards, 10 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions, while also rushing for 306 yards and 5 touchdowns. He threw for 311 yards against Virginia.
Considering UK’s history of bad luck against backup QBs, they’d do well not to forget Willis who passed for 906 yards, with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.
Tech scored over 30 points per game but finished 9th in the 14 team ACC in total offense. The Hokies rushed for 172 yards per game, but gained just 3.9 yards per carry, which is less than stellar. Their top rusher is junior back Deshawn McClease, who rushed for 717 yards and 6 touchdowns. But Hooker also is a threat.
Tech was 11th in the ACC in passing yardage but 4th in efficiency, as their total of just 8 interceptions was one of the lower figures in the conference. The Hokies have a pair of big-play receivers, with 6-2 sophomore Tre Turner leading the team in catches (33) and yards (542). Junior Damon Hazelton missed the first month of the season but had 30 grabs for 506 yards.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster is a Kentucky native and is in his 23rd and final season at Tech. Tech loves to make big plays on defense. The Hokies have 37 sacks (5th in the ACC) and made 13 interceptions (tied for 2nd). Junior linebacker Rayshard Ashby has amassed more than 100 tackles in each of the past 2 seasons, and his 14.5 tackles for loss attest to his prowess at making big plays.
Sophomore Jermaine Waller has developed into a shutdown corner. He played little last season but has 3 interceptions and 10 passes broken up this year to go with 46 tackles. Linebacker Chamarri Conner led the team in sacks with 5.5 and also broke up 8 passes, which attests to Foster’s ability to maximize his players’ talents in a variety of alignments and situations.
If Tech scores 2 more points against Notre Dame, this isn’t an issue. But … they haven’t beaten anybody. Given Kentucky’s other ACC experience — bludgeoning a Louisville team that also posted a winning record in ACC play, ‘Cats fans are wondering if anybody in the ACC other than Clemson is any good. Maybe not.
It’s telling that the Sagarin ratings have Tech at No. 43 — 8 spots below Kentucky. Tech’s 74th ranked strength of schedule is a significant issue, and its best win this year, per Sagarin, was against No. 48-ranked North Carolina. Of course, Kentucky’s best win was against 47th-ranked Missouri, so the reciprocal point is true.
In many ways, Tech feels like a good matchup with Kentucky. The Hokies aren’t exceptionally explosive, but they limit mistakes on offense and try to force them with their defense. Hooker can make plays. Given Kentucky’s ground and pound style, the Wildcats are high octane but also take few risks. That might work out badly for Tech.