The end of the 2019 season is almost upon us as Virginia Tech makes their final preparations for their New Year's Eve showdown with Kentucky at the 2019 Belk Bowl in Charlotte. Both teams are looking to build momentum going into the offseason, especially the Hokies who are likely to start next season as a preseason top 20 team.
With that said, here are our keys to the game for Virginia Tech in the 2019 Belk Bowl.
Establish The Run Early
Kentucky has one of America's best pass defenses ranked fourth in the country in passing yards allowed per game. While Virginia Tech has the offensive weapons to challenge Kentucky's talented pass defense, Virginia Tech will need to establish the run against the Wildcats' stingy defense.
The Wildcats are 59th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game while also allowing 4.4 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech ranks 52nd in rushing yards gained per game, but their average of 3.9 yards per carry shows the inefficiency that the Hokies have had at times this season.
For Virginia Tech's rushing attack to be successful, it will have to be built on a diversity of options consistently diversified both with interior and exterior runs. We've seen the Hokies' rushing attack show the ability to thrive when interior runs and QB draws are mixed in well with jet sweeps. Tech will need to strike the right balance with both interior and exterior runs to prevent Kentucky from being able to load one thing or the other while also working in the jet sweep read option that has proved potent down the stretch this season.
The screen game will also be an important extension of the running game and will need to be worked in right to make sure Kentucky can't load the box, forcing them to defend the field horizontally. If Tech's screen game can be effective, it should set up the read option well while also opening up the field for the Hokies to take a deep shot in the play action passing game.
Virginia Tech's rushing attack; and screen game that is an extension of it, will be critical in this game. The Hokies will not only need their execution to be at a high level, but they'll also need the sequencing of interior and exterior runs to be right in order to prevent Kentucky from getting in rhythm with defending one option or the other. If they can do that, the Hokies' offense may not be slowed down that much by a talented Kentucky pass defense.
Get Off To A Fast Start
Inherently, Kentucky is built to be a team that takes a lead and grinds out games similar to what we've seen from teams like Georgia Tech in the past.
That shows with how the Wildcats are ranked 29th in the nation in average time of possession per game with a rushing attack that includes an All-American all-purpose player in QB Lynn Bowden Jr and another All-American at offensive guard in Logan Stenberg. Additionally, the Wildcats had four players with at least 500 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns this season highlighted by their star QB Lynn Bowden.
Meanwhile, Bowden has only thrown 62 passes all season since moving from wide receiver midseason due to injuries at quarterback, completing under 50% of his passes.
What's clear for the Hokies is that they will need a strong start in order to have the best chance of winning this game, they have to get off to a fast start.
In some ways, the Hokies would be better off receiving the ball to open this game rather than their normal decision of deferring to the second half should they win the coin toss. Whether they do or don't, the Hokies will need to come out fast on their first offensive possession and put up points.
In general, the Hokies haven't been great at scoring on their opening possession with only one touchdown and two field goals on opening possessions in Hooker's seven starts. While Tech has been better in the past on opening possession, their struggles this season have caused some challenges at times but ones that Tech has been able to overcome against other teams with solid defensive starts.
However, against a talented Kentucky rushing offense, the Hokies will need to get off to a fast start both on their first offensive possession and in the first quarter as a whole. If not, Kentucky has the type of clock-dominating rushing attack that can make life extremely difficult especially given their talented pass defense.
Play With Discipline and Sound Tackling
Facing Kentucky's offense may feel similar in some ways to facing a hybrid of Georgia Tech and stereotype Wisconsin. While the Wildcats aren't an option offense, they'll be pounding the run game as much as possible forcing the Hokies to play with discipline in filling holes and make sure they get the job done tackling.
Virginia Tech's tackling has been improved overall compared to last season while this team has also shown greater physicality that was lacking at times in 2018 on defense as shown in their turnaround against Pittsburgh from getting blown out in 2018 to shutting them out this season. However, the Hokies will need to continue to play with discipline and physicality while also doing a good job of tackling with sound fundamentals rather than looking for big hits especially against a guy like Lynn Bowden Jr.
Now one of the may areas Virginia Tech will have to show discipline is sticking with your assignment. That will include Virginia Tech's defensive line winning the battles on the edge to make sure Bowden can't get to the outside where he quickly becomes extremely dangerous on QB draws and read options. Additionally, the Hokies will need their linebackers like Rayshard Ashby, Dax Hollifield, and Chamarri Conner to simply be in the place they need to be rather than try to make the hero play. If not, Bowden will be able to break out for some big runs.
Overall, discipline and sound tackling will be important against a Kentucky rushing offense that isn't very complicated, but has been effective at taking advantage at one moment of failing to do one thing like having discipline, closing the edge, or making a sound tackle. If the Hokies can consistently do those things in addition to embracing the physical nature of what Kentucky will do as they've done against others this season, then Virginia Tech has a great chance to slow down Kentucky's potent rushing attack.