Sun Bowl preview: UCLA’s high-powered offense battles Virginia Tech’s elite defense
The Sun Bowl is a classic battle of offense versus defense. You have Brett Hundley leading UCLA’s top-25, fast-paced offensive attack against a stout, top-10 Virginia Tech defense. So, naturally, the outcome of the game might be resolved on the other side, when UCLA’s front seven tries to put pressure on the Hokies and their often erratic quarterback Logan Thomas. The bowl also pits two conference freshman defensive player of the years in Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller and UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, who might go up against Fuller if and when he switches over to running back.
Who: No. 17 UCLA (9-3, 6-3 Pac-12) vs. Virginia Tech (8-4, 5-3 ACC)
What: Hyundai Sun Bowl
When: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 11 a.m. PT
Where: Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, Texas
Where to watch: CBS with Verne Lundquist (play-by-play), Gary Danielson (analyst) and Tracy Wolfson (sideline).
Rushing offense: UCLA 196.6 ypg (38th in NCAA), Virginia Tech 117.8 ypg (111th in NCAA)
Passing offense: UCLA 251.6 ypg (45th in NCAA), Virginia Tech 241.3 ypg (56th in NCAA)
Scoring offense: UCLA 36.5 ppg (23rd in NCAA), Virginia Tech 23.4 ppg (96th in NCAA)
Rushing defense: UCLA 170.4 ypg (72nd in NCAA), Virginia Tech 103.8 ypg (8th in NCAA)
Passing defense: UCLA 221.1 ypg (45th in NCAA), Virginia Tech 165.8 ypg (3rd in NCAA)
Scoring defense: UCLA 24.1 ppg (39th in NCAA), Virginia Tech 17.4 ppg (8th in NCAA)
How they got there
The Bruins won their first five games of the season, including a tough 42-21 win on the road at No. 23 Nebraska in which UCLA came back from 18 points down. Quarterback Brett Hundley looked like one of the country’s top quarterbacks, while the squad’s linebacking corps, led by All-American Anthony Barr, was a force to be reckoned with.
UCLA’s linebackers were the strength of the defense throughout the season while the team as a whole remained consistent — at least in that the Bruins beat teams worse than them and lost to teams better than them. There’s no shame in losing to Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State — all top-15 teams currently — but that was the difference between UCLA being an elite team and being one that missed out on a chance to play for the Rose Bowl in the conference title game.
Despite the loss to the Sun Devils, the Bruins followed it up with a 35-14 triumph over the Trojans to end the regular season on a sweet note. Linebacker Eric Kendricks, UCLA’s leading tackler, will miss the Sun Bowl with an ankle injury, but the squad still has Barr and freshman phenom Myles Jack (the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive and Offensive Player of the Year) to anchor the defense.
It is no fun to open the season against Alabama, but Virginia Tech bounced back from that initial loss and rolled off six straight wins. Then came a home matchup with Duke. The Hokies nearly won, behind their suffocating defense, despite quarterback Logan Thomas throwing four interceptions.
The 13-10 setback eventually kept Virginia Tech out of the ACC title game, as the Blue Devils finished one game above the Hokies in the standings. The loss was the first of a four-game stretch in which Virginia Tech lost three games — the one win being a 42-24 win over No. 11 Miami, the Hokies’ highest offensive output of the season.
Virginia Tech is a defensive team through and through. The squad allowed fewer than 14 points in half of its games this season and had 25 takeaways — 19 interceptions and six fumble recoveries. Opponents are converting less than 30 percent of their third downs against the Hokies.
While the regular rumors of head coach Jim Mora leaving may annoy Bruins fans, it would not be happening had he not had so much success at UCLA in such a short time. But Mora is here to stay, and so, it seems, are the Bruins. Mora has reenergized the program in his two seasons with back-to-back nine-win campaigns and two dominating wins over bitter rival USC.
Frank Beamer has been the Virginia Tech head coach since 1987. He is the longest tenured coach and winningest active coach in college football’s Division I FBS with a 224-108-2 record, including 119-44 in conference play. His Hokies have made 21 straight bowl games.
Quarterback Brett Hundley — The dual-threat signal caller had a stellar sophomore campaign, throwing for 237 yards per game and leading the team with 587 rushing yards on the season. He was able to extend plays with his legs, but his accuracy (nine interceptions) was not always pinpoint.
Linebacker/running back Myles Jack — The two-way player was amazingly named Pac-12 Freshman Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year. He started 11 games at linebacker, logging 70 tackles, five for loss, 10 pass breakups and an interception. On Nov. 9 against Arizona, he was put in at running back and tallied 120 yards on six carries. He averaged 7.2 yards a carry and recorded seven touchdowns in his four games on offense.
Cornerback Kendall Fuller — The ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year ranked first in the conference in passes defended with 16 and ranked fifth in the country in interceptions with six. The 5-11 Baltimore native started in 11 of 12 games, racking up 56 total tackles.
- The Bruins scored 50 points in their 2005 Sun Bowl appearance.
- Four UCLA players were named to the All-Pac-12 team: Linebacker Anthony Barr and offensive lineman Xavier Su’a-Filo were both voted on the first team for the second year in a row, while Myles Jack was named a second-team All-Pac-12 defender and fellow linebacker Ryan Hofmeister was named a second-team All-Pac-12 special teams player.
Keys to the game
On playing in the Sun Bowl: “These are the kind of games that you get excited about,” UCLA head football coach Jim Mora said in a press release. “We get to play on New Year’s Eve in a historic bowl game in front of a national audience on CBS. We get to go for our 10th win of the season against a tremendous ACC opponent in Virginia Tech. This is the kind of opportunity that our players and coaching staff live for, and we can’t wait to play this game.”
On the impact of winning a bowl game: “I think the bowl game is just kind of that everlasting taste in everybody's mouth of how the season ends, how the season went,” Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler told the Newport (Va.) News Daily Press. “If you go beat a team like UCLA, everybody kind of thinks this year was a success. If you go and lose, everybody kind of thinks the opposite.”