The Virginia Tech football team’s defense has been elite this season, but the UCLA Bruins’ Brett Hundley presents a real challenge for Bud Foster’s unit to contain in the Sun Bowl.
The Hokies may be fourth in total defense, and seventh in run defense specifically, but mobile quarterbacks have given the defense headaches all year.
Tech has allowed opposing quarterbacks to run for 325 yards over the course of their 12 games, most notably letting the Maryland Terrapins’ C.J. Brown gash the team for 122 yards in the Hokies’ 27-24 loss to the Terps.
Hundley himself has ran for 587 yards and nine touchdowns, and stopping him from repeating this kind of success on the ground will be key if Foster wants to shut down UCLA’s offense.
The sophomore quarterback has certainly been impressive through the air as well; he’s completing nearly 68 percent of his passes and has thrown 22 touchdowns against nine interceptions.
But Hundley is able to be so effective through the air largely through his skill running read-option plays, making it a crucial element for the Hokies to contain if they want to win the Sun Bowl.
Hundley’s decision-making when running read-option plays is normally superb, but his speed on the outside is what’s helping him average 48.9 running yards per game.
He can blow right by players in the secondary when he needs to, as this long touchdown run demonstrates.
This should be a real area of concern for the Hokies, considering they’ve really struggled with perimeter tackling thanks to the injuries they’ve suffered in the secondary in the second half of the season.
Senior cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum have both missed significant time over the course of the last six games, and both were sure-handed tacklers who could really help the Hokies against the Bruins.
However, neither player is sure about their availability for the bowl game.
Fuller’s groin injury required surgery on Nov. 21 that has an average recovery time of four-to-six weeks, which means he could conceivably play in the Dec. 31 contest, but there’s been no word as to his status recently.
Similarly, Exum suffered an ankle injury against the Miami Hurricanes that’s kept him out of the team’s last two games. There was some talk of him returning against the Virginia Cavaliers, but he was ultimately ruled out, so there is a chance he could come back to face UCLA after a few weeks of rest.
The Hokies don’t lack for talent in the secondary if the pair stays sidelined; cornerback Kendall Fuller just got named the ACC’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, after all, and fellow freshman Brandon Facyson wasn’t far behind him.
The problem is the onus the seniors’ absence places on the rest of the secondary’s depth chart. Redshirt freshman Der’Woun Greene and true freshman Chuck Clark both have talent, but neither one has developed as quickly as the other talented freshmen in the secondary.
The Hokies will truly have to hope Exum is ready to come back to avoid putting too much strain on Greene or Clark and keep their snaps limited.
Attacking With Restraint
The Hokies’ front seven are truly excellent at getting after opposing quarterbacks.
Thanks to Foster’s scheme and the depth on the defensive line, Tech is ninth in the country with 37 sacks on the year.
However, this desire to pressure the passer can create problems for the Hokies when they face quarterbacks who are able to take off and run.
Hundley most certainly fits the mold of signal-callers who can give the Hokies fits in the running game.
Just watch the way that C.J. Brown is able to scamper for 38 yards against Tech on this play.
Foster brings pressure, blitzing two linebackers in addition to the four defensive linemen. Coverage down the field is man-to-man, and there’s nowhere for Brown to go with the football.
This sounds like things have gone exactly according to plan, right? Not quite.
The rushers get too aggressive, losing their “contain” responsibilities as they try to bring Brown down, and he takes advantage of the man coverage to run for a big gain on third down.
The Hokies will have to be aware of Hundley’s abilities to escape the pocket, and with a month to prepare, there’s reason to think that they’ll be able to adjust.
After all, with two weeks to prepare for Virginia’s mobile David Watford, the Hokies had little trouble limiting the quarterback, like this video shows.
Defensive end J.R. Collins makes a hard dive to the left tackle’s inside shoulder, but he realizes that Watford is headed for the outside and quickly adjusts.
He forces Watford to head right into the teeth of the run defense, where safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett are waiting for him, causing him to slide for minimal gain.
If the Hokies can maintain this discipline, they’ll have no trouble limiting Hundley. It will even allow them to get more aggressive in pressuring UCLA’s passer, given the pass protection troubles that the Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter alludes to here.
The Bruins have been better at protecting Hundley this season, but they’re still not great at it. Hundley was sacked 52 times last season, a number UCLA has trimmed to 34 so far this year. That ranks 107th nationally.
The offensive line featured three true freshmen in the regular season finale against USC: left guard Scott Quessenberry, (freshman right guard Alex) Redmond and right tackle Caleb Benenoch.
If the Hokies can simultaneously limit Hundley’s running abilities on the outside while knocking him out of rhythm with constant pressure, the defense will have no issues stopping the Bruins offense.
However, this will still likely be the most dynamic offense Tech has faced this season, so stopping UCLA could certainly prove to be too great a challenge for Foster’s beat up bunch.
But if the Hokies can shore up their perimeter tackling, contain Hundley from leaving the pocket and hit him consistently, Tech has a chance to stay in this game.