The Virginia Tech football team’s offense has been inconsistent all season long, and now the Hokies face their toughest challenge yet when they face the UCLA Bruins’ defense in the Sun Bowl. The Sun Bowl is Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET in El Paso, Texas.
UCLA is ranked just No. 55 in the nation in yards allowed per game, but the Bruins are still the best defense the team has faced since the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Alabama Crimson Tide.
Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler will be forced to plan for the Bruins without one of the unit’s best players, thanks to running back Trey Edmunds’ broken leg, which will only compound the difficulty of facing UCLA.
However, that doesn’t mean the Bruins aren’t without their weak spots. UCLA boasts several intimidating individual players, but it has some big weaknesses that Loeffler can try to exploit.
Short Passing Game
The Bruins’ linebackers are some of the best in the country, and they could easily end up spending a lot of time in Tech’s offensive backfield.
Anthony Barr and Myles Jack have been two of the most consistent performers in the Pac-12 this season. Barr has sacked opposing passers 10 times while Jack has 70 total tackles.
However, quarterback Logan Thomas should be able to neutralize this formidable pass rush if he can make good decisions and accurate throws in the short passing game.
Tech hasn’t been able to establish much in the way of deep threats, but the team has found some success over the middle.
If Thomas can stay upright in the pocket, he’ll have the opportunity to pick on UCLA’s young secondary in the middle of the field. Just watch the way the Oregon Ducks’ Marcus Mariota was able to take advantage of the Bruins’ young corners on a mid-range pass on this play.
When opposing offenses spread the field with multiple receivers, the Bruins aren’t able to pressure the quarterback with their characteristic ferocity, leaving the cornerbacks vulnerable. The defense is allowing only 221 passing yards per game, partly thanks to its 28 total sacks, but it is allowing opposing passers to complete 62.8 percent of their attempts.
The offensive line will have its hands full blocking players like Barr and Jack, but Thomas has been able to get into a rhythm in the short passing game at times.
Receivers Demitri Knowles, Josh Stanford and Willie Byrn all excel running routes that go just 10 to 15 yards down the field, and there’s no doubt Loeffler will send them on plenty of mid-range routes against the Bruins.
Stanford has been particularly successful on these short post routes, like this one he ran against the Miami Hurricanes.
There’s no guarantee that Thomas will stay accurate in the face of UCLA’s pressure, but if he can, then he’ll be able to do some damage across the middle.
Re-establishing the Run
The Hokies’ run game never developed the way Loeffler was hoping for heading into the year, but it could still make the difference against UCLA.
For as good as the Bruins have been on defense, they haven’t exactly dominated against the run.
In fact, UCLA is No. 72 in the country in rush yards allowed per game and had real issues on the ground, as The Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter explains.
Surprisingly, given all the talent in the front seven, the Bruins’ run defense hasn’t been that strong. UCLA is giving up 171.7 yards per game on the ground.
Oregon gashed this defense for 325 yards and five touchdowns (in fairness, the Ducks do that to a lot of teams).
But the Bruins also gave up 192 rushing yards to Stanford, 239 to Arizona and 223 to Arizona State.
They’ve allowed 18 rushing touchdowns this year and only 16 passing.
Yet, Tech isn’t exactly in the best position to take advantage of this weakness.
The Hokies lost Edmunds, their leading rusher, to a broken leg in their game against the Virginia Cavaliers and are scrambling to cobble together a running game.
Sophomore J.C. Coleman is the most experienced running back on the depth chart after Edmunds, but he only has 75 carries for 262 yards this season.
He’s battled injuries all year long but did do some of his best running in the team’s last three games. He carried the ball 22 times for 68 yards against Miami and had 14 carries for 57 yards against Virginia.
However, the team’s difficulty lies in giving Coleman a break during the game.
“J.C. can’t play the whole game,” running backs coach Shane Beamer told Bitter. “If J.C. is the guy, you’ve got to spell him with some people. And then you certainly need some size in there from a pass protection standpoint as well.”
Other players that the coaches will get in the mix include Chris Mangus, Joel Caleb and fullback Jerome Wright, but each has his own issues.
Mangus is a smaller running back who excels in catching passes out of the backfield, a skill set that mirrors Coleman’s instead of complements.
Meanwhile, Caleb is a converted wide receiver who has yet to make a real impact at tailback despite his more prototypical size; he only has eight carries for 41 yards on the season.
Wright has good size but hasn’t carried the ball at all this season and will likely be used for blocking purposes more than anything.
The good news for the Hokies is that a small, speedy back might be able to have some success against the Bruins. Just look at the way the Arizona State Sun Devils' Richard Smith used his speed to beat UCLA’s secondary down the field.
Some combination of Coleman and Caleb could easily replicate this success, particularly if the Hokies can make the Bruins respect the passing game as well.
Overall, it will certainly take a dynamic performance from Tech’s offense to beat UCLA.
The unit’s recent performances didn’t exactly inspire confidence in its ability; the offense stumbled to a win against Virginia, and its ineptitude likely cost the Hokies the game against the Maryland Terrapins.
But with a month to prepare and some definite weak spots to attack, Loeffler should be able to create a solid game plan to help the offense succeed against UCLA.