At some point, every coach preaches the don’t-look-beyond-the-next-game-on-the-schedule gospel. It’s an approach as old as the games themselves, but Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente is putting a different spin on that mantra heading into the Belk Bowl.
What do you tell your players heading into the final game of the season when you’re thin on seniors and you have 21 of 22 starters set to come back next season?
For Fuente, playing what could be a chippy game Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, against Kentucky (7-5) offers a chance to honor the departing Hokies, including defensive coordinator Bud Foster in his final game before he retires, while building toward the future.
“I feel like I would like to win to have a springboard,” said Fuente, whose only senior starter is safety Reggie Floyd. “That’s what I’d like, and I think our team would, too. I think for us right now, with a large number of guys coming back, the message is, ‘Let’s not wait until January 21st (the start of winter conditioning) to start improving. We have this opportunity right now with many, many guys that’ll still be on this team next year, so let’s not waste all this time leading up to when we come back for spring semester. Let’s start that improvement now.’”
While Kentucky’s overall record doesn’t portend an opponent that will give Tech (8-4) an indication of where it stands coming out of an up-and-down ’19 season and heading into a promising ’20 season, a little deeper look at the Wildcats shows a team that could be a handful.
After injuries plagued Kentucky’s quarterback depth chart early in the season, wide receiver Lynn Bowden was moved behind center. He’s responded by producing a ground game unmatched by most college programs.
Though he’s averaging just 3.7 completions on 8.3 passes for 41.6 yards per game in seven starts at quarterback, Bowden is running behind a big, athletic offensive line and averaging 19.7 carries for 162.3 yards per game.
His ground game has also opened up opportunities for Kentucky’s running backs, who are contributing to the 352.7 rushing yards per game the Wildcats averaged in the last seven games.
With so many ball-carriers involved, and the Wildcats utilizing a lot of pre-snap motion combined with counters and quarterback power runs, Floyd compared preparing for Kentucky to getting ready for the option-based offense Georgia Tech ran before this season under former coach Paul Johnson.
“I’ve been telling everybody that,” Floyd said. “(Kentucky) does some of the same kind of things Georgia Tech used to.”
Tech’s plan to try to slow down Bowden and Co. could be hampered, depending on the status of starting cornerbacks Caleb Farley and Jermaine Waller. Farley is still dealing with a bad back that kept him out of Tech’s 39-30 loss in November at Virginia, while Waller is also struggling with an injury.
Farley’s status will be a game-time decision, according to Fuente.
There may be a little added motivation going into the game after players from both teams engaged in a verbal spat Saturday during a bowl-organized visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway. When asked Monday to assess Tech’s defense, Bowden wasn’t interested.
“I don’t want to talk about them,” Bowden said.
Bowden’s running may be the main attraction, but Kentucky has also been effective on defense most of the season.
Kentucky is giving up just 172.7 passing yards per game (fourth in the nation), 18.4 points per game (13th) and 321.6 total yards per game (tied for 19th) and no team has surrendered fewer passing touchdowns (seven) than the Wildcats.
Tech’s Hendon Hooker, who is 6-1 as the Hokies’ starting quarterback, credits Kentucky’s pass rush for producing problems in the passing game for opposing teams.
While Hooker said he’s primarily looking at the bowl as a chance to send Foster and the seniors out on a high note, there’s no doubt the topic of getting a head start on next season has indeed come up among Tech’s players.
“That’s something we’ve talked about,” Tech tight end Dalton Keene said. “I think it’s a combination of both. We want to send our seniors off the right way, because they’ve given so much to this program, but also this is the first game of next season. That’s the way we look at it.”
Norm Wood, 757-247-4642, email@example.com
Kentucky (7-5) vs. Virginia Tech (8-4)
Radio: 790AM, 94.1FM.
Favorite: Tech by 2½.
The buzz: It’s not exactly the ideal, cruise-control kind of game for Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster to end his career on. Behind the legs of wide-receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden (team-high 1,235 rushing yards), and the complementary ground games of running backs Asim Rose (757 rushing yards), Kavosiey Smoke (609 rushing yards) and Christopher Rodriguez (515 rushing yards), Kentucky’s motion-heavy offense will force Tech to remain alert. Depth in the secondary could be a concern for Tech if cornerbacks Caleb Farley (back) and Jermaine Waller (undisclosed injury) aren’t available or are less than 100%. Armani Chatman and Hampton High alum Jovonn Quillen could get a lot of playing time. Tech, which is playing in a bowl for a nation-leading 27th consecutive season, will try to get its own ground game in gear with quarterback Hendon Hooker (87-of-140 passing for 1,445 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions; 306 rushing yards) and running backs Deshawn McClease (team-high 717 rushing yards), an Oscar Smith High graduate, and Keshawn King (315 rushing yards). If they can find some room, it’ll help loosen up Kentucky’s excellent pass defense, which will have to contend with receivers Tre Turner (33 catches for 542 yards and four touchdowns), Damon Hazelton (30 catches for 506 yards and seven touchdowns) and Tayvion Robinson, a Cox High alum, and tight ends Dalton Keene and James Mitchell.
The pick: Tech 28, Kentucky 21.
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