The Virginia Tech Hokies are set to take on the Kentucky Wildcats in the 2019 Belk Bowl on New Year's Eve. Here are the key matchups for the Hokies in their 27th straight bowl appearance.
Lynn Bowden Jr. vs. Virginia Tech Cornerbacks
Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. has been an unlikely sensation this season. After spending the first four and a half games of the season becoming the Wildcats' leading receiver, injuries forced Bowden to step in at quarterback in Week Four against South Carolina.
Bowden immediately provided a spark to a Kentucky team badly in need of one. While they would fall to South Carolina, Bowden has led the Wildcats to wins in five of their last seven games.
As one might imagine from a former receiver, Bowden's tendency is not to throw the ball all too often. However, he has gashed defenses all season with his legs. He has only completed 29 of 62 passes on the season, but he has rushed for an incredible 1,235 yards.
So, why are the cornerbacks the focus for the Hokies?
If history tells us anything, Bud Foster's game plan against a mobile quarterback will be to load the box and force Bowden to try and beat the Hokies with his arm. That means Virginia Tech's corners will probably spend some time in one-on-one coverage, and they will have to lock down Kentucky receivers.
Against UVA, Foster switched to this type of game plan in the second half after Bryce Perkins torched the Hokies on the ground. Perkins accepted the challenge and beat Virginia Tech's defense through the air. The Hokies will need to do a better job in coverage this time around.
The Hokies were missing their best cornerback, Caleb Farley, against the Hoos. Farley has not practiced all week, and he is a game time decision for the Belk Bowl.
In addition, Jermaine Waller appeared not to practice with the team on Sunday, either. If Virginia Tech is without both of their starting cornerbacks, it will become much more difficult to leave more inexperienced players on an island.
In any case, Virginia Tech needs to make Kentucky one dimensional, and the best way to do that is forcing Bowden to throw. If Farley and/or Waller are out, guys like Jovonn Quillen, Armani Chatman, Brion Murray, and others will need to step up.
Virginia Tech Defensive Line vs. Kentucky Offensive Line
As with any run heavy offense, Kentucky relies heavily on the play of their offensive line. So far this season, that strategy has worked pretty well for them.
The Wildcats have rushed for an astounding 274.4 yards per game this season. In addition to Bowden, they have three running backs (Asim Rose, Kavosiey Smoke, and Christopher Rodriguez) with at least 500 rushing yards on the year.
The most important player on Kentucky's offensive line is OG Logan Stenberg. At 6-6. 321 pounds, he is projected to be a second round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
For Virginia Tech, the defensive line has improved as the season has progressed. Junior tackle Jarrod Hewitt has been the leader for a very young unit including true freshman Norell Pollard and Mario Kendricks.
The Hokies defense has allowed just 123.3 rushing yards per game this year. Kentucky will pose one of the bigger challenges they have seen all year, so Virginia Tech will need to be prepared.
Virginia Tech Receivers vs. Kentucky Cornerbacks
All season, wide receiver has been one of the Hokies strongest positions. Kentucky's secondary has been a surprising strength for them, as well.
Last year, the Wildcats had five seniors in the secondary. Many assumed that a brand new group of defensive backs this season would be a weakness for Kentucky.
Instead, they have emerged as one of the best pass defenses in the entire country. They lead the nation with just seven touchdown passes allowed this year, and they have surrendered only 172.67 yards per game through the air, ranking fourth nationally.
Of course, the Hokies should still try and utilize their dynamic wide receiver group. Tre Turner and Damon Hazelton are two of the best players on the field, so Virginia Tech obviously wants to get them the ball.
Yet against such a good secondary, the Hokies would do well to utilize their other pass catchers as well. Tight ends Dalton Keene and James Mitchell have combined for 38 receptions for 559 yards and six touchdowns.
In addition, quarterback Hendon Hooker has been known to target the tight ends often. Big games by Mitchell and Keene could go a long way in Virginia Tech's hopes for a Belk Bowl victory.
The 2019 Belk Bowl is set up to be a great one. Each team has strengths corresponding to the other, which means this game could be a battle.
Virginia Tech's wide receivers will go up against a stout Kentucky secondary, and Kentucky's rushing attack will meet a much improved Virginia Tech defensive line.
Kentucky will definitely have some big offensive plays, especially on the ground. However, I expect the Hokies to be able to fend those off and dig deep for Bud Foster's final game.
Final Score Prediction: Virginia Tech 28, Kentucky 24