Christmas is past, but Kentucky football is still looking for that one final gift to cap its 2019 season.
Despite seven wins and a fourth consecutive bowl appearance for the Cats, a name-brand victory is still the missing link of the season. Kentucky did win over a bowl-bound Eastern Michigan team in Week two, took down a six-win Missouri squad that would have made a bowl except for NCAA issues, and curb-stomped Louisville to end the regular season. But a year after UK took down Florida and Penn State, the Wildcats still need the name recognition of a quality victory—one that Virginia Tech could meet Tuesday (noon ET on ESPN) in the Belk Bowl.
About Virginia Tech
Tech enters the game at 8-4, sporting a 5-3 record in the ACC (same as Louisville). The Hokies finished the regular season with a trip to Virginia and a spot in the ACC title game on the line, but they lost that game 39-30 and thus fell to the Belk Bowl. Tech’s own schedule is relatively light on dominant performances—among their wins was a 24-17 victory over FCS Furman and a two-score win over Old Dominion.
Tech was at its best in a tough 21-20 road loss at Notre Dame and in pitching back-to-back shutouts over Georgia Tech and Pitt to set up their showdown with Virginia. Tech’s running game has been fairly low octane, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry en route to 172.5 yards per game.
Defensively, though, they have been stout on the run, holding opposing offenses to just 3.7 yards per carry and 123.3 yards per game on the ground.
Tech started the year with veteran Ryan Willis under center, but a few subpar performances and injury issues led to the job going to sophomore Hendon Hooker. Hooker has passed for 1,445 yards and 11 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Hooker has also carried the ball more than 10 times in six of his seven games as a starter.
Defensively, outgoing coordinator Bud Foster (a Kentucky native) has a typically stout group, led by linebacker Rayshard Ashby, who had 106 tackles on the season including 14.5 tackles for loss. He also made 18 tackles in the Hokies’ overtime win against North Carolina. Tech has 37 sacks, but no player contributing more than 5.5, the total of DB Chamarri Conner.
Tech is solid in the kicking same, with kicker Brian Johnson perfect insider 40 yards and 16 for 20 on field goal tries this season. Punter Oscar Bradburn’s 46.8 yards per punt average is one of the better marks in his conference.
This is Tech’s 27th consecutive bowl appearance. Longtime coach Frank Beamer retired, but successor Justin Fuente has continued to make Tech a respected opponent year in and year out. Kentucky figures to have its work cut out, and is a slight underdog per the Vegas point spreads.
UK has defied expectations and logic in a season that started promisingly, took a right turn with the season-ending injury to QB Terry Wilson, and then righted itself after three straight losses with a move to Lynn Bowden and a run first, run second, run third style of offense. Bowden has been a legendary figure in Lexington. Does he have enough for one more victory?
Quietly, the Kentucky defense has not allowed 30 points to any opponent this season. UK figures to hang around with Tech, and if UK’s field goal kicking woes don’t lead them astray, it may be a question of whether Bowden has one more ace up his sleeve.
At this point, it would take a fool to best against him finding a way to win one more.
The guess here is UK 24, Va. Tech 21.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County and has written eight books. His most recent, "A Fine Team Man: Jackie Robinson and the Lives He Changed," was released in February 2019 and can be ordered on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.