Virginia Tech is set to take on Arkansas in the Belk Bowl, so here are some storylines and predictions for the Hokies ahead of the game.
Virginia Tech will battle Arkansas in the Belk Bowl on Thursday, Dec. 29 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC.
The Hokies (9-4, 6-2 ACC) won the ACC Coastal division and advanced to the league title game to play Clemson, which scored a 42-35 win over the Hokies. It was a standout debut season for head coach Justin Fuente, who left Memphis to take over for longtime VT head coach Frank Beamer. The Hokies never gave up to the Tigers despite being quickly down 21-7 after Dabo Swinney’s squad scored on its first three possessions. Quarterback Jerod Evans is a special talent at quarterback, and he was probably overlooked nationally despite having a huge year statistically.
Setbacks to Syracuse and Georgia Tech were head-scratchers, but this program is in very good hands with Fuente at the helm. The marriage of his offense and Bud Foster’s defense should make this team a factor each year in the Coastal division, and VT has an opportunity to reach 10 wins for the first time since 2011.
More than No. 3
The ACC saw its share of strong quarterback play in 2016, as Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the Heisman Trophy race. But Evans shined as well and was overlooked both in the ACC and nationally. He passed for 3,309 yards and 27 touchdowns against seven interceptions, and he had eight games in which he scored at least one touchdown on the ground. The big, physical dual-threat signal-caller will cause the Razorbacks’ defensive front a lot of problems with his legs, as he can carry would-be tacklers and has recorded at least 46 rushing yards on ten occasions in ’16, and the Hogs’ secondary will be tested when Evans takes shots down the field. Evans will have a combined 300 yards and three scores in this one.
Foster-ing a tough defense
When the Arkansas offense is balanced, it is difficult to contain. Running back Rawleigh Williams III and quarterback Austin Allen pace the unit. Foster will have his Hokies ready for the Arkansas attack, though, and he won’t have to worry about trying to scheme against a mobile quarterback. The Hokies have struggled against mobile signal-callers in recent seasons, including this year, but they won’t have to worry about that because Allen is not that kind of QB. So I would expect a solid performance from this VT front, with at least one turnover forced on Allen when he drops back to pass.
The Hokies never gave up against Clemson in the ACC title game, so Fuente has to be proud of the fight that his team showed in the loss. It was reminiscent of the game in South Bend, in which the Hokies came back to win against Notre Dame after trailing 17-0 early and by 10 entering the fourth quarter. It’s a group that has shown a lot of resilience this season. Bret Bielema will have his Hogs ready, so I can see a scenario in which VT falls behind by a few scores early. But panic will not set in since the Hokies have been in that spot before. Expect a comeback if necessary.
While Evans paced the offense this fall, Woody Baron was a huge piece to the defensive revival in 2016. The defensive tackle led the D-Line with 17.5 tackles for loss, which ranked fifth in the ACC. Expect a couple of key stops when the Hogs face third-and-short, and Baron will be right in the middle of the action. He will be a difference-maker on at least one key Razorbacks drive.
Lacking depth in the backfield
VT does not have a lot of strong backfield options to help out Evans. Redshirt sophomore Shai McKenzie is still struggling with injuries, and he hasn’t been able to get a lot of looks because he’s been bitten by the injury bug. Marshawn Williams re-injured his left knee at Notre Dame and Deshawn McClease sustained a season-ending injury in September. So it’s been senior Sam Rogers behind Travon McMillian, who has 136 carries for 637 yards and six touchdowns this season. But McMillian has only 13 carries in his last three games, while Rogers has only one game with at least 10 carries.