The big 2013 Sun Bowl breakdown: UCLA and Virginia Tech hope you like defense

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Tech's defense is incredible, and the Hokies can make your defense look pretty good, too. Can UCLA drag the Sun Bowl's scoring into the 20s? Just saying: the Sun Bowl (Dec. 31, 2 p.m. ET, CBS) was the site of the last 3-0 bowl ...

On December 31, 2008, Oregon State kicker Justin Kahut nailed a 44-yard field goal to give his team a three-point lead over Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl. It ended up being the final margin in what has become the norm in El Paso: close games. Thirteen of the last 16 Sun Bowls have been decided by 10 or fewer points, and seven have been decided by four or fewer.

This one was different, of course; Kahut's field goal was the only score of the game. Oregon State won, 3-0. The Beavers gained 273 yards but turned the ball over three times. Pitt gained 178 yards with two turnovers. The teams combined to complete 42 percent of their passes. LeSean McCoy -- NFL rushing champion LeSean McCoy -- gained 85 yards on 24 carries. There were 10 sacks and 20 punts. And in windy conditions, we were lucky that Kahut even made the kick at all.

It's fitting, then, that on the five-year anniversary of this game, Virginia Tech would end up in El Paso. If there's one team capable of spearheading a 3-0 bowl game this year, it's the Hokies. Frank Beamer's squad won four games this year while scoring under 20 points and lost a game while allowing 13. The Hokies have perhaps the best defense in the country and an offense that is, at best, below average. Tech can drag any opposing offense down and build any opposing defense up. The wind is supposedly going to stay away at game time, but if we're going to have a 3-0 bowl this year, it's this one.

Of course, we're not actually going to have one. UCLA's offense will make sure of that. The Hokies will have to score at least a little bit to take win No. 9.

How they got here

VT's season to date

This was a maddening season for Virginia Tech, and nothing that happens in the Sun Bowl will change that much. The Hokies held Alabama to barely 200 yards but were done in drastically by offense and special teams in a 35-10 loss. They responded by winning six games in a row -- five by 10 or fewer points, three while scoring 19 or fewer points -- and, with wins over Georgia Tech, UNC, and Pitt, established themselves as division favorites despite offensive inefficiency.

However, said inefficiency caught up to Tech. Duke upset Tech, 13-10, in Blacksburg despite gaining just 198 yards, and while the Hokies still controlled their division destiny, eventually they did not. Tech fell at Boston College, then somehow lost at home to Maryland to cede control of the division to Duke. Considering the offense, Tech could have been a lot worse than 8-4. But the defense deserved better.

UCLA's season to date

Like Washington, Arizona, and others, UCLA was a very good team in a pretty ridiculous conference and got lost in the shuffle a bit. The Bruins whipped Nebraska by 20 in Lincoln, took care of business against bad teams (average score against Nevada, NMSU, and Cal: 51-14), survived Utah when the Utes were actually pretty good (i.e. in September), won at Arizona and USC, and handled Washington at home. That's a very, very good year.

The Bruins still had to play Arizona State and go to both Oregon and Stanford, however. Like Washington, they stayed relatively close to Stanford and managed to hang tight with Oregon for three quarters before cratering. And like Washington, they let Arizona State roll them up early before rallying. (They rallied against ASU better than the Huskies did.)

UCLA ranked 13th in the country in the F/+ rankings but only fourth in the Pac-12. So they fell down the bowl pecking order pretty far, especially when the Pac-12 failed to get a second team in a BCS bowl. (You just ruined everything, Oklahoma.)

Data dump

Team Record BCS F/+ Rk Line Off F/+ Rk Def F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Virginia Tech 8-4 NR 21 77 1 91
UCLA 9-3 17 13 -7 21 23 8
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
VT Offense 82 81 110 57 99 110 63
UCLA Defense 29 17 35 23 73 14 103
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
VT Offense 113 123 123 103 82 81 89
UCLA Defense 58 66 8 101 38 68 27
Std. Downs S&P+ Pass. Downs S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Passing S&P+ First Down Rate Explosive Drives Methodical Drives
UCLA Offense 35 36 44 24 43 82 36
VT Defense 1 5 4 3 1 26 6
Adj. Line Yards Opportunity Rate Power Success Rate Stuff Rate Adj. Sack Rate Std. Downs Sack Rate Pass. Downs Sack Rate
UCLA Offense 38 52 72 43 115 117 106
VT Defense 3 2 12 15 1 1 29
Field Position Adv. FG Efficiency Punt Efficiency Kickoff Efficiency Punt Return Efficiency Kick Return Efficiency
VT Special Teams 70 101 73 40 64 79
UCLA Special Teams 26 68 36 6 21 23

VT's biggest advantages:

This defense is awesome. There are a lot of great defenses in college football this year. Michigan State has gained all sorts of notoriety. Florida State is huge, fast, and mean. Alabama is Alabama. Stanford will take your head off. USC is too fast for most offenses.

But none of those offenses rank first in Def. F/+. No, that honor goes to Virginia Tech; the Hokies struggled with injuries in the secondary, and it just didn't matter. Tech dominated regardless. They allowed greater than 5.2 yards per play just once all year and allowed less than 4.3 eight times.

Tech effortlessly leverages you into passing downs and then closes out the drive. The Hokies force more three-and-outs than anybody in the country, and they allow fewer yards on standard downs. Five players have at least 10 tackles for loss (linebackers Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards, ends J.R. Collins and James Gayle, tackle Luther Maddy), and three have defensed at least 12 passes (corners Kyle and Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson). This is an incredible unit, so good that injuries in the secondary -- Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller are likely both out -- might not have much of an impact, especially not if an occasionally glitchy UCLA line can't keep defenders out of the backfield.

UCLA's offense has a lot of fun weapons. Brett Hundley completes 68 percent of his passes and averages 6.6 yards per carry. And of the five Bruin players targeted at least twice per game, four average at least 8.5 yards per target. The running game is alright, considering the injuries the Bruins have encountered, and the passing game is good. But Stanford, the only defense reasonably comparable in quality to Virginia Tech, held the Bruins to 266 yards (4.0 per play) and 10 points.

Hundley is terribly sack-prone, and he's facing perhaps the best pass rush in the country. That's a bad combination.

UCLA's defense doesn't do methodical very well. The Bruins' defense holds most of the advantages in this matchup, but while they are good at forcing mistakes and are pretty well-rounded overall, you can move the ball methodically on them.

Meanwhile, that's all Virginia Tech can do. There's a decent chance that Tech will be able to avoid three-and-outs and score on a couple of long drives. Senior quarterback Logan Thomas has been maddening throughout his career, but if he can navigate well for a few possessions, finding Willie Byrn, Demitri Knowles or Joshua Stanford and mixing in some keepers, Tech could score enough to win. The margin for error is small, though.

UCLA's biggest advantages:

This might be the worst offensive line UCLA has faced this season. Okay, maybe not, but at the very least, it's the worst among opponents with winning records. There are four line stats above related to running the ball, and Tech is in the bottom 25 of all four (and in the bottom three of two). If Logan Thomas weren't so big and difficult to bring down, the Hokies' sack rate would be worse, too.

It's still difficult to come to grips with the fact that Virginia Tech can't run the football, but … Virginia Tech can't run the football. The line can't block (and doesn't really have youth as an excuse -- there are hardly any seniors, but there are quite a few juniors), and the running backs don't necessarily take advantage of the blocks they're given. Thomas can lower his head and get some yards at times, and Trey Edmunds has had a few solid moments in the open field, but there's nothing on Tech's résumé to suggest the Hokies can run on the Bruins.

And it's hard to imagine Tech scoring much if made one-dimensional.

UCLA's run defense is not without flaws. The Bruins aren't great at making stuffs in the backfield, and they are only mediocre in terms of preventing rush opportunities. But Tech's running game makes you pretty good, and it's not hard to imagine players like Jordan Zumwalt, Myles Jack, Cassius Marsh, and, of course, All-American Anthony Barr making some big plays near the line of scrimmage.

Only one team is particularly good at special teams, and it's not the Beamer Ball Hokies. UCLA has the better kicker, half of Kaim Fairbairn's kickoffs go for touchbacks, and both the Bruins' return games and coverage units are solid.

As we've discussed before, special teams aren't guaranteed to matter in any single game. But if they matter, they are probably favoring UCLA, both in terms of field position and easy scoring opportunities.

Overreactions for 2014

We tend to overreact to particularly positive or negative bowl results when it comes to projecting forward for the next season. How might we overreact to this game?

Jim Mora has evidently been recruiting well at UCLA, and that's a very good thing. UCLA will lose some of its star power when seniors like Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, and Shaq Evans depart (and Brett Hundley is evidently possible to declare for the Draft as well), but we've already seen quite a bit of UCLA's future in players like Myles Jack and end Eddie Vanderdoes, in a young and exciting secondary, and even in an offensive line that has suffered from extreme youth in the last two years.

If some of those players star in a win over Tech, the Bruins could be a top-15 team in the preseason polls.

As for Tech, the Hokies should be in the not-so-rare strengths-get-weaker, weaknesses-get-stronger situation in 2014. (Why is that relatively common? Because experienced units are more likely to be strong.) The defense will replace five starters from its awesome front seven, not to mention two of its strong foursome of cornerbacks. Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson will return at corner, and Luther Maddy will anchor a new, younger line, but Tech probably won't have the No. 1 defense in the country next year. (Top 10 or 20? Sure.)

But despite the loss of Logan Thomas, the offense won't have much choice but to get better. All of the relevant running backs and receiving targets return, as will nine of 10 on the shaky line. If Tech wins a reasonably high-scoring game, that might give encouragement to pollsters. Win or lose, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Tech in the lower portion of the preseason top 25.

Summary

F/+ Projection: UCLA 19, VT 16
Win Probability: UCLA 62%

There is offensive talent to be found here, but it really isn't difficult to see this game devolving into a defensive slugfest. The defensive fronts are better than the offensive lines, and the star power at the skill positions is limited, at least in comparison to the defensive secondaries. Brett Hundley can make plays, and the good version of Logan Thomas can, too, but there's a reason why the projections in this game are pretty low.

Because they are the infinitely more well-rounded team, the Bruins get the nod here, even if the F/+ rankings are much higher on Virginia Tech overall than some. (The defensive numbers really skew things.) If this is a blowout, you have to figure it's UCLA doing the damage, but don't underestimate Tech's ability to keep things close and ugly.

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