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December 17, 2013

Tech to head out West for its 21st straight bowl game

By: Bill Roth

Tech head football coach Frank Beamer will be guiding the Hokies to their 21st consecutive bowl and is one of only four coaches to have taken teams to 20 or more straight bowl games.

Since 1993, Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer has taken his team bowling from Louisiana to Florida to Nashville to California to Arizona to Georgia.

And now, Beamer will take his 27th Virginia Tech team to West Texas to face UCLA in the 80th Sun Bowl. A new destination against a first-time foe adds a new flavor to the Hokies’ 21-year bowl buffet, and while the game presents some logistical issues for the traveling fan base – especially those who have driven to Tech's recent bowl games in the Southeast – this is a game that will play well on the national stage and one that gives both teams an opportunity to end the season with a name-brand opponent in a high-exposure game.

Tech is gunning for its ninth win of the season, while UCLA is shooting for its 10th victory under second-year coach Jim Mora. Here are some thoughts on the matchup as we approach kickoff:

Virginia Tech has struggled with Pac-10 (Pac-12) quarterbacks: Now to be fair, the Hokies have faced some of the most accomplished college quarterbacks in previous games against West Coast teams.

In 2003 at the Insight Bowl in Phoenix, California’s Aaron Rodgers completed 27 of 35 passes for 394 yards and two touchdowns in the Bears’ 52-49 shootout win over Tech.

In 2004 at FedExField, USC's Matt Leinart threw for 272 yards and three touchdowns (all to Reggie Bush) in the Trojans’ 24-13 win over the Hokies.

In the 2011 Orange Bowl, Stanford's Andrew Luck completed 18 of 23 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns against Tech.

Now, Tech will see UCLA's athletic and remarkable Brett Hundley, a redshirt sophomore who scored a touchdown on his first collegiate snap and who is already third on UCLA's all-time passing list. While it's unfair to compare Hundley to the other California quarterbacks the Hokies have faced, this Arizona native leads the Bruins in both rushing and passing. He threw for 2,845 yards this season, firing 22 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.

He's not Rodgers, he's not Leinart and he's not Luck, but Hundley's career is off to a great start, and he's a multi-dimensional threat who's the key to UCLA's offense. How the Hokies handle him will be a key to this game.

The Sun Bowl on CBS gives both Tech and UCLA great exposure: CBS televises just one bowl game, the Sun Bowl, and it's done traditionally well in the ratings each year. Here are the numbers for the past five games:

2008 Oregon vs. Pittsburgh 2.2 3.310 million
2009 Oklahoma vs. Stanford 3.3 5.022 million
2010 Notre Dame vs. Miami 3.0 4.610 million
2011 Utah vs. Georgia Tech 2.7 4.100 million
2012 USC vs. Georgia Tech 2.7 4.000 million

Now, those aren't BCS-like ratings, and in fact, they pale in comparison to SEC games on CBS. But with the Bruins finishing strong during the regular season, and playing a new foe, it wouldn't be a shocker if this game gets a 3.0 rating buoyed by a strong Los Angeles showing. Unlike, say New York, Los Angeles is into college football, particularly when USC and UCLA are good. In many ways, this game plays better nationally than regionally in as much as it's an intersectional game between teams who have never met.

UCLA wide receiver Shaquelle Evans vs. Tech's outstanding corners will be a fun matchup: Evans is one of the best receivers on the West Coast and a key for the Bruins as both a receiver and punt returner. He started his career at Notre Dame before transferring to UCLA, and other than Pittsburgh’s Devin Street, Evans might be the best receiver the Hokies will have faced this season. He'll be going up against Tech's defense, which ranked third nationally against the pass this season and fifth in interceptions with 19, led by corners Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson.

UCLA has three terrific linebackers and a super rookie: In Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Jordan Zumwalt, the Bruins have really solid linebackers in their 3-4 scheme. And in Myles Jack, they have a kid who won the Pac-12 Offense and Defense Rookie of the Year award (not a typo.) Barr was a Lombardi Award finalist who moved to defense last year and could be a high NFL draft pick next spring. Kendricks leads UCLA in tackles, and Zumwalt is third. And Jack has starts at both linebacker and running back for the Bruins, which makes him one of the most unique players in college football. It also shows that while UCLA doesn't have a great tailback per se (Hundley is the leading rusher and a star linebacker is the starting tailback), it has a lot of skill with tremendous athletes on the field.

Thomas to end career in El Paso: When Logan Thomas takes his first snap at the Sun Bowl, it will be his 40th consecutive start at quarterback for Tech, which is the all-time school record. Thomas has already placed his name among the greatest quarterbacks in school history and holds the Tech career records for total offense, passing yards, attempts, completions and passing touchdowns.

“I think the one record I’m most proud of is the consecutive starts," Thomas told me. "I've sacrificed my body a lot over the last few years … never missed a start."

He's been beyond durable during his Tech career where he's been, at times, underappreciated. As a leader, as a talent and as a performer in big games, Thomas has been sensational. He hasn't enjoyed the supporting cast of some previous Tech quarterbacks, and he's been asked to do more than just about anyone at Tech since Michael Vick. His last game could be one to remember.

If it wins the game, Tech will have won at least nine games for the 15th time in the past 16 years: The consistency of Tech's program has been remarkable. This past season was quite odd in that the Hokies won some tough road games – at East Carolina, at Georgia Tech and at Miami – yet whiffed in home games against Duke and Maryland.

The biggest difference for the 2013 Hokies was their margin for error. When Tech had guys like Lee Suggs, Kevin Jones, Branden Ore, Ryan Williams, Darren Evans and David Wilson carrying the football, it had a much bigger margin for error offensively. Those were backs who could make people miss. They could hit a home run at any time. They were money in the red zone. If you look back at the yardage totals those kids put up, it blows away anything we've seen from Tech's backs over the past two seasons. There have been injuries (and Trey Edmunds will miss the Sun Bowl with a broken leg) and inexperience in recent years, but at the end of the day, Tech hasn't fielded elite, NFL-caliber backs, and that void has made a huge difference over the past 25 games.

Still, if Tech figures out a way to win in El Paso, it would get to the nine-win mark, which – all things considered – would be a major accomplishment for this team.

Two incredible streaks will continue in El Paso: As I wrote last year before the Hokies played their bowl game in Orlando, only four coaches in college football history have taken teams to 20 or more consecutive bowl games: Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne, Bear Bryant and Frank Beamer. For Beamer, that streak hits 21 this year. Here's the list:

1. Bobby Bowden, Florida State (1982-09) 28

2. Tom Osborne, Nebraska (1973-97) 25

3. Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama (1959-82) 24

4. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech (1993-2013) 21

I don't know if there's any other coach out there today who will a.) stay at a school for 20-plus years and b.) make a bowl every year. Today's most highly successful coaches (Nick Saban, Les Miles, Chris Petersen, Mack Brown, Urban Meyer, etc.) seem to move around. So what has happened at Tech since 1993 is pretty special and will continue in El Paso. One guy who could eventually make this list is Bob Stoops of Oklahoma. He’s led the Sooners to 15 consecutive bowl appearances.

Tech is now one of only six programs in college football history that has appeared in a bowl in at least 20 straight years. The list includes Nebraska (35), Michigan (33), Florida State (32; active), Alabama (25), Florida (22) and Virginia Tech (21; active). You don't see schools like Texas, Penn State, Notre Dame, USC, Oklahoma or Ohio State on that list, showing again the remarkable run Beamer's had at Tech, considering the inherent advantages of those other national powers.

Recruiting in high gear: This has been a critically important few weeks for Virginia Tech's football program from a recruiting standpoint.

"I think this is the best recruiting staff I've had," Beamer said on a recent Tech Talk LIVE! radio show.

That wasn't meant as a jab at previous staffs, but the coach likes the "recruiting comes first" mentality of the staff and the energy (and synergy) that this staff has.

"We are going to sign some very outstanding prospects," defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said. "Some elite prospects in the secondary, for sure."

While the Hokies aren't done yet, Beamer said the class is almost complete.

"There are still a few big ones out there we're working on," he said. "It's non-stop. Our guys [assistant coaches] have really worked it hard this fall. I think we're going to be really pleased with this group in February."

Not playing in the ACC championship game, while disappointing in many ways, freed up the staff to recruit that week.

"We planned it out well in giving the team some time off for break and for finals and then coming back to practice," Beamer said. "Offensive linemen have been a huge focus [in recruiting], and I feel good there. We're going to sign people who I know will help us."

Beamer lamented the “lack of consistent people” around Thomas during much of the past two seasons. The Hokies didn't have the firepower of their better teams.

"Those issues can best be fixed in recruiting," Beamer said.

We'll see how it looks in about eight weeks when the national letters of intent are signed.