Though there’s no previous history to reflect upon in Thursday’s Arkansas-Virginia Tech matchup in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., there’s still plenty of intrigue on tap.
Tech (9-4) and Arkansas are in the final stages of preparations for the game, which will feature the first meeting of the teams and their first appearances in the bowl. Here’s a look at five storylines heading into the game:
Which Tech rush defense shows up in Charlotte?
The Hokies have surrendered 100-plus yards rushing to seven players this season. Arkansas running back Rawleigh Williams, who leads the Southeastern Conference in rushes (233) and rushing yards (1,326), has carried the ball for 100-plus yards seven times this season, including two straight games (career-high 205 yards on 16 carries Nov. 19 in Arkansas’ 58-42 win at Mississippi State). He’s tied for 19th in the nation in runs of 20-plus yards (14).
So, which version of Tech’s run-stoppers will be on the field in the Belk Bowl? The ones who stifled bowl teams Boston College (44 rushing yards), North Carolina (73) and Miami (42)? Or the ones who struggled to slow down Tennessee (239 yards), Pittsburgh (180), Duke (227), Georgia Tech (309, one of just four times the Yellow Jackets ran for 300-plus yards this season), Notre Dame (200) and Clemson (182)?
Can Tech get in Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen’s face?
Though Arkansas wants to run the ball above all else behind its massive offensive line (averaging 6-foot-6 and 327 pounds per starting position, including 6-10, 319-pound left tackle Dan Skipper), Allen can be dangerous if he has time to pass. Keeping his jersey clean has been a challenge for Arkansas (7-5), which has given up 29 sacks (second-most in the SEC).
Tech has only logged 26 sacks this season, and starting defensive end Vinny Mihota (arm injury) is out, so the Hokies may have one fewer pass-rusher. Trevon Hill will start in Mihota’s place, but Hill (shoulder) isn’t 100 percent either.
Allen, who has completed 227 of 370 passe for 3,152 yards (second in the SEC), 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, has had a good season overall, but he’s been prone to throwing interceptions at bad times. In two of Arkansas’ last three games, he’s tossed two interceptions, including a pair of red-zone picks at the goal line or in the end zone Nov. 25 in a 28-24 loss at Missouri.
Allen, who has played through a right knee sprain sustained Oct. 22 in a 56-3 loss at Auburn, can be rattled if pressure is applied.
What can Jerod Evans do to cap his successful first season for Tech?
Barring a disaster of epic proportions, it’d be hard for Evans to do much of anything in the bowl that would make his first season under center for Tech anything less than a complete success. He’s set Tech’s single-season records for passing yards (3,003), total yards (4,062), touchdown passes (27) and total touchdowns (37). He leads the Hokies with 759 rushing yards and needs 81 more to establish the school’s single-season record for the most by a quarterback.
Not bad for a guy who came to Tech from Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, less than a year ago, and didn’t earn the starting job in Blacksburg until late August. Though he has another season to come at Tech, he’s been one of the players on the roster most vocal about wanting to get the Hokies back to 10 wins for the first time since 2011. There’s the motivation. He’s getting ready to face an Arkansas defense that’s giving up 30.8 points per game (10th-best in the SEC).
How creative will Tech offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen get?
With nearly a month to get ready for an opponent, do Cornelsen and Tech coach Justin Fuente have a few tricks up their sleeves they’re ready to reveal?
Tech makes no mystery of the fact it’s willing to run the ball with just about anybody capable of gaining a step on the defense, as evidenced by the 17 ball-carriers it has used this season.
Running back Sam Rogers, wide receiver Isaiah Ford and punter Mitchell Ludwig have all attempted passes, featuring Ludwig’s 20-yard completion to Terrell Edmunds for a first down on a fake punt against Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. It was the first of back-to-back trick plays, the second of which was a throw attempted by Rogers to Ford, resulting in pass interference against Clemson on a touchdown-scoring drive by the Hokies. Rogers also threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to fullback Steven Peoples against Miami.
Are there more surprises in store?
Does Tech have what it takes to get over bad vibes in another NFL stadium?
While Tech’s players have talked about looking forward to experiencing an NFL stadium, it’s never been an ideal setting for the Hokies. Tech has won just two of its last 11 games in NFL stadiums, including one of three in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers.
Tech won this season in Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, home of the NFL’s Steelers and site of losses by the Hokies in each of their four previous trips. Tech will open next season against West Virginia in FedEx Field in Landover, Md., where the Hokies have lost all three times they’ve played there.
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.