EL PASO, Texas — From the sombrero he wore to the practices he ran, Frank Beamer has enjoyed everything about Sun Bowl week. His Virginia Tech team prepared well , embraced locals' endearing hospitality and avoided the myriad trouble lurking in bordering Juarez.
"All things indicate that we're going to play a good football game," Beamer said of Tuesday's encounter with UCLA.
The Hokies likely will have to be better than good against the Bruins. The defense will have to be typically stout, and then some, while the offense overachieves and special teams survive with a neophyte placekicker.
Combine those elements, and Tech will produce the highlight of a "what-if" season and perhaps finish among the top 25 for the ninth time in 10 years.
Not to say the Hokies' 8-4 regular season was without accomplishment. Tech defeated six bowl teams, handed East Carolina and Miami their only home losses and limited Georgia Tech to season-lows in points and yards.
But other than Alabama, 17th-ranked UCLA (9-3) is the best team the Hokies have faced. The Bruins torched then-No. 23 Southern California in their regular-season finale, and their setbacks were to Pacific 12 rivals Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State, teams that are a combined 31-7 and ranked among the top 20.
Conversely, three of Tech's losses — Duke, Maryland and Boston College — were to teams outside the top 20. Moreover, they were by a combined 13 points.
"This is a what if year," defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. "There's a couple games obviously, you guys know, that we should have won. … But I'm not disappointed at all, at ALL. There's not been one time all year when I was disappointed in any kind of effort, any kind of passion.
"Probably one or two plays you'd like to have back. But there's not many. I think I could count on one hand how many plays I'd like to have back all year. … The kids did everything we asked of them defensively this year."
Foster went so far as to compare this bunch to the 2006 and '07 Tech defenses led by Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi, players Foster considers the gold standard for effort and football IQ.
"This group reminded me of the group we had a little bit with Adibi and Hall," he said. "You knew what you were going to get every time you stepped on the field. They cared about each other. They played extremely hard for one another and they did it for four quarters and they've done it for 12 football games.
"I told them on Sunday after the Virginia game, I said we fell short a little bit of our goal, and that's to go play in the ACC championship. But we had an ACC championship defense, if not a national championship-type defense."
Foster's assessment implies, quite correctly, shortcomings on offense, and don't expect any denials from first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler.
"The fact of the matter is, we underachieved on offense," he said. "We let three football games slip away that we easily could have won. … The type of defense that we have at Virginia Tech, the way we play special teams. If we simply don't turn over the football and run the ball somewhat efficiently, we've got a chance to win every football game."
Running the ball figures to be problematic Tuesday, even against a rush defense that ranks a pedestrian 73rd nationally. Trey Edmunds, the Hokies' top tailback, sustained a broken leg last month against Virginia, leaving the position to J.C. Coleman and Jerome Wright – a true freshman, Wright hasn't carried the ball this season.
Similarly, Michael Branthover, whom Beamer said earned the placekicking job during pre-bowl workouts, has never attempted a college extra point or field goal.
Such issues could derail many offenses, let alone one as unreliable as Tech's. Which places much of the burden, as usual, on quarterback Logan Thomas, starting his 40th consecutive, and final game, for the Hokies.
Thomas' erratic play has been well-chronicled, but there's no questioning his commitment to team, willingness to play hurt, and the respect he's earned from coaches and teammates. I suspect Thomas and Co. will play well Tuesday, and the Hokies could dominate a Bruins offensive line that includes three freshmen, but the hunch is that won't be enough.
"It's been a great bowl week," Beamer said. "Now we just need to finish it off with a win."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun