The holiday season has rarely been a joyful time for UCLA. The Bruins have won in only four of their last 14 bowl appearances heading into Tuesday's game against Virginia Tech in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. Staff writer Chris Foster examines the story lines:
What's my line?
It's far from a hot-topic item, and it's guaranteed not to trend on the Internet: UCLA's success on offense hinges on the play of its line.
Will it be an Arizona State-like game, when quarterback Brett Hundley was sacked nine times? Or will it be a USC flashback, when the Bruins protected Hundley and churned out 188 yards rushing?
Virginia Tech's defensive front is at least equal to that of Arizona State and USC. The Hokies rank third in the nation in passing efficiency defense and third in passing yards allowed, and are tied for fifth in sacks. On top of that, they are seventh in rushing yards allowed and eighth in scoring defense.
Particularly worrisome are defensive ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins. "Those guys are trouble," UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said.
UCLA has three freshmen on its offensive line: Caleb Benenoch, Scott Quessenberry and Alex Redmond.
That group struggled against Arizona State, then looked like veterans against USC.
"We didn't play well early and got behind [against Arizona State]," Coach Jim Mora said.
Against USC, the Bruins got an early lead, which changed everything. "When you get a [defense] in a position where you can run it or throw it, they can't just pin their ears back and rush the passer," Mora said.
No holds Barr …
… or maybe more holds on Barr?
This is the last game for UCLA's Anthony Barr to show NFL scouts where he should be picked among the top 10 players in the next draft.
Barr has 23.5 sacks in two seasons as a linebacker.
Opposite Barr will be freshman tackle Jonathan McLaughlin. The Hokies could support him with tight end Kalvin Cline, but he is also a freshman.
Virginia Tech is also missing its usual safety net. Running back Trey Edmunds suffered a broken leg in the Hokies' regular-season finale.
"He was the guy we relied on the most, not only as a good running back but as a pass protector," Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler said. "That was a big hit to us."
J.C. Coleman is next up after Edmunds. But he is a listed at 5 feet 7, 191 pounds.
Barr is 6-4 and 248. So look for fullback Jerome Wright, who is 6-2 and 215, to get some face time with the Bruins All-American.
So long, farewell?
A week hasn't gone by without someone asking Hundley whether he will return to UCLA next season or declare for the draft.
Hundley has repeatedly said he will make that decision after the Sun Bowl. But how soon after it?
History leans toward his leaving. UCLA quarterback Tommy Maddox and USC quarterback Todd Marinovich both played their last college games in the Sun Bowl, though Marinovich was nudged out the door.
But Hundley has always talked about leaving a legacy. UCLA has yet to create a wing in its hall of fame for Sun Bowl victories.
Injuries to Antone Exum and Kyle Fuller left Virginia Tech with freshmen at both cornerback spots. But Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson are far from easy pickings.
Both have had extensive playing time this season. Kendall Fuller, Kyle's younger brother, leads the team with six interceptions. Facyson is second with five.
Kyle Fuller, who had surgery on a core muscle, is expected to play but will be limited, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said.
UCLA has a more recent loss. The Bruins will be without linebacker Eric Kendricks, their leading tackler, who has an injured ankle. In his place, freshman Isaako Savaiinaea will make his second start of the season.
UCLA kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn has made five of nine field-goal tries from 40 yards or more but had misses from 37 and 39 yards in a five-point loss to Arizona State.
At least Fairbairn has kicked in a game.
Virginia Tech is expected to go with junior Michael Branthover, who has not kicked in a game since high school, for field-goal attempts.
Erik Kristensen made four of five field-goal attempts after kicker Jody Journell was dismissed from the team in November, but Kristensen's range is limited.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun