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2023 Military Bowl Preview: Virginia Tech Hokies vs. Tulane Green Wave

The Green Wave operate without their coach and QB, trying to secure their second-straight 12-2 season.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Tulane Matthew Hinton-USA TODAY Sports

Game notes

  • Time and date: Wednesday, December 27 at 2:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium — Annapolis, MD
  • Spread: Virginia Tech (-10.5)
  • Over/under: 44.5
  • All-time series: Virginia Tech leads, 5-4
  • Last meeting: Virginia Tech 30, Tulane 13 — October 28, 1989
  • Current streak: Virginia Tech, 1 (1989)
  • Virginia Tech last bowl: 2021 Pinstripe Bowl, 54-10 loss to Maryland
  • Tulane last bowl: 2022 Cotton Bowl, 46-45 win over USC
  • 2022 Military Bowl matchup: Duke 30, UCF 13

Setting the scene

The AAC and ACC battle three times this postseason. The second of the three meetings transpires in AAC country at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.

Tulane (11-2, 8-0 AAC) was one victory away from clinching the New Year’s Six for the second consecutive year, but the Green Wave were handled by SMU in the AAC Championship Game, and now they’ll conclude their season against Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech (6-6, 5-3 ACC) overcame a slow start to its season to win four of its final six games, and all four of those victories were by at least 17 points. The Hokies clinched the Military Bowl for the third time since 2014, and they seek their first bowl win in seven years.


Virginia Tech Hokies outlook

After a difficult year one, head coach Brent Pry has Virginia Tech back in bowl season in his second season at the helm. Bowl season used to be an afterthought for the Hokies, qualifying for it every season from 1993 through 2019. But lately, things have shifted and Virginia Tech is searching for its first winning season since 2019 — the final year of that impressive streak.

The Hokies finished 2023 strong, overcoming a sloppy 1-3 start and registering five definitive wins of 17+ points over ACC competition. Virginia Tech didn’t defeat a team with a winning record in the regular season, but Pry’s team gets a golden opportunity to take a stab at an 11-win Tulane squad in Annapolis — which could be the program’s first win over an AP ranked opponent since the 2021 opener.

Virginia Tech v Virginia
Virginia Tech head coach Brent Pry is leading the Hokies to their first bowl game since he took the job.
Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Offensively, Virginia Tech wasn’t extraordinary through either the air or ground, but it wasn’t bad either. The Hokies conducted a serviceable offense which ranked 45th in rushing and 86th in passing, but the consistency wasn’t always there. Virginia Tech looked awesome in wins, triumphing in all six matchups when scoring 30. But the offense stuttered quite a bit in losses, scoring 17 or fewer points in five of its six defeats.

The focal point of this unit is first-year starting quarterback Kyron Drones, who established himself as one of the most electric dual-threat quarterbacks in the ACC. While Drones’ 58 completion percentage could be improved upon, he displayed good overall decision-making with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 15-to-3. Drones only eclipsed 250 yards passing once this year, but he added another dimension to the Hokies as a standout runner. Drones has 642 rushing yards this year, breaking 70 on four occasions, so Tulane must equip a spy at all times in its pass coverage packages.

Another offensive centerpiece in the midst of a breakout campaign is running back Bhayshul Tuten, who leads the Hokies on the ground with 727 yards and eight touchdowns. Tuten’s 117-yard showing in the regular season finale was instrumental to clinching bowl season for Virginia Tech, and the back serves a vital role on special teams as well — returning a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown against Virginia.

Although Virginia Tech is best as a running team, attacking the air is often an ideal recipe for offenses against Tulane. Da’Quan Felton is the Hokies’ top target, and he only got better as the year progressed. His last three games feature his three highest yardage totals of his FBS career, and the former Norfolk State star looks to continue that rampage against a Tulane defense which allows 239 passing yards per game on a 65.5 completion rate.

Virginia Tech took reasonably good care of the football in the regular season with only 13 committed turnovers, but the defense generated just 13 for itself — leaving the team at a stalemate in the turnover battle heading into the Military Bowl. But the defense does other things exceptionally well, including defending the air.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Old Dominion at Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech DE Antwaun Powell-Ryland racked up Second Team All-ACC honors as the Hokies’ leader in sacks and tackles for loss.
Photo by Brian Bishop/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Hokies rank ninth in the FBS in fewest passing yards allowed, holding opponents to 173 yards per game. Combine that with an average run defense, and Virginia Tech is 25th in fewest yards allowed per game, and this unit certainly stepped up its game in ACC play. Antwaun Powell-Ryland is the head of the snake, recording 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in a Second Team All-ACC campaign. Thanks to his commanding presence, the pass rush is one of the greatest strengths of this defense — ranking in the FBS top 10 with 3.0 sacks per contest. Although the Hokies need more input in the turnover battle, Powell-Ryland is definitely pulling his weight by forcing three fumbles for the second straight season.

Virginia Tech received one more All-ACC selection on defense, and that came from the master behind the team’s elite secondary. Cornerback Dorian Strong starred for the Hokies with team-highs in interceptions (3) and pass breakups (8). Strong might not see as much work cut out for him Wednesday considering Tulane’s proclivity to run the ball and the shorthanded status of the Green Wave at quarterback and receiver, but the cornerback is capable of shifting the momentum with game-altering plays.


Tulane Green Wave outlook

Tulane registered 11 regular season victories and currently resides in the AP Poll. Yet, the Green Wave are double-digit underdogs to a 6-6 team. It’s well documented that the Tulane team taking the field Wednesday is strikingly different than the one which hosted the AAC Championship Game the first week of December.

Since that 26-14 defeat to SMU, Tulane lost Willie Fritz to Houston, and a significant portion of the staff followed the eight-year Green Wave head coach, including defensive coordinator Shiel Wood. While the program hired Jon Sumrall from Troy, the interim head coach for this game is offensive coordinator Slade Nagle, and he’ll be leading a shorthanded staff in Annapolis.

But Tulane’s losses far exceed the coaching staff. Starting quarterback and AAC Offensive Player of the Year Michael Pratt opted out of the remainder of the season. Also, many key starters are in the transfer portal, including wide receiver Chris Brazzell II and free safety DJ Douglas. But fortunately for Tulane, some of its portal players are set to participate in this game, and that group includes quarterback Kai Horton, tight end Alex Bauman, and defensive ends Devean Deal and Keith Cooper Jr.

Ole Miss v Tulane
Tulane QB Kai Horton is expected to get his third start of the season. Horton started in Michael Pratt’s absence against Ole Miss and Southern Miss in September.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Horton will earn his second start of the season at quarterback. He also manned the starting role against Ole Miss and Southern Miss in Weeks 2 and 3. Horton earned valuable experience in those two performances, firing for 417 yards and three touchdowns in aggregate, but his best work was observed in 2022 when leading an overtime comeback win over Houston. Horton hasn’t shown Pratt’s mobility in the run department, but the quarterback has demonstrated the ability to keep the offense afloat. Justin Ibieta could also see playing time at the position as well after starting one game in 2022.

Tulane has never been a pass-first team, even when operating under a veteran like Pratt. The Green Wave prefer to establish their offense through the running backs, and they operate with a First Team All-AAC tailback in Makhi Hughes who owns a conference-best 1,290 rushing yards. Surpassing the century mark is the standard for the redshirt freshman, and he exceeded 100 yards in seven of his eight AAC regular season contests. There shouldn’t too much adjustment in the run game, as Tulane trots out 80 percent of its usual starting offensive line led by potential NFL Draft pick Sincere Haynesworth at center.

The receiving corps is one unit which will look unfamiliar though. Tulane is down its top three options, leaving Yulkeith Brown (28 receptions, 329 yards on the season) as the most productive player in the lineup Wednesday. Expect significant tight end usage in this one as well, but Tulane’s deep shots might be lacking with speedsters Jha’Quan Jackson and Lawrence Keys out of the lineup.

Tulane generated 11 regular season wins primarily thanks to stellar defensive play. The Green Wave are 18th in the FBS in scoring defense at 18.9 points per game, with a knack for stifling the run. Opponents only pick up 93.5 rushing yards on average against this bunch, which is good for 10th in the nation from a Tulane perspective.

As mentioned earlier, the outgoing defensive line transfers are listed on the depth chart in this game which is a huge boost to Tulane. The Green Wave are also equipped with star defensive linemen Darius Hodges and Patrick Jenkins, which look to make life tough for Virginia Tech’s quarterback and running backs. Hodges produced a team-high 7.5 sacks this year from the edge, while Jenkins impressed on the interior with 5.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Jenkins forced a pivotal safety in last year’s Cotton Bowl, and this defensive line looks to swing the game with one or two havoc plays of similar stature.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Tulane v USC
Tulane DT Patrick Jenkins forced a safety in last year’s Cotton Bowl to set up the Green Wave’s game-winning drive vs. USC.
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Tulane is fully loaded at linebacker with its top two tacklers Jesus Machado and Tyler Grubbs, who also contribute to the run-stopping effort. But the Green Wave are less stellar in containing the air, and losing cornerback Jarius Monroe makes things even more challenging. Forcing turnovers is an alternative to producing stops, and that’s one element where Tulane’s defensive backs thrived this year. They haven’t lost a turnover battle in their last six games, winning their last two by a combined mark of 8-2. Cornerback Lance Robinson is one standout in this area, hauling in a team-best four interceptions this season.


Prediction

Many Tulane games this year shared common characteristics. The Green Wave always played defensive-oriented slugfests, never hitting the 40-point barrier as an offense once and only allowing 30 on one occasion — to New Year’s Six bound Ole Miss in Week 2.

The Green Wave are excellent at mucking games up with their defensive front, attempting to torture opponents by suffocating the run and winning the turnover battle. That formula worked to the tune of 11 wins in the regular season, but operating with a shorthanded offense is going to make the defense’s job tougher in the Military Bowl.

Virginia Tech presents a commendable defense as well, never allowing more than 22 points in any of its six victories. The Hokies present star power in the pass rush and in the secondary which could make this game brutally difficult for the Green Wave’s backup quarterbacks. Tulane needs a dominant showing from the Makhi Hughes-led run game to win this one, but it won’t be easy, and Kyron Drones and the Hokies will see more success in Annapolis than Tulane’s offense.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 26, Tulane 13