The buzzer had sounded to end the final period of Virginia Tech’s Monday evening practice, but defensive coordinator Bud Foster was still barking out instructions about defending an option pitch, all while simultaneously directing players to the right spot.
The Hokies are expected to beat division I-AA Appalachian State on Saturday in their season opener, but for Foster’s defense, it represents a significant hurdle.
“They’ve got a great scheme and they’ve been doing it a long time. I’m not sure what they do wasn’t invented right there,” Foster said of Appalachian State’s spread option. “A lot of people take credit for it, but these guys run it as good as anybody.”
Appalachian State Coach Jerry Moore didn’t actually invent the spread option, though. He once ran an I-formation attack, but last decade switched to a variation of what Urban Meyer ran at Utah and Rich Rodriguez implemented with great success at West Virginia.
The result was three straight division I-AA national championships (2005-2007) and a historic upset over Michigan in 2007. And now, armed with another dynamic quarterback to lead his unconventional offense, Moore brings his upset-minded program to Blacksburg.
What concerns Foster is that his Hokies struggled against offenses like this last season. James Madison ran an option-based attack in its upset victory over Virginia Tech, and though the Dukes only gained 235 total yards, they consistently moved the chains running the option in the second half.
Later in the year, Georgia Tech churned out 398 rushing yards using the option – a stat the Hokies were able to overcome only because of a kickoff return for a touchdown by David Wilson in the fourth quarter.
Foster said the Mountaineers are more explosive than both James Madison and Georgia Tech. They pass the ball more frequently and utilize lots of multiple-receiver sets – quarterback DeAndre Presley threw for more than 2,600 yards in 2010 – but they do so after setting up a defense with a steady stream of option plays. Appalachian State averaged close to 431 yards per game last year, and about 217 came on the ground.
Presley, a player Foster said “could play anywhere in the country,” is the focal point in all of this. He’s a threat to run it on every play, but he’s got an arm and a receiver (6-foot-5 wideout Brian Quick) to match.
Allow Presley to dictate the action, and it could be a long afternoon at Lane Stadium. To avoid that, Foster says discipline will be the key, something he’s already imparted on his players early on this week.
“If you have pitch, you’ve got to play pitch no matter what,” linebacker Bruce Taylor said. “If they don’t pitch it all game, you’ve still got to play that because you never know when they’re going to. It’s not a hard offense to defend, but a team like Appalachian States, that’s their offense. They run it so good, they’re gonna break a few plays here and there. But the thing is to keep it to a minimum.”
It will be interesting to see how quickly younger starters like linebackers Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Tariq Edwards, as well as new safety Antone Exum, can diagnose a play and then attack the perimeter to make a tackle.
Perhaps the best news for the Hokies is their sense of urgency, a direct result of starting last year with two straight losses. Virginia Tech will have to face down one of its schematic demons when it takes the field Saturday, but Taylor said his defensive teammates are more pumped up than usual to show they can stop the Mountaineers.
“Not only because it’s the first game, but what happened to us last year from a team that runs a similar offense,” Taylor said, referring to James Madison. “They came in here and embarrassed us and we can’t have that.”