Virginia Tech junior James Gayle knew defensive coordinator Bud Foster would be angry immediately following Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh. That’s something of a given after allowing 537 yards, 35 points and an “embarrassing” loss to the Panthers, the defensive end pointed out.
Still, though, Gayle was taken aback once Foster addressed the defense in the locker room. The magnitude of what just happened finally sunk in.
“I don’t even think I’ve ever seen Coach Foster like that because I feel like this is, since I’ve been here, one of the worst losses we’ve had. Because it’s kind of like they just ran the ball right down our throat,” Gayle said. “I feel bad because I feel like we let him down.”
Touted as one of the ACC’s best defenses coming into the season, Foster’s unit received a humbling lesson Saturday about what can happen when it enters a game without any emotion. Defensive players and coaches agreed with wide receiver Marcus Davis: The Hokies underestimated Pittsburgh because of its 0-2 record.
Defensive line coach Charley Wiles said he could tell during pregame warmups that his group wasn’t ready to play. They were complaining about the heat, even as Wiles was telling them, “Hey, we’re getting ready to get our butt beat.”
The end result was a litany of missed tackles, poor gap fits and a wounded defense that now must regroup after allowing more yards than it has since a 2007 loss to LSU.
“No intensity. No passion. Inconsistent effort. Lack of communication. Just everything,” Foster said Tuesday. “Those were kind of, going into the game, our keys to success. We need to be more physical. We got pushed around. We had inconsistent efforts and that’s not who we are.”
The problems, Foster said, mainly came on the perimeter of the defense. Though a defensive line expected to dominate often found itself in stalemates throughout the game, junior Derrick Hopkins noted, much of Pittsburgh’s 254 rushing yards came on the outside of the formation.
Foster said he was most disappointed in the “collision hitting” by his defensive backs and linebackers. It didn’t help that — with cornerback Kyle Fuller out for most of the game because of a contusion in his shoulder — the Hokies secondary “turned into a mess,” according to Foster. Rover Kyshoen Jarrett was forced to play free safety and redshirt freshman Michael Cole saw his first real action at the college level.
Free safety Detrick Bonner, who didn’t practice most of the week because of a leg injury, was then asked to play nickel cornerback, a position he hadn’t practiced at since last season. It led to confusion in the defensive backfield, cornerback Antone Exum said, and often meant Virginia Tech “stayed in the same call instead of getting into the call that was implemented in the game plan.”
To address the tackling issues, secondary coach Torrian Gray had his defensive backs performing some physical one-on-one tackling drills at the open portion of Tuesday’s practice. It was more hitting than reporters usually see in the middle of the season.
“I take responsibility in the moves but from a physical standpoint, I’m more upset that we didn’t punch back the way we needed to punch back,” defensive backs coach Torrian Gray said.
That, more than anything schematic, was the lesson learned from Saturday’s loss. Linebacker Bruce Taylor pointed to the defense’s performance against Georgia Tech to start the year as evidence of what this unit is capable of when it’s fully engaged.
But it’s incumbent on the players to match that sort of intensity every Saturday, he added. For one week, at least, they fell short in that regard.
“We definitely know now that if we don’t come out with emotion and fire, then we can be beat,” Exum said.