With a dominant showing against East Carolina in its rearview mirror, Virginia Tech’s defense came off the practice field Monday trying its best not to put too much stock into one game. It is, after all, exactly a year since the Hokies 0-2 start to last season — and we all know that didn’t stop Virginia Tech from having a successful season.
But holding East Carolina to 112 total yards, including minus-15 rushing yards, and forcing quarterback Dominique Davis to have the worst passing performance of his career felt like a seminal moment for a defensive unit that ranked 52nd in the country a year ago.
Even last year when the Hokies shut out Boston College, Eagles running back Montel Harris still went over 100 yards rushing and averaged 5.8 yards per carry.
So how were the Hokies so efficient defensively on Saturday? The answer comes in three parts.
1) Bud Foster knew what was coming
The Hokies’ defensive coordinator admitted Monday that Virginia Tech’s coaching staff picked up on some of East Carolina’s offensive signals. Stealing signs in baseball is frowned upon, but in football there’s a long history of it.
Foster’s unit was so ahead of the curve, even the Pirates still aren’t sure what hit them.
“They see us check into the something, and they’re going to check into something else, trying to check into the right thing [against] what we were going to do,” East Carolina wide receiver Lance Lewis told the Greenville (N.C.) Daily Reflector. “They were trying to catch us in something they were sitting on.”
Foster declined to go into details about what exactly the Pirates were giving away since Virginia Tech has an ongoing series with them, but he emphasized that the team’s strategy didn’t change much from last year’s 49-27 win over East Carolina.
“We had the game plan last year, but last year I think the tempo was so fast and we had so many young kids and they were all over the place,” Foster said. “This year we were more prepared all the way around for the tempo of the game.”
2) The secondary showed up in a big way
The Hokies had two interceptions called back because of penalties, but even without those picks, Virginia Tech’s defensive backs were the key in slowing down East Carolina.
In Virginia Tech’s week one win over Appalachian State, junior Jayron Hosley played as the boundary cornerback and sophomore Kyle Fuller lined up at field cornerback, the usual arrangement for the Hokies defense.
But after watching Lewis rack up 13 catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina, defensive backs coach Torrian Gray decided to have Hosley shadow Lewis for the entire game. That plan worked like a charm as Lewis finished with just three catches for 17 yards on Saturday.
Gray said he thinks the Hokies might do more of that – put Hosley on another team’s best receiver – as the season progresses.
The whole secondary, though, was outstanding. Fuller grabbed his first-ever interception, and graded out higher than any other defensive player. Redshirt senior Cris Hill, who saw extensive time with Virginia Tech playing nickel almost exclusively against the Pirates four wide receiver sets, played his best game at Virginia Tech.
The coverage also played a big role in the Hokies’ pass rush, which sacked Davis five times. Davis was forced to hold the ball more than he would have preferred.
3) The Hokies tackled better
Foster said in the first half last year against the Pirates, Virginia Tech may have missed more tackles “than we did the previous five years.” That wasn’t the care this time around, with East Carolina’s negative rushing totals and the lack of any plays that went for more than 20 yards as evidence.
Throughout the week leading into the game, the Hokies’ defensive staff figured East Carolina would get some yards through the air, but they wanted to make sure the Pirates got nothing on the ground. Virginia Tech’s defense was near perfect in that regard.
“That probably exceeded expectations,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said. “That was the biggest thing to me, we tackled well and then we executed the game plan to smother them.”
I’ll have more on the defense’s early-season improvement in a story for Thursday’s paper. But when Foster was asked what sort of conclusions he’s drawn about his unit after two-consecutive strong showings, he went into coach mode, trying his best to hide his enthusiasm.
Virginia Tech may be ranked No. 7 in the country in terms of total defense right now, but this week’s opponent, Arkansas State, has a spread offense that is “probably the best one to date,” Foster said. He likened the RedWolves to Tim Tebow’s Florida teams with their bevy of misdirection plays and the versatility of quarterback Ryan Aplin.
But Foster sure has to feel better about his chances after this past week’s impressive display.
“This is what we’ve expected in a lot of ways, and more important, it’s what the kids expected,” Foster said. “They expect to play like this. But now the key thing is sustaining it and doing it week in and week out. It’s just game two.”