Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster says his defense has been “punching the clock and doing it start to finish” this season. (Steve Helber/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s legacy has long been associated with the lunch pail. It symbolizes all that Foster believes in on the football field, that a workmanlike attitude can overcome any offense.

But in recent weeks, armed with a defense he knows could be among his best ever if the 2013 season goes according to plan, Foster has begun to use a new motto. Not surprisingly, it isn’t that far removed from what the lunch pail represents.

“We’re punching the clock and doing it start to finish,” Foster told his defense following its strong showing against No. 1 Alabama two weeks ago, when it allowed only one offensive touchdown and 206 yards and recorded four sacks.

Whether his message has resonated will likely become clear Saturday when the Hokies travel to East Carolina for their first real test since losing to the Crimson Tide. In Greenville, N.C., Foster and company will be greeted by a high-paced Air Raid offense that’s currently averaging more than 41 points per game.

However, Virginia Tech ranks fourth in the country in total defense, the sort of standard Foster has come to expect. But this unit is well aware two games don’t make a season. All they need for proof is to recall what happened a year ago.

Following dominant performances against Georgia Tech and Austin Peay — and after cornerback Antone Exum declared during the preseason that his unit could “be the best defense to come through here — the Hokies laid an egg in their first road game of the season at Pittsburgh, allowing 254 rushing yards and four touchdown drives of 65 or more yards.

When Foster went over the performance last week, he told his players they “fell off the face of the planet.” It took almost the entire season for Virginia Tech’s defense to find its groove again — the Hokies finished 2012 ranked 18th nationally in yards allowed per game — and not before both Cincinnati and North Carolina carved up Foster’s scheme like few had in subsequent losses.

“We saw that expectations don’t mean anything,” said linebacker Jack Tyler, who carries the lunch pail every day this year as the team’s defensive captain. “We actually have to go prove ourselves and prove that we’re a good defense. . . . [Foster] wanted to actually see us live up to those expectations.”

Many defensive players point to the maturity they’ve gained since the beginning of last year, and with eight starters back, it has shown through two games.

Virginia Tech’s defensive line got the best of Alabama’s offensive front, and defensive line coach Charley Wiles said this week seniors Derrick Hopkins, James Gayle and J.R. Collins are playing perhaps the best football of their careers. In the linebacking corps, senior Tariq Edwards appears back to full strength after missing all of last year with a shin/knee injury.

But perhaps most importantly, “we have more experience in the back end,” according to Gayle.

Though the Hokies have been without all-ACC cornerback Antone Exum (knee), senior Kyle Fuller appears to have overcome the nagging injuries that slowed him in 2012 and held his own against Amari Cooper, Alabama’s star wide receiver. It’s also been a boon that true freshmen Kendall Fuller (Good Counsel) and Brandon Facyson have made the season-ending shoulder injury to linebacker Ronny Vandyke an afterthought with their strong play in Virginia Tech’s nickel package.

Safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett, meanwhile, are no longer underclassmen playing a new position. Both took some lumps in 2012 after switching from cornerback, but each have come out better from it on the other end. Bonner had two interceptions last Saturday against Western Carolina, one of which he returned for Virginia Tech’s first defensive touchdown since 2010.

But Gayle noted that none of the team’s defensive coaches have begun to tout this unit as one that could match Virginia Tech’s defenses from 2005 and 2006, both of which finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country. If anything, Wiles said, Foster can be “more grinding” with a defense that has this sort of potential.

“I don’t think they really would put that out in the air, just because they don’t want guys walking around thinking we’ve arrived. And I don’t think we’ve arrived, either,” Gayle said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to put in.”

Wiles appreciated that comment when it was relayed back to him, because he believes Foster’s warning against complacency must be enhanced through peer pressure.

Wiles remembers the pregame warmups from that Pittsburgh loss well, how his players looked sluggish and complained about the heat on an unseasonably warm September afternoon. He later said that was the sign the Hokies were about to lay a clunker, something Foster and company hope to avoid this time around.

“Greenville, thank the lord, they’ve got a cold front coming in,” Wiles said. “It’s gonna be 74 [degrees].”