BLACKSBURG, Va. — Before Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster kneels down in his familiar crouch along the sideline Thursday night, ready to dissect the latest wrinkle in Georgia Tech’s complex offense, he invariably will walk across the field to talk with Yellow Jackets Coach Paul Johnson.
Over the years, Foster has assembled a library of tape on Johnson’s teams, dating back to Johnson’s time at Navy (2002-2007). Foster has seen so much game film, the players tend to string together, just numbers and assignments on a screen. He knows every counter Johnson has used and spends his waking hours trying to anticipate them, even if Johnson only adjusted that way once before.
So Foster likely will have a familiar greeting for Johnson.
“I let him know how much of a pain in the tail he is for all of us to prepare for,” Foster said. “And I think he likes that.”
Georgia Tech’s flexbone option offense is unlike any other in college football, a modern twist on the wishbone Johnson has used for decades. Few, though, have had as much success slowing it down recently as Foster and Virginia Tech.
The Hokies have beaten Georgia Tech three straight times — and four of the past five years — entering Thursday night’s nationally televised ACC matchup in Atlanta.
And to the victor has gone the spoils. Before last season, the winner of this game went on to win the ACC’s Coastal Division title. Either Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech has represented the division in every ACC championship game, and the Yellow Jackets are already 2-0 in league play after a win over North Carolina last week.
Foster’s strategy has evolved since Johnson took the Georgia Tech coaching job in 2008, and his preparation has been tireless.
Following Virginia Tech’s lone loss to Johnson and Georgia Tech in 2009, Foster was so eager to figure out Johnson’s scheme that he flew to visit Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz’s staff against doctor’s orders just days after undergoing back surgery. The Hawkeyes beat the Yellow Jackets, 24-14, in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 5, 2010, and since then Foster said the Hokies have employed a different “technique” to defend Georgia Tech.
They’ve also had extra time to prepare the past three years. But with just five days’ rest this season — Foster declared the quick turnaround “ludicrous and absurd,” citing player safety — Virginia Tech has spent its Sunday practices over the past month installing a defense that’s specifically designed to stop the Yellow Jackets.
Before Virginia Tech scored a 20-17 overtime win over Georgia Tech in last year’s season opener, Foster said he “heard through the grapevine” that Johnson planned to use the flexbone out of more spread formations. So he went to YouTube and typed in “spread offense or spread bone” and began watching game film of random high school teams.
Lo and behold, Foster’s tip had been right, and the Hokies came in prepared for many of the new looks Johnson thought were under wraps.
“They always have a good plan,” Johnson said this week. “They also don’t usually screw up. They know what they’re doing.”
If only it were that simple. Even in last year’s victory, Virginia Tech eventually wore down and allowed a 13-play, 72-touchdown drive that gave Georgia Tech a three-point lead with 44 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. But the Yellow Jackets averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, a statistic Foster said is more meaningful than the 192 rushing yards they gained in the game.
Experience, Foster said, is key because stopping Georgia Tech’s option is predicated on assignments, and he’ll use senior cornerback Kyle Fuller as the team’s whip linebacker Thursday night because Fuller has played that role against the Yellow Jackets previously.
Foster, who likens playing Georgia Tech to “a 60-minute fistfight,” also has a middle linebacker who considers this game “my favorite week to play in” and already has legs covered in turf burns from tackles made this season.
Senior Jack Tyler refers to Georgia Tech’s offense as “a riddle” to be solved, and he seemed to crack the code a year ago. Tyler finished with a game-high 17 tackles against the Yellow Jackets, with Virginia Tech’s strategy calling for runners to be funneled his way.
It was a performance that catapulted Tyler to an all-ACC season, and he said the game plan again calls for him to be “everywhere.”
“I remember last year, afterwards I literally felt like I got hit by a truck,” Tyler added. “Hopefully I’ll feel the same this year.”
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