There was a time not long ago, like the week leading up to Virginia Tech’s win over Georgia Tech last year, when Bud Foster wouldn’t have spent the better part of five minutes talking openly about the changes he planned to make on defense while also praising Yellow Jackets Coach Paul Johnson.
But just as it seemed Hokies’ defensive coordinator had turned a new leaf after practice Sunday evening, Foster finally decided to let go of some pent-up frustration.
“It’s a pain. . . . You can quote me on that,” Foster said with a smirk. “If it was simple, everybody would be shutting it down.”
On Thursday night, No. 10 Virginia Tech goes on the road to face No. 20 Georgia Tech, and if recent history is any indication, the game will ultimately decide who wins the ACC Coastal Division. For the past six years, the winner of this matchup has gone on to the ACC championship game.
But two years after Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer and Johnson traded public barbs over illegal chop blocks, the rivalry has lost some of its cantankerousness. In its place seems to be a healthy respect born from a string of important games.
“I don’t consider them a dirty team. It’s more a team that I least like, just the way they play, how they block,” Hokies cornerback Kyle Fuller said of Georgia Tech. “But hey, they’re getting the job done. We’ve got to be ready to go out there and fight off those cut blocks.”
Nobody understands this better than Foster, who this week called Johnson “the master of this stuff.”
What he’s referencing is the wishbone-meets-the-spread offense Johnson first perfected at Georgia Southern and later brought to Navy. Since arriving at Georgia Tech in 2007, Johnson is 1-2 facing the Hokies — although his teams have averaged 311 rushing yards in those three games. This season, Georgia Tech leads the country in plays of more than 60 yards and have the nation’s second-best rushing offense.
What Foster has come to realize during that time is that while the offense may look like a quirky option scheme, “this is so much faster, so much more downhill, so much more physical.” The solution is to win the sort of battles that dictate most football games.
“He’s seen it all as far as how everyone has tried to defend him,” Foster said of Johnson. “It’s a chess match, but then it comes back to winning the line of scrimmage and just chasing the football and being good in your option principles.”
Perhaps this is why — a year after players wouldn’t even discuss what drills the team was running in practice before playing Georgia Tech — Foster was willing to reveal that he would be making significant personnel changes to his lineup for this game.
Defensive end J.R. Collins, who leads the team in sacks this year, will play defensive tackle. Linebacker Jack Tyler (Oakton High) will get his first start of the season at middle linebacker. Fuller, meanwhile, will play at whip linebacker, a role similar to one he had a year ago, when he finished with five tackles. Foster said it gets more experience and speed on the field, but it hasn’t made preparation any easier.
“It’s terrible,” safety Eddie Whitley said. “But at least we just see it once a year.”
Defeating the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta, though, would be a significant conquest for these Hokies, who have yet to defeat a team ranked in the top 25 this year. More importantly, as defensive line coach Charley Wiles put it: “This is a championship game. You want a playoff? This is a playoff.”
With a victory Thursday, Virginia Tech (8-1, 4-1) would be the lone one-loss team in the ACC Coastal Division and would eliminate Georgia Tech (7-2, 4-2) from the division race. A victory by the Yellow Jackets would put them in prime position to win the division: They’d need to beat Duke on Nov. 19 and have Virginia (6-3, 3-2) lose to Duke, Florida State or Virginia Tech.
The stakes, though, shouldn’t be surprising at this point.
“It’s November and you remember what happens in November,” Beamer said. “You need to be at your best in November, and that’s our challenge.”