CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Virginia Tech finished the 2012 season with a disappointing 7-6 record, but the real surprise was how much the Hokies’ defense struggled at times. It’s not something we’re used to seeing from a Bud Foster-coached unit that has traditionally been among the nation’s stoutest.
Nearly a year ago to the day, the Hokies headed to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina with a 3-2 record, having lost games to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati at least in part because of defensive struggles.
Most of last season, especially early, Foster was either angry or exasperated (or both). The week before the North Carolina game in early October, he and his young secondary were coming off a fourth-quarter meltdown in the loss to Cincinnati. He responded with a YouTube moment, a rant in support of his defense.
It didn’t work.
Virginia Tech gave up 533 yards of offense and 339 yards rushing to the Tar Heels, including 262 to current Cincinnati Bengal Giovani Bernard (the most ever by an individual Hokie opponent). The Tar Heels won 48-34, moving the ball at will on a Virginia Tech defense that was once feared by opponents. (In the last four games of the year, Virginia Tech would surrender a total of 249 yards rushing. Just to put that in perspective.)
The Hokies were still one of the better defenses in the nation last year — at least, by the numbers. That was partially because of the way they closed the season, holding their final four opponents (including Florida State) to an average of 255.0 yards (versus 367.9 in the first nine games).
Those early games, though, were seared into the collective memory of college football fans who were sure that Foster and head coach Frank Beamer’s magic runs were over, and that the Hokies were going to continue to be a mediocre program going forward.
Not so fast.
The Hokies brought back most of their starters from a defense that improved as last year went on, and they are fourth in the nation in total defense, fifth in passing defense and 19th in run defense. And they’re holding opponents to 2.7 yards per carry as opposed to 3.6 in 2012.
The pass defense has improved, too. Last year’s group allowed 17 passing touchdowns to 13 interceptions and a 50.1 percent completion rate. This year’s team is allowing a 44 percent completion rate and just four touchdowns to 11 picks through five games.
And the Hokies aren’t feasting on cupcakes, either. They have faced some good quarterbacks and offenses in four of five games: Alabama, East Carolina, Marshall and Georgia Tech. They also have 17 sacks through five games compared to 35 in 13 games last year.
But that doesn’t mean the Hokies have forgotten about last year’s North Carolina game. Beamer used words like “pounding”, “hammering” and “hammer job” to describe it.
“That’s what it felt like over on our sideline,” Beamer said. “It was a team that was really ready to play (and) played a great game against us. We had a rough outing.”
Now, the UNC offense and Hokie defense are moving in opposite directions.
UNC’s offensive line isn’t what it was last year, and the spread, up-tempo attack only works if the Tar Heels can get first downs, which hasn’t happened consistently. That will be a problem against any defense, much less one of the nation’s best.
“Bud Foster is not afraid to blitz. He’ll blitz everybody and he’ll take a couple off the bench and blitz them too,” UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. “We got a dose of that last year, a lot of zero pressure, and we stepped up and were able to make plays. That was the difference in the game.
“It’ll be a challenge. Our backs have got to step up and hit linebackers in the hole, and we’ve got to help chip off the edge where we can to help our o-linemen.”
A Virginia Tech front four that includes defensive ends James Gayle (two sacks) and J.R. Collins (4 1/2 sacks) — a duo that has combined for 28 quarterback hurries — and also has defensive tackle Derrick Hopkins, who very nearly shut down Georgia Tech’s option offense on his own, seems just unfair. But now, the Hokie secondary is no longer a liability. Returning starters Kyshoen Jarrett, Detrick Bonner and Kyle Fuller are even better, and Fuller’s little brother Kendall — a five-star freshman — has filled out the group nicely while the other returning starter, Antone Exum, rehabs a torn ACL.
Oh, and then freshman corner Brandon Facyson, who had a breakout performance against Georgia Tech, may be moving to wide receiver because the Hokies have too many good corners. A nice problem to have, certainly.
Combine that dominant front with that secondary, and you have a defense that’s very tough to move the ball against.
“They’re really good up front. Those two defensive tackles are playing really good, and they’re getting pressure on the quarterback with four,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “They’ve got four, five, six guys in the secondary that can play you in man and pressed up against you and do a great job back there. Bud (Foster) will have them flying around, he’ll have them ready to play, there’s no doubt about that.
“They’re the best secondary we’ll play. They’ve got 3-4 guys that’ll play in the NFL. So you know what you’re up against. But I do believe you’ve got to test them as well,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to make them make plays. … So we’re definitely going to be aware of what we’re getting into and pick our opportunities, but also be cautious and smart about what we’re doing at times too.”
Perhaps the best example of how good Virginia Tech’s defense is that East Carolina game on the road.
Like UNC, ECU runs a spread, up-tempo offense that can be dangerous (as the Tar Heels saw up close and personal last Saturday, allowing 55 points to the Pirates). But Virginia Tech’s defense held that same offense to 10 points.
It wasn’t like ECU didn’t move the ball on Virginia Tech, according to UNC senior left tackle James Hurst, who said he’d watched the game once (as of early this week).
But once was enough for him to know it wasn’t so much about how good the Hokies’ defense is. (Though he did mention that, too.) It was about the part of the Virginia Tech program that it has prided itself on under Frank Beamer, and part of what set it apart from so many others in college football — resiliency, toughness and grit.
Any time the Hokies could be counted out, any time it has seemed like their backs are up against that proverbial wall — within a season, within a game, whatever it may be — they have found a way out of it. That’s what the great Virginia Tech teams have always done.
“ECU brought it and Virginia Tech kind of, it seemed to me — I’ve only watched it once — but they kind of just rallied. No matter what happened, you couldn’t tell that it fazed them,” Hurst said. “They all played together that whole game, really figured it out and rallied to the ball and tackled with a lot of people at the ball.”
The defense has been able to overcome a struggling Virginia Tech offense, and it continues to play hard in spite of not getting much support on the scoreboard.
The Hokies could make mistakes early defensively, as they did against Marshall (a game they had to win in overtime). They could let North Carolina have a big play or two. But ultimately, the Tar Heels are going to have to work for everything they get on Saturday.
“They’re playing with Bud’s personality. They really are,” Fedora said. “They’re doing a great job and it looks like they’ve got some great team chemistry in the way they’re playing over there.”