Previewing Virginia Tech’s Defense: It’s not going to be easy
By: Bradley Smart
Two programs headed in much different directions will meet on Saturday night on the Heights. In one corner, a consistently good Virginia Tech (4-1) team anchored by 41-year-old head coach Justin Fuente are continuing to build toward challenging the heavyweights in college football. Coming off a disappointing 31-17 loss to the defending champions in Clemson, it’s clear the Hokies aren’t there yet, but with new facilities and a young coach, they’re on the way.
In the other corner, a struggling Boston College (2-3) team enters with head coach Steve Addazio in the hot seat, desperately looking for success in the ACC. Both of the Eagles wins on the season are against MAC foes, and they’ve been outscored 117-37 in the other three losses. Addazio has drawn plenty of criticisms for an offense that ranks 117th in the country in points per game. Paired with a defense that has taken a step back from consistent top finishes, the Eagles are in a tough spot entering this week’s matchup.
“We’ve beaten them two out of four years,” Addazio pointed out in his weekly press conference. “Let’s not forget that either.”
However, the point Addazio is missing is that two very different teams played in those games. In the first two wins, coming in 2013 and 2014, the Eagles had a capable offense, averaging over five yards per play. The last two years? They’ve been outscored by a combined 75-10 and have totaled just 324 yards in the two losses. Last year, a 49-0 blowout on the road, Boston College’s rushing attack ground out just 44 yards. In the 2014 win, they piled up 258 yards, exerting their will on the Tech defense. Entering this year’s matchup with a quarterback that hasn’t shown the ability to move the chains via his passing ability, the Eagles are going to rely on their running backs, and they haven’t found success there against ACC opponents yet.
The Hokies have longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster calling the shots, which means that per usual, Virginia Tech has a talented defense. Retaining Foster after taking over from Frank Beamer is one of Fuente’s best moves, as the Hokies have ranked outside the top 30 in defense just four times in the 22 years he’s been in charge. Foster’s defense is excellent again this season, entering 10th in defensive S&P+ and 11th in points allowed per game (18.0).
Returning seven starters from a defense that ranked 17th a year ago, the Hokies boast several draft prospects and are a well-rounded and explosive team. The problem Boston College faces is that Foster’s approach is to stop teams on the ground and force them to make plays in the air. Eagles quarterback Anthony Brown is young and inexperienced, so that’ll be especially true.
Running some Cover 2 inverted formations and loading the box, the Hokies lean on their talented playmakers in the secondary. “They’ll choke out the run game and force you to win on the perimeter,” one scout said in a Sports Illustrated preview. The secondary is full of capable defenders, as are the linebacking corps, which returned all of its starters from a year ago.
Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is massive, standing 6-5 and 250 pounds. He’s had a tremendous impact this season, leading the team with 33 tackles, 4 ½ for losses. In the 4-2-5 gap defense Foster runs, Edmunds slots in at outside linebacker and is described by the longtime defensive coordinator as rare. It’s not common that you have that kind of size paired with those abilities.
Anchoring the defense, Edmunds is joined in the linebacker position by Mook Reynolds (pictured), a hybrid defender with 32 tackles. Another standout is redshirt senior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka (6-foot, 233 pounds), who leads the team in sacks.
The defensive backs are even more talented, arguably. Ranking second in havoc rate (a measure of passes broken up, tackles for loss, and passes defended), the Hokies have NFL talent in the secondary. The cornerback duo of Adonis Alexander and Brandon Facyson ranks among the best in the country, while the likes of Greg Stroman, Reynolds, and Terrell Edmunds all contribute. Edmunds and Stroman, for instance, have combined for two interceptions, nine passes defended, and a pair of tackles for loss.
Losing safety Chuck Clark (Ravens, sixth round) was tough, but the Hokies haven’t skipped a beat. After holding quarterbacks to under a 40% completion rate five separate times last season, Virginia Tech has continued that trend. They’ve already done it twice this season, ranking fifth in passing defense IsoPP, an explosiveness measure gauging the magnitude of big plays.
What does this all mean for the Eagles? Well, looking at the drive chart from last year’s 49-0 loss, it’s easy to see how Foster’s defense exerted their influence on the game.
Boston College managed to push the ball into the Hokies side of the ball just three times, and twice turned it over via a fumble and an interception. The third drive resulted in them facing 4th-and-20 and having to punt. Simply put, Virginia Tech was absolutely dominant on defense, and took advantage of the defense.
The Eagles maintained an even split of passing and rushing plays, but averaged just 1.6 yards per attempt and completed just a third of their passes. Mike Knoll was called upon for 13 punts, and it was pretty easy to see from the beginning that it’d be a long game. If you watch film from the game, the Hokies were easily breaking into the backfield and blowing up plays. Just two rushing plays the entire game went longer than five yards, and Boston College had to turn to the air.
That didn’t go well, either. Quarterback Patrick Towles completed just 9-of-28 passes for 80 yards, with six of the incompletions being broken up by the stifling secondary.
In 2015, it was more of the same. The Hokies won 26-10, with the Eagles lone touchdown coming with eight minutes in the fourth while down 23-3. Eight completions for 143 yards boosted Boston College, as they managed just two yards per run. It’s unlikely to expect that kind of deep threat helping out the Eagles this year, as Brown has averaged under five yards per passing attempt.
After last years loss, Addazio said, “I was worried about the fact of establishing the run game, and we didn’t do that… my biggest concern is the mistakes being made of front in the run game.”
Boston College was able to establish the run game against a much-weaker opponent in Central Michigan last week, but relying heavily on it won’t work against a stout Tech defense. If the Hokies can force them into being one-dimensional and dare Brown to throw it deep in third-and-long situations, the Eagles will be in for a long day at the office. Virginia Tech is a deep defensive team, and this could ultimately end up being a repeat of the Clemson game. The Eagles may stay close through a half or more, but if Knoll ends up being called upon frequently, Boston College’s defense could wear down.
Cover photo courtesy of Michael Shroyer/Getty Images North America