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Film Review: How the Hokies’ Defense Dominated

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The Hokies pieced together one of the best defensive performances in the country on Saturday against a top-rated offense. How did Foster and his boys dominate the Tar Heels’ attack?

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Hokies absolutely dismantled the Tar Heels on Saturday, and all it took was just a little rain.

Well, okay - maybe it was more than just the weather that won Virginia Tech this game. However, if you like old-fashioned football where the big boys in the trenches determine the winner, then this game was a real treat for you. The Hokies have surged up polls and rankings mostly due to their defense, which has been a result of the outstanding play of the defensive line. Ekanem had an excellent game. Vinny Mihota had a huge momentum play just minutes into the first quarter with a big hit on a fourth down stop. Woody Baron might be flying under the national radar, but the coaching staff knows how great he has been for this defense in 2016.

Speaking of the coaching staff, they had the players dialed in and ready to go. The gameplan and adjustments were tremendous. In my scouting report of the UNC offense, it was fairly clear that containing Ryan Switzer had to be the number one priority. The speedy receiver had totaled an impressive 30 catches in the previous two weeks, but had just two catches for a measly two yards against the Hokies. The defense did a phenomenal job with their execution – and yes, those numbers would be better had Switzer not dropped two passes.

The elements limited downfield passing for both sides (although the Hokies were much, much better as the game wore while the Tar Heels were not). The short passing game took hold as a result which is where Switzer’s strength lies. However, even when the senior receiver was able to secure the ball there was a defender in his face ready to make the tackle. One of the most common methods to involve Switzer is via WR screen. On the Tar Heels’ opening drive, the Hokies showed that they wouldn’t allow anything easy, a hallmark of a great defense.

UNC loves lining up in 3 x 1 sets to try and get a numbers advantage when blocking on the perimeter so Switzer can gain a quick 3-4 yards. Switzer is lined up as the inside slot receiver with Bug Howard and Austin Proehl on his right. You can see that at first glance, Terrell Edmunds is the only defender close enough to make a play should Switzer get the football. Trubisky reads this and fires it out quickly.

Virginia Tech showed another attribute of a top-notch defense – swarming to the football. It helps that both Howard and Proehl decide to block Terrell Edmunds, but watch the pursuit to the football. Tremaine Edmunds has been a phenomenal fit so far in his career in Blacksburg, mostly due to his ability to run, chase, and tackle. While he doesn’t make the solo tackle here, he buys an extra second for the defense to get to Switzer.

And of all people, Vinny Mihota, with his seemingly endless motor, finishes this play off. On the next play, Mihota ends the Tar Heels’ drive for good with a crucial 4th and 1 stop.

The Tar Heels also run a heavy amount of Tare concepts. This involves a clear out route down the sideline while the slot receiver (usually Switzer) runs the quick out to take advantage of the space, especially if the defense is in man coverage. Virginia Tech was also ready for this. One can argue that Mook Reynolds has been the Hokies’ top cover man over the first six weeks of the season, and he was excellent in coverage again on Saturday.

Reynolds is matched up with Switzer at the top of the screen in man coverage (the Hokies are in man-free this play). Trubisky takes the snap and immediately looks to Switzer. However, Reynolds sticks to Switzer like glue, forcing Trubisky to move onto his next read. Nigel Williams doesn’t let that happen – he gets double teamed on his pass rush but sinks his pad level and drives both OL back towards Trubisky. The UNC quarterback senses pressure, drifts back in the pocket, and is forced to dump the ball off to TJ Logan in the flat resulting in an easy tackle for Tremaine Edmunds.

Even in zone, the Hokies were quick to fly up to take away throwing windows or opportunities for YAC.

Virginia Tech drops into a Cover 2 zone on this play, although it initially looks like man coverage. Trubisky doesn’t look Swizter’s way at first, but it wouldn’t matter if he did. UNC runs a smash concept with a corner route run by Mack Hollins and the underneath out run by Switzer. The outside cornerback, Adonis Alexander, does a nice job staying close to #3. This is plain-old fundamental 3rd down defense. Play the sticks. Keep the ball in front of you. The pressure from Mihota and the rest of the DL forces Trubisky back across the field in his progressions and he finds Switzer who ends up dropping it. He probably would not have gotten the first regardless, with a swarm of Hokies closing in to tackle him.

And on this play, Chuck Clark reads the play like a book. Foster calls for a Cat Blitz from nickelback Mook Reynolds, meaning Switzer has a sliver of opportunity where he isn’t covered. He runs the trademark out, but Clark flies up and makes the tackle. Switzer does get the first down, but not by much.

This defense is breath of fresh air after the last two years where Foster’s defense simply was not what is used to be. The pass defense is legit, and they are gang-tackling both runners and receivers. The coaching staff has implemented the game plan and the players are executing at the highest level possible. The effort and pursuit to the ball has been phenomenal.

Yes, the offense is much improved from last year. But defense still wins championships. Through six weeks, all three levels of the defense have played exceptional football. So if the Hokies want to stay at the top of the Coastal, Foster’s unit will need to stay at the top of it’s game. Right now, it is certainly on the right track.