Virginia Tech’s win over Florida State was encouraging for many reasons. Most importantly, it showed that it was indeed possible for the Hokies to replace the talent (and some coaching) they lost on the defensive side of the ball this past offseason. And it all centers around Bud Foster’s brilliance as a coach.
Foster’s hallmark during his time as one of the top defensive coordinators in the country has been pressure on the quarterback and disrupting an offense’s rhythm early in the down. The effectiveness of that style speaks for itself. He is not shy about sending five, six, or seven guys to get to the quarterback on passing downs, or allowing one of his powerful defensive linemen penetrate to shut the running game down. But in a new year, with mostly new players, it was hard to expect the same execution that we saw last year when Foster had a defense loaded with NFL talent.
The Hokies’ offense sputtered for parts of the game and the defense allowed Tech to convincingly win the field position battle, which indirectly helped the special teams unit to block a punt for a score. Many thought the offense would need to carry the defense given the youth and inexperience but it almost ended up being the exact opposite situation.
The defense may be young, but they came prepared to Tallahassee. This allowed them to play off their instincts. When a defensive coordinator instills that mentality on a talented group of players, they tend to put on a show. Whatever Willie Taggart decided to throw in Virginia Tech’s direction, it did not work. Everyone stayed disciplined, trusted their eyes, and pulled the trigger when they saw the ball carrier. That is defense at its simplest form, but it can be incredibly difficult to execute.
On the first play, it was evident that Foster had already won the coaching battle. Florida State decides to open the game up with a triple option look, which has gashed the Hokies’ defense lately when playing a certain ACC coastal opponent.
The Seminoles run the triple option with jet action coming from the receiver on the boundary side of the formation. Francois is reading Khalil Ladler on the edge to determine whether to hand the ball off, as well as Divine Deablo behind to ensure that he can keep and pitch it should no one track the jet action.
When the ball is snapped the defensive line shifts right to create quick penetration, a tactic Foster has used frequently in the past. Francois sees that Ladler does not collapse on the running back and Deablo is sitting on the pitch man, so he makes the correct read and hands the ball off to the running back. Because this decision allows the Hokies’ biggest defensive strength (the defensive line) to impact the play, Virginia Tech has essentially won the down.
Gauging preparation is not usually a tangible aspect, but by looking at the eyes of the defenders and seeing how they react to the offense paints a solid picture. Here, both Dylan Rivers and Rayshard Ashby show tremendous eye discipline, staying in their run fits despite the motion the ‘Noles use. Deablo does not get stuck watching the mesh point for too long and eventually gets in on the tackle, along with a swarm of four other Hokies.
I also want to highlight Dylan Rivers’ performance against the run Monday night. He may only be a sophomore making his first start, but watch him sift through traffic on this play and find the ball carrier. He made a number of these types of tackles in the box, showing his ability to play downhill effectively.
Rivers is not as fast as Tremaine Edmunds was, but he still has effective sideline to sideline speed due to his ability to diagnose information and play on his instincts. On this next play, Virginia Tech is “sugaring” the A-gap with Rivers, but Florida State counters this by running off tackle. In theory, this play should work since the Hokies are outmanned on the outside since Rivers is stuck between two defensive tackles and the left side of the offensive line.
Rivers reads the play and pulls the trigger, flying out to the boundary under the pulling guard to help force the back out of bounds for no gain. His shoulders stay square to the line of scrimmage as he moves laterally, and Rivers shows some explosion as he closes to the football. This was despite being at a disadvantage to start, which is not something you typically see out of a player making his first start at the position. Rivers’ success on Monday was partly because of his talent, but also a prime example of Bud Foster preparing his unit for the challenge ahead.
More of the same here. Watch how quickly Rivers gets into the backfield (the entire DL wins their matchups here) and although he doesn’t make the tackle, it allows the rest of the defense to get finish the play. Rivers is not a finished product, but this was certainly a phenomenal start to the year for the sophomore.
The defense as a whole played with their hair on fire Monday night, and that extra bit of effort and grit can make a substantial difference. Defenses that play fast and flow to the ball carrier quickly tend to also force myriad turnovers, which is what we saw against Florida State, as Foster’s unit forced five of them. Perhaps the one that will make Foster the happiest is the first takeaway of the night, with Khalil Ladler forcing and recovering a fumble to set the Hokies’ offense up with a short field.
Florida State tries to use their speed at the skill positions, running an end around to the field side of the formation. Khalil Ladler, who is listed at just 5’11”, 192 pounds, is the “force” player on the edge and needs to take on a block head on to funnel the ball carrier inside towards the other defenders. He is successful in doing so, as the ball carrier must stop his feet in the backfield as Ladler “shows color” on the blocker’s outside shoulder.
Since the FSU wide receiver, Nyquan Murray, turns upfield before he can turn the corner the defense is allowed to pursue in numbers. You can get a sense for how fast the Hokies’ defense is as they close to the football. Rayshard Ashby fills the alley and gets to the ball carrier first, but there are six Hokies in the frame when the football squirts out of Murray’s arms. Good things happen when multiple defenders get to the tackle point.
Khalil Ladler, who allows Ashby to shoot the alley, fights through the block and recovers the fumble. Foster will love that Ladler gets the reward for making the entire play possible.
Another aspect of the game Foster will like is how effectively the defensive line rushed the passer. As noted above, this is the strength of the whole unit and it did not disappoint. When the front four can win their one-on-ones, it opens up the entire defensive playbook and players are allowed to attack instead of react. Ricky Walker, Jerod Hewitt, and Trevon Hill combined to make life absolutely miserable for the Florida State offensive line, and as a result, Francois never felt comfortable in the pocket all night.
Trevon Hill was a living nightmare for Florida State’s left tackle, Jauan Williams, who simply did not have the feet to keep up with Hill’s burst around the edge. On the first play of the second quarter, Hill showed the ability to bend the edge (which NFL scouts love to see by the way) and time the snap count to get to Francois.
Hill jumps out of his stance before Williams begins his kick-slide. He has zero chance of saving Francois other than a horse collar tackle on Hill, and Trevon reaches the quarterback in 2.28 seconds. For reference, per Bill Walsh’s methods, a quarterback’s full five step drop and throw should take about two seconds; Hill nearly beats that time with pure speed.
Because the defensive line was generating pressure by themselves, Foster was not compelled to call his usually exotic pressure schemes in the red zone. On this play, the Hokies choose to rush three and drop eight in coverage, essentially blanketing all the receivers. Hill is still able to flush Francois out of the pocket and put him under duress, all the while fighting through a hold by FSU’s left tackle.
I also need to mention the hustle Jerod Hewitt shows here, chasing down Francois ten yards outside the pocket to force the errant throw. That kind of relentless energy was on display all night and it manifested in inaccurate, hurried attempts by Francois.
As the game wore on, Francois’ protection became markedly worse. For example, FSU’s right tackle here does a complete “Ole” act on Houshun Gaines, who was inches away from a safety.
When the defensive line gets this much pressure consistently, it alters the offense’s game plan and lessens the burden on the secondary. Virginia Tech’s young defensive backs certainly benefitted from the pressure up front, not needing to stick with FSU’s athletic wideouts for very long.
The defensive performance was not perfect, however, as there remains much to improve upon. But as long as Bud Foster keeps preparing his unit like he did for Monday night and the Hokies bring the energy on the field, the defense will be quite alright.