Thursday, November 04, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hokies defense must be physical, tackle

BLACKSBURG -- As the kids say these days -- some of them, anyway -- "Don't get it twisted."

Tonight's game is not a referendum on Bud Foster's ability to coach defense. It's not a litmus test of his adaptation skills. When a defensive coordinator has done what he's done for 15 years, churning out top-10 unit after top-10 unit, you can start to assume a few things.

No. 1: That loss to Georgia Tech last year infuriated Foster to no end.

No. 2: The comments from Jackets coach Paul Johnson last fall -- "They got out-schemed. So it's illegal to out-scheme them, I guess" -- ticked him off even more.

No. 3: The trip to Iowa this past offseason to learn new ways to attack the option was productive.

No. 4: Tech's defense will be mentally prepared tonight.

But that doesn't mean the Hokies will win. Not necessarily.

What we sometimes forget about the Yellow Jackets is this: They don't have to trick you to beat you.

Johnson's unusual offensive system tends to distract everybody from the talent of the players. And Georgia Tech has talented players -- even a few not named Joshua Nesbitt.

That's why Anthony Allen -- and Virginia Tech's response to him -- is the key to tonight's game.

Casual fans might not know who Allen is, and Johnson probably prefers it that way. But Allen could be the most physical runner the Hokies encounter all season. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, he's built like Darren Evans. And he attacks the line with similar ferocity.

Allen erupted for 195 yards and three touchdowns against Virginia last month. He's averaging 100 yards per game in conference play and ranks third in the league in rushing overall.

"That's a big back," Tech defensive tackle John Graves said. "And he runs downhill."

In other words, he's the kind of player who can give the Hokies a lot of trouble -- particularly if the defensive minds are swimming in schematic cesspools. The most important thing to remember won't be positioning or reading keys as much as it'll be this: When you do find the ballcarrier, make sure you bring him down.

"The tackling doesn't change; it's still fundamentals," Graves said. "Get your head across, wrap up, run your feet."

Can Virginia Tech do that consistently tonight? We don't know. The Hokies have enjoyed spells of outstanding defense this year, but missed tackles have been a frequent issue.

The six-game winning streak they've compiled has been the quietest in program history, mainly because of the suspect caliber of competition and because of all that was thrown away against James Madison. Healing takes time. Re-energizing a fan base with BCS dreams requires persistence.

Tonight, that shouldn't be a problem. Tech's first night game since Boise State will be contested in front of an amped crowd and a national television audience. The chilly weather should suit the hosts.

The conditions are right. We'll see if the response is.

"We've just got to be physical, that's what it comes down to," Graves said. "We know they are. We know they're going to come downhill and they're going to come out and play their most physical game, as they do every week. We've just got to be able to match their physicality."

Graves is on target. Tonight isn't a referendum on Foster or systems or anything else.

It's a referendum on the toughness of the 2010 Virginia Tech defense.

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