Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Virginia Tech's mix-and-match defense holds tight

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The ball was jarred loose by a 187-pound linebacker who's not really a linebacker. Kyle Fuller plays one out of need, and it turns out he's really good at it.

The fumble was recovered by another linebacker - this one a former walk-on. Jack Tyler is on the field only because one of the team leaders went down with a season-ending injury a few weeks back. But time and again Saturday, Tyler was in the right place to make a big play.

We need to appreciate what we're seeing here with Virginia Tech's defense. We can forget the notion that this unit eventually would collapse under the weight of injuries and positional shuffling.

Nope. It's getting stronger.

Tech's 38-0 victory over Virginia on Saturday was a three-hour celebration of Bud Foster's brilliance and his defenders' resilience. The Hokies held their rivals to 241 total yards - the lowest output by a Tech opponent since the second week of the season.

The Cavaliers couldn't run it, even with a beefy, experienced offensive line that was opposed by Tech's two-frosh rotation of Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall in the middle.

"I'll give our defensive front a lot of credit; they hung in there," Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "We've been doing that a lot this year, just kind of hanging in there."

They have. It's been a weekly mix-and-match exercise for this Tech defense, which has replaced three starters lost to injury and has made numerous tweaks to its positions and schemes to fit the personnel available.

But this game was vintage Hokies defensively - forcing turnovers, pressuring the quarterback, stuffing the ground game.

"I actually was a little let down," said Tech defensive end James Gayle, who recorded two of Tech's four sacks. "I thought it was going to be a tougher game."

Commonwealth Cup 2011

Virginia Tech 38, UVa 0

Didn't everyone? And perhaps it would have been, too, had Tyler not recovered that fumble caused by Fuller shortly before halftime. Or perhaps the momentum would have shifted earlier, had UVa picked up the first down on a fourth-and-2 from the Tech 6-yard line on its second drive of the game.

UVa coach Mike London opted to go for it to try to send a message; instead, his team received one. Tyler tripped up Kevin Parks at the line of scrimmage for no gain.

Scott Stadium fell silent.

"I appreciate their philosophy that they want to hammer you," Beamer said. "But I appreciate our guys who want to hammer 'em back."

Still, it's more than just desire. Tyler had studied film all week on UVa's tendencies. The coaches pointed out that when UVa's linemen widen their splits, they often run an isolation play.

Tyler recognized the alignment and prepared himself for that eventuality.

And he got it.

"It goes back to Coach Foster," Tyler said. "You could throw anybody into my position and he'd do well. He's such a good coach; you just do what he tells you and you're right 100 percent of the time."

The longest rushing play by a UVa running back on Saturday was five yards. Read that sentence again. Five! This from a team that ranked third in the ACC (and second among non-Paul Johnson-coached teams) in rushing offense.

By the midway point of the third quarter, the Cavaliers trailed 21-0 and had to abandon their strength.

"When you know it's a pass, defense is a heck of a lot easier," Tyler said. "We put them in a lot of situations like that today."

And when they finished capitalizing on them, the Hokies had their eighth straight win in the series and were scooping turf from an opposing stadium for the 13th straight time.

"There's no greater feeling," Tech defensive back Jayron Hosley said. "We came out and shut a good team out. It's the small things that matter in big games like this. We came out, fit our gaps, coverage was tight."

And they left their rivals with the familiar sting, the one that comes after running face-first into Tech's defense.

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email