Two sequences defined Virginia Tech’s defensive dominance in Thursday night’s 17-10 victory at Georgia Tech. Both came on short yardage and showcased a strength against the run that, while long a program staple, had been missing in recent seasons.
The first unfolded late in the second quarter with the Hokies leading 14-3. This had been their most complete half since a 24-0, post-recess whitewash of Duke last October, but the Yellow Jackets were driving near midfield.
If Georgia Tech punches in a touchdown there, Virginia Tech leads by a mere four, hardly reflective of the game’s tone. But on third-and-1 from the Jackets’ 45, middle linebacker Jack Tyler smothered quarterback Vad Lee for a 3-yard loss, forcing a punt.
Fast forward to midway through the fourth quarter. Georgia Tech trails 17-10 and faces third-and-2 at its 33.
Running the veer option, Lee handed the ball inside to David Sims. Tackle Derrick Hopkins, unblockable much of the evening, stuffed Sims for no gain.
Ever stubborn, Jackets coach Paul Johnson disdained the punt, and on fourth-and-2, Tyler and end James Gayle teamed to stop Sims a yard shy of the first down.
Georgia Tech entered the game averaging 345.3 rushing yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry. Virginia Tech limited the Jackets to 129 and 3.1, by far the Hokies’ best defense in six encounters with Johnson’s deceptive offense.
Through five games, nearly half the regular season, Virginia Tech (4-1, 1-0 ACC) is allowing a conference-best 2.7 yards per carry, a 25-percent improvement from last season’s 3.6.
(Unaffected by volume of attempts, yards per carry is a more revealing metric than yards per game.)
If sustained, the 2.7 would match the Hokies’ best of the last decade, posted in 2007. But in the five following seasons, opponents averaged 3.2, 3.6, 4.7 and 3.2 yards per carry. The 4.7 in 2010 was the worst in Frank Beamer’s 27 seasons as coach.
The program’s best under Beamer is 2.0 in 1995, the year Foster shared coordinator duties with Rod Sharpless and Tech rallied from an 0-2 start to win the Big East and earn its first major postseason invitation – the Hokies upset Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
Like that ’95 defense with the likes of Cornell Brown, J.C. Price and Jim Baron, this bunch is strongest up front. The 311-pound Hopkins and 296-pound Luther Maddy are mobile wide bodies inside, while ends Gayle and J.R. Collins bring uncommon speed and quickness to the edge.
With Tech’s defensive front occupying opposing offensive linemen, sure tacklers such as Tyler, Tariq Edwards and Kyle Fuller are free to plug any gaps.
Now, in a cool scheduling quirk, Tech faces consecutive home games against opponents that gouged Foster’s group last season, especially on the ground.
The primary movers and shakers from those games, the Tar Heels’ Gio Bernard and Panthers’ Rushel Shell, subsequently exited, Bernard to the NFL, Shell to West Virginia as a transfer. Bernard’s 262 yards on 23 carries were the most ever by an individual against Tech; Shell’s 157 on 23 were a breakout for a true freshman. Moreover, Bernard’s best blocker last season, All-America guard Jonathan Cooper, also graduated to the NFL.
But Carolina and Pitt are not without capable backs.
A.J. Blue is no Bernard, but he did rush for 57 yards on eight carries (7.1 average) last year against Virginia Tech. He’s averaging a modest 4.1 yards per rush this season, and the Tar Heels’ 3.0 team average ranks last in the ACC.
Conversely, Panthers true freshman James Conner, recruited originally as a defensive end, is averaging 88.2 yards per game and a robust 5.7 per carry – Virginia limited Conner to 27 yards on 15 runs Saturday.
Virginia Tech’s challenge is to sustain its early-season excellence as the schedule toughens. The ACC’s four leading rushers – Boston College’s Andre Williams, Miami’s Duke Johnson (100 yards on 11 carries last season against the Hokies), Conner and Maryland’s Brandon Ross – await.
Here are the season-by-season yards per carry for Tech’s opponents since Foster became coordinator:
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