For so long, Virginia Tech football fans became accustomed to a dominant defense that would carry the team through thick and thin. In 2020, the vaunted Lunch Pail Defense has been missing a beat.
Through seven games, the Hokies are allowing 31.6 points per game and 460.7 yards per game. Those figures rank No. 10 and No. 12 respectively in the ACC. With the loss of spring ball and a number of players unavailable in fall camp, it’s taken longer than expected for the players to adjust to Justin Hamilton’s new defensive scheme.
“It’s a little bit more complex defense than Bud’s,” linebacker Dax Hollifield said during Tuesday’s media availability. “We’re very, very close as a unit to being a really good defense, but that’s just football. There’s a handful of plays that you wish you could get back each week, and those are really the signs of a great football team compared to just an average football team.
“If everyone does our job, we’re going to smother people, and we have to take that next step. We’re really close, but a little more practice and a little more beating it in. We’ve got to get right and we also have to practice better throughout the week. We’re getting that right this week.”
The biggest issue for Virginia Tech’s defense is the inability to stop the run. Opponents are averaging 5.2 yards per carry (tied for worst in the ACC) and 202.9 yards rushing (No. 14 in the ACC) against the Hokies. So what about Hamilton’s new scheme isn’t clicking yet in the running game?
“It’s the fits a lot of times are really based on coverage and everything,” Hollifield added. “We play a lot of one high looks a lot of times, which really doesn’t account for the quarterback. Coach Foster’s defense basically read the run the same way every time, which works, but they can scheme it up sometimes to put us in bad position. Now, we have an answer for every play they give us, we just have to read it the right way to get to that. If you’re not focused, if you’re lackadaisical, if you’re not on your assignment every play, then they’ll gash you.”
It’s the lack of focus and failure to play assignment football that has really caused the Hokie defense troubles. Those issues are only compounded when a player is in position and fails to make a tackle in space. It’s an area that head coach Justin Fuente knows the unit needs to address.
“We’re trying our best to teach it and putting our guys in better position,” Fuente said. “I think that can help us more than anything is to be in a little bit better position. Take a little bit of the air out of it. The two hardest things to do in football are tackling in space and blocking in space. Obviously, the more space there is, the more difficult it is to get a skill player on the ground.
“Taking some of the air out of those plays by being in a little better position I think would help. We’re certainly addressing it, we’re not ignoring it, but we can’t go scrimmage. We’re in the middle of it.”
If these concerns are taken care of, the defense should see an improvement in the other area that has caused major issues: third and fourth down conversions by the opponents. In 2020, Virginia Tech is allowing the opposition to convert on 41.2 percent of third downs. The Hokies have also surrendered 16 fourth down conversions on 21 attempts (76.2 conversion rate).
“If we could get off the field, that’s a lot of less yards they would have gotten, a lot of less plays they would have gotten, and points they would have gotten,” Hollifield said. “We’re very close, we’ve just got to execute those crucial downs to get off the field. That’s where we’ve got to do better right now – third down and fourth down, those are the most important plays.”
There’s certainly no rest for the weary. After Malik Cunningham and Malik Willis ran circles around Virginia Tech’s defense the past two weeks, the Hokies may have their biggest challenge ahead of them in Miami’s D’Eriq King.
King is coming off a 536 total yard performance against NC State with five touchdowns. He became the first quarterback to throw for 400+ yards and five touchdowns and also rush for over 100+ yards since he did it back in 2018 with Houston.
“There’s a reason he’s in the Heisman race,” Hollifield said of King. “Last week, when I watched him against NC State, he lit them up. I’m very impressed with him. I don’t think anybody can really simulate that, but we’re doing the best job we can. Just getting everybody else, all the other positions to really mimic what they do. We’re going to be able to do it.”
With King holding the keys to the offense, first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has unleashed an explosive and fast Miami offense that has been missing in recent years. The responsibility falls on everyone on Virginia Tech’s defense to come together in an effort to slow it down.
“The main thing is staying with your receiver,” cornerback Jermaine Waller said. “They have a quarterback who can run and extend plays, which means the play isn’t over at the end of the route. He might run across the field and run back the other way. You have to keep your eyes out of the backfield and be locked in on your job and your job only.
“I’m just doing my job and trusting my other brothers on the field to do their job. If I stay with this receiver, then this guy will close off the space and fill this gap or things like that. We all have to come together as a unit and trust each other.”
When Miami visits Blacksburg on Saturday, many eyes will be on the Hokies to see how they respond to last week’s letdown. After all, Fuente is 14-5 in his career at Virginia Tech following a loss.
“No matter how we feel right now, Miami is coming into our house a week from now,” senior captain Jarrod Hewitt said. “No matter what just happened, so we’re going to have to turn the page. We have two choices. That’s either turn the page or not. It will be evident what we decided to do on Saturday when we play Miami.”