Justin Hamilton’s defense hasn’t shined much during his first season as the Hokies’ defensive coordinator, but the unit finally looked solid on Saturday, holding the explosive Miami offense under 400 yards.
“We really just focused on our fundamentals and just locking into the play calls,” safety Devin Taylor said. “Throughout the week, we did a lot of tackling circuits and just focused on our responsibilities.”
The shift in the defense’s production may have been a product of simplifying the defense to be more similar to what Bud Foster ran during his illustrious career in Blacksburg.
“We kind of went back the defense we ran with Bud a little bit, and then we switched around to a little JHam defense,” linebacker Dax Hollifield said. “It was a little bit of a mix, but it felt good running the old stuff; I really like that stuff. We were just playing really fast, and I believe that when you play fast, you make a lot of plays. That’s the key to the game, I think.”
Dax Finally Breaks Out
Running a system more like Foster’s seemed to help Hollifield stand out after having a lackluster season up to this point. On Saturday, he boasted a team-high 13 tackles, including a sack, for his best game of 2020.
“I finally got my shot and made the most of it. I think the key to playing the best on Saturday is winning throughout the week with your film work and practice,” Hollifield said. “I think that’s the key to playing great. I try to do that every week.”
Hollifield had been caught in limbo for most of the season, basically as the backup on the depth chart at both linebacker positions. Senior Rayshard Ashby almost never comes off of the field at mike, while Alan Tisdale has shined on the weak side over the last few games.
“I was put at will (backer) my freshman year because that’s where they needed me and I got grandfathered in there, but after my freshman year, I knew that Alan would eventually take that spot because he’s so athletic. He’s insane in space and can make so many plays,” Hollifield said. “I knew I would eventually transition back to mike, and I have really accepted that role of being able to play both.
Working as a rotational player, Hollifield had to find new ways to impact the game, including his contributions on special teams and on the sideline hyping up his teammates until he got his chance to step back into a starting role.
According to Head Coach Justin Fuente, Tisdale missed time in practice ahead of the Miami game due to a “non-COVID” illness. Dax took most of the reps in practice at will (backer) and was able to take advantage of his opportunity.
The Defense Tries to Keep It Rolling Against Pitt
Having one solid game won’t be enough for Tech, especially since it came in a losing effort. The key for the Hokies will be stringing these types of performances together down the stretch.
“I think football is a confidence game as well. When you have a lot of confidence, you’re going to play well, but that doesn’t mean you stop preparing,” Hollifield said. “We still have to do the same things this week in preparation to play well. It definitely is a confidence thing, and I think with us having that type of game on Saturday, it’s going to help us moving forward.”
Hollifield hinted that Tech may elect to have a similar game plan for Pittsburgh on Saturday as they did against Miami. This includes a mixture of the man-free defense that Foster used to run and Hamilton’s zone blitz packages.
Stopping the Pittsburgh offense won’t be an easy task for the Hokies on Saturday as quarterback Kenny Pickett has proven to be a top-level passer in the ACC. He plays differently than Miami’s D’Eriq King, but can be just as dangerous if the Tech defense gives him the opportunities.
His main target is true freshman Jordan Addison, who has already eclipsed 50 receptions and over 600 yards in his first season with the Panthers. Containing him and other weapons on the outside will be crucial on Saturday.
“They have playmakers over there,” Taylor said. “They have some receivers that can run and a quarterback that can throw the ball all over the field.”
The Hokies look to avoid a repeat performance of what happened last time they traveled to play at Heinz Field. In 2018, the Panthers racked up nearly 500 yards rushing on their way to a 52-22 victory, the third defeat in a row for Tech.
“We were just young. We went down there and played against a bunch of men who wanted it, and they were watching that play from the year before, the goal line stand, all year,” Hollifield said. “They wanted blood, and we were a bunch of little kids going out there, and obviously you saw what happened. That’s in the back of my mind because I haven’t been there since.”
Just like in 2018, the Hokies head to Pitt at 4-4 on a two-game losing streak. With the season trending in the wrong direction, the responsibility will be on the defense to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself and Tech turns its season around.