MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It’s still 2 1/2 months until the once-annual football series against Virginia Tech resumes at FedExField in Landover, Maryland, but it’s never too early to take a quick peek at our old friends from Blacksburg.
A lot has changed since we last saw the Hokies in person in Morgantown on Oct. 1, 2005, but there remains one constant 12 years hence - veteran defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
When Justin Fuente succeeded Frank Beamer as Virginia Tech’s coach in 2016, one of the first things he did was keep Foster on board to run his defense.
Foster will begin his 31st season at Virginia Tech this fall and his 23rd as Tech’s defensive coordinator and Foster’s Hokie defenses have always been known for their gambling, aggressive style of play predicated on stopping the run by outnumbering blockers and attacking offenses.
The 4-3 scheme he used for years relied on gap control to funnel ball carriers to preferred areas where an unblocked defender was almost always free to make plays in a confined space. The third linebacker in his scheme, called the “whip,” was usually athletic enough to handle pass coverage responsibilities while also helping out with the run.
But last year Foster began transitioning his third linebacker into more of a rover defensive back, turning a traditional 4-3 scheme into a 4-2-5 alignment. The reason he did this was two-fold: it better suited the spread offensive attacks most teams are running today, and it also gave the Hokies the freedom to recruit an extra defensive back in each signing class.
“It’s all about creating flexibility on the back end,” West Virginia football radio analyst Jed Drenning explained. “You are going to see a wide variety of formations and guys that can plant a foot and make plays in space, so this makes sense to give them more defensive versatility.”
After ranking 21st in total defense in 2014, Foster’s unit slipped to 44th in 2015 by giving up an average of 369.8 yards per game. Foster said before last season began that he wanted to disguise coverages more often and give offenses some different looks than just lining up in predominantly man coverage.
There were too many instances when his corners were caught with their backs to the ball carrier leading to big plays.
“I think the biggest thing is getting more eyes on the football,” Foster said last August. “There can be a play where there may be a crease in the defense with the way offenses are nowadays, but if there are eyes on the ball, then it’s not going to be a big play.”
The changes Foster made helped dramatically in 2016,the Hokies ranking 18th in total defense by allowing just 340.7 yards per game, but his gambling style still surrendered big plays.
Opposing offenses generated 64 plays of 20 yards or longer, or roughly 4 ½ big plays per game, which ranked the Hokies near the bottom of the ACC in that category. When it came to the big-play variety (30 yards or longer), his defense allowed 30 of those last year, or a little more than two per game.
If you recall prior West Virginia games against Virginia Tech, WVU was most successful against Foster’s defenses when the Mountaineers were able to hit big plays against it.
Quincy Wilson's 42-yard touchdown run broke open the 2002 WVU-Virginia Tech game played in Blacksburg. All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Think back to Quincy Wilson’s third-quarter touchdown run down in Blacksburg in 2002 that broke open a tight game, or Travis Garvin’s backbreaking 93-yard touchdown reception from Rasheed Marshall in Morgantown in 2003 that flipped the game upside down.
When Foster gambles and takes chances - and he will - that’s when West Virginia must take advantage of those opportunities and win one-on-one battles out in space.
That means when the Hokies are in man coverage, receivers must find a way to get open, pass protectors must keep quarterback Will Grier
upright and Grier must make the throws downfield.
Or, when West Virginia chooses to give the ball to elusive running back Justin Crawford
when Tech is in man or shows a two-high safety look, he must make that unblocked defender miss and get to the second level where those Hokie DBs are running with their backs to the football.
Of course, this is much easier said than done because Foster’s defenses are always loaded with stout defensive linemen, who can beat blocks and get to the passer, with aggressive and sure-tackling linebackers behind them and outstanding athletes in the back end.
Foster’s scheme is also versatile enough to dip back into its past, as it did against Ohio State in 2014 when he used a “Bear front” to totally befuddle the Buckeyes in a 35-21 Hokie victory. Foster was at it again last year in the Belk Bowl against Arkansas when his response to the Hogs’ old-school 21-personnel look (two backs, one tight end and two receivers) was to use the old eight-man front he was once known for in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Tech gave up 24 points in the first half and then a goose egg in the second half in an impressive 35-24 victory over the Razorbacks.
If you recall, the scheme Foster used against Arkansas was similar to the one Phil Elmassian once tried to play here at WVU in 2001, by the way. Virginia Tech had more than enough guys up front to play that style - West Virginia didn’t, which is why it went to a variant of the 3-3-5 stack defense that Tony Gibson uses today.
Ironically, what Foster is doing by using an extra defensive back is exactly what Gibson has been doing at WVU since 2014 - although Foster’s nickel look with a fourth defensive lineman is a bigger version than West Virginia’s three-D-linemen/five-DB look.
So, what will Foster show the Mountaineers on Sept. 3?
Will he play mostly man coverage and gamble that his big guys up front are better than West Virginia’s?
Will he play more zone coverage or will he disguise his looks, playing a combination of man and zone?
How much of a factor will former WVU secondary coach Brian Mitchell’s knowledge of West Virginia’s personnel and schemes play into things?
And, what answers will Foster have for the virtual grab-bag of options Dana Holgorsen now has at his disposal?
Holgorsen has four explosive playmakers at running back, who can run and catch the ball out of the backfield; he’s got experienced tight ends and fullbacks, he’s got plenty of wide receivers who can make plays downfield and a big-league quarterback holding the straw to stir the drink.
Plus, he’s got a new guy calling the plays in Jake Spavital.
All of this makes the 2017 lid-lifter against the Hokies a very compelling football game to watch; better yet, a compelling football game to watch in person.