BLACKSBURG, Va. — After seeing his defense get uncharacteristically abused by North Carolina on Saturday, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster offered a simple solution for the Hokies' woes.
"We've got to get back to the basics," Foster said after Tech's 48-34 loss to the Tar Heels, a game in which UNC piled up 533 total yards, including 339 rushing the ball.
The past two weeks, Foster and the Hokies (3-3, 1-1 ACC) have played more nickel defense than their usual base package, with safety Michael Cole taking the place of the outside linebacker. The move gives Tech more coverage options downfield against spread offenses, but Foster said it also may be the leaving the Hokies out of their element.
"It gets us away from what we want to," Foster said. "You're moving people around because you're trying to help by formations or personnel groupings. We just need to ... get back to doing things that we do."
Touted in the preseason as potentially one of Foster's best units ever at Tech, the Hokies' defense instead has been one of the most unpleasant surprises in the ACC six games into the year.
"I think we need to go back and just simplify things for a lot of younger guys," senior linebacker Bruce Taylor said after Saturday's loss. "I feel like we're doing too much."
That sentiment is a bit surprising when you consider the Hokies returned nine starters from last year's defense before linebacker Tariq Edwards (leg) was injured.
And new starting linebacker Jack Tyler and safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett have played fairly well.
Still, Tech ranks sixth in the ACC in defense, giving up 390 yards per game, and is seventh against the run, allowing 196.7 yards per outing on the ground. UNC and Pittsburgh amassed more than 500 total yards of offense on the normally stout Hokies.
"We've got to make plays in space," Foster said. "That's what we're not doing. Our defense is designed and most defenses are designed, to have a free hitter. And when you have a free hitter there, you'd like him to make the play. Right now, we're not making the play."
Tech isn't forcing turnovers either. The nine it has come up with are more than only three teams in the conference.
Foster said the nickel defense takes the Hokies' out of their blitz package. Tech is eighth in the ACC in sacks with eight, half as many as co-league leaders Florida State and North Carolina State.
"I think there are some things we can fix," Tech coach Frank Beamer said Monday. "We need to get them fixed."
After building a reputation as one of the top defensive coaches in the country, Foster doesn't have to worry about being pushed out, the way former Virginia coach Al Groh was dumped as Georgia Tech's defensive coordinator Monday.
Foster has been with Beamer his entire career, playing and coaching for Beamer at Murray State before coming with Beamer to Blacksburg. He became the Hokies' defensive coordinator in 1995 and his record since then speaks for itself.
Even a gnarly, expletive-laced meeting with the media last week didn't do much to dampen Tech fans reverence for the man who calls the Hokies' defenses.
But Foster does have to worry about getting his defense right, and quickly. Tech hosts out-of-nowhere ACC contender Duke (5-1, 2-0) on Saturday. The Blue Devils are tied for fourth in the league in scoring, putting up 37.8 points per game.
Foster said, beyond the scheme issues, he sees something missing.
"Playing with passion, having confidence, having trust in each other," Foster said. "I think that's an issue right now a little bit. I think guys are looking around rather than going and making a play."
Foster said he will stress to his unit that it can't rest on the laurels of past defenses at Tech. It needs to forge its own identity. And right now, that isn't a very impressive one.
"We have to go earn our success," Foster said. "How we've made it happen is we've earned it by playing hard. There's been teams that probably have been more talented than us in the past, but we out-willed them, we out-efforted them, we outfought them, whatever it may be. We have to get back to doing those things."
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