After both the special teams and offense failed to seal the deal last Saturday against East Carolina, the task fell on the broad shoulders of the defense.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
The defense rose to the occasion. Two plays, two sacks, a safety and a win: the lunch pail way.
“Great back end pressure making (ECU quarterback Shane Carden) hold it, snugging up receivers,” defensive line coach Charley Wiles said, referring to what allowed defensive end James Gayle to make the game’s decisive play. “We’ve have some older guys that can get pressure. James finally had a game that we’ve been pushing him to have, and that’s the biggest thing is making the quarterback hold the ball.”
The Hokies’ defense is the second best in the nation, allowing just over 190 yards per game. Their seven interceptions — three of which came at the hands of true freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson — are tied for the second most in the country.
“Everybody knows about (the rankings). Everybody’s heard, but honestly those are our expectations here,” said senior linebacker and captain Jack Tyler. “We expect to be the top defense in the country.”
In the past five games, the Hokies defense hasn’t permitted an opposing offense to gain more than 217 total yards of offense. Opponents averaged 197 yards per game against Tech in that time.
Perhaps more obvious than in any year prior, the defense is the greatest determining factor between a win and a loss, a trend that doesn’t seem likely to stop until Thomas, the rest of the offense and new coordinator Scot Loeffler coagulate.
Since the beginning of the 2012 season — after offensive stars Jarrett Boykin, Danny Coale and David Wilson left Blacksburg — offensive production has been relatively non-existent. Many attribute the lack of offensive success to quarterback Logan Thomas, but the blame more appropriately falls to the lack of playmakers surrounding him.
The non existent offense led to a 7-6 season in 2012 — the worst in 20 years of Tech football history. But it was a year that could’ve easily been worse had defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s squad not saved the day.
So far in 2013, the story has been more of the same.
Against No. 1 Alabama in late August, the Hokies surrendered 35 points. Only 14 of the 35 came against Tech’s defense.
“I think it just comes with Coach Foster,” said senior defensive end J.R. Collins. “He spends a lot of time watching film and coming up with a good game plan and he just forces us to execute in practice.”
“I feel the offense is coming along,” defensive end James Gayle said. “Everybody’s not yet used to the scheme and there’s a lot of young guys but they’ll step up and we’ll have both offense and defense. I don’t think we really bailed them out. They could’ve put more points on the board (against ECU), but I feel like they did a good job of just driving the field.”
Collins and Gayle bookend a defensive line that sacked Carden seven times last weekend, a product of both tremendous pressure up front and lockdown coverage in the secondary. The rare, irreplaceable combination forced Carden to hold the ball in the pocket longer than any quarterback would like, let alone one facing a daunting Hokies defensive line.
“That’s always the case,” Gayle said. “Good coverage makes for good rushing. Good rushing makes for good coverage.”
Gayle, who recorded two sacks against ECU, and his fellow linemen won’t stop after yet another great defensive performance, though.
“(Coach Wiles) told me something (this week). ‘You can’t just do it one week and think you’re great,’” Gayle said. “He’s good at making sure we don’t have big heads. We’re all mature — we all know we have a lot of room to grow and the season just started.”
This week the Hokies take on Marshall — their final regular season competitor from outside the ACC — and it will be the Hokies’ toughest test yet. Unlike the Crimson Tide, who were heavily favored over the Hokies, Tech will be favored heading into Sunday’s contest.
Expectation, however, also provides an opportunity for disappointment.
The Thundering Herd’s fifth ranked defense, allowing just 252.7 yards per game, will focus first on stopping Tech’s running game. Allowing an average of 67 yards on the ground, if the Herd defense can stop the run they will exploit the weakest facet of Tech’s game.
On the other side of the ball, the Herd is equally as proficient. They run over 91 plays per game, second most in the nation.
“I’m counting on it to be fast-tempo,” Foster said. “They’re gonna be faster than ECU. They’ll run a couple plays back to back. We did some no-huddles (this week). I think having played ECU helps us.”