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Scouting Report: Virginia Tech Defense

This isn’t a vintage Bud Foster unit.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Long-time VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster faces an unenviable challenge in slowing a Clemson offense which — thanks to the budding run game — suddenly looks like the unstoppable unit long anticipated. Even if this weren’t the case, Foster’s scheme has long been predicated on taking away the run by crowding the box and aggressively attacking the line of scrimmage.

In short, Foster aims to do what every defensive coordinator professes, but rarely achieves on the same level of sustained success: stop the run, force low-percentage throws, and pressure the quarterback. When I watched this defense the first thing I noticed was a drop-off in talent relative to VT’s stretch of ACC dominance a decade ago, but there are good athletes on the backend and big men up front to compensate for a lack pure athleticism at linebacker and rush end.

Of all the games on VT’s schedule, the matchups against UNC and Notre Dame intrigued me the most. Each have talent and scheme similar to Clemson, and each were wins in which something must’ve gone right against two expected 1st round quarterbacks...until I remembered VT played UNC in the hurricane and there’s little to glean from any games on the east coast that day. So, the focus will remain on what Notre Dame was able to exploit in their loss to the Hokies.

Against the Irish, Foster employed mostly nickel (3rd cornerback) and opted to try and stuff the run with safeties playing in, but compensated by dropping his corners into soft, soft coverage:

Showing soft man cover 1 double LB bullets; became cover 3 nickel fire at the snap. Notre Dame sees a 6 man box and doesn’t check out of the run. The nickel firing adds a 7th man, not counting the free safety already playing shallow at only 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
VT disguised the pressure (bringing the nickel while the Mike and Will dropped into underneath zones) and essentially blitzed right into the run lane. But a talent deficiency at Mike linebacker led to big yardage when ND bounced outside.

VT will bring pressure against both the run and pass, but Clemson is capable of beating it either way. Gallman can similarly beat these linebackers one on one; and if VT offers this sort of cushion to Clemson’s receivers, pressure won’t get to Watson before he throws a quick slant or out. Tony Elliott has proven adept at taking what is given, if nothing else. It’s not a given that VT will choose to defend Clemson like they did Notre Dame, but it’s conceivable given their desire to take away the run and the wariness Mike Williams and company inspire out wide.

Another vulnerability can be found in how VT chooses to defend the zone read: Foster prefers to have his defenders attack the running back based on the logic that the QB is an inferior runner. It’s sound in theory, but VT has been gashed by quarterbacks far less agile than Watson. While I feel Watson’s legs are largely overblown as an indicator for Clemson’s success (Gallman is the true indicator), it would seem that Watson will indeed have plenty of opportunities on designed runs and reads:

As usual, the difference between a comfortable win and a close win/loss is the running game. VT fans have reason to fear Watson’s legs, but it’s Gallman who makes the Clemson offense truly dominant. A defense stronger in the back than up front should only encourage Clemson to lean on its resurgent ground game, and a defense which needs to send extra men in order to pressure the quarterback does not bode well for the Hokies, no matter how Clemson’s run game fares. I won’t call for a shootout; Clemson is better on both sides of the ball and should separate. But if these uptempo spread offenses turn this game into a track meet, it’s the VT defense which will make fewer stops.

Clemson 45, Virginia Tech 28