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January 17, 2012

In a bowl season filled with points and yards, Tech's defense transcends the norm

By: Jimmy Robertson

Twenty-four hours after the Sugar Bowl, your editor sat in his recliner and watched West Virginia destroy Clemson, wondering if the Clemson police department really had to wait 24 hours to begin that search for the Tigers’ defense.

WVU became the first team in the history of college football to score 49 points in a half – a half – of a bowl game and finished with 70. That prompted a startling question – what has happened to defense in college football these days?

WVU’s performance and Clemson’s lack thereof should make Tech fans appreciate what Bud Foster and his bunch accomplished against Michigan in a heartbreaking loss to the Wolverines in New Orleans. Saying as much to a good buddy who lives in the hills of Crozet, he responded with this:

“That might have been his finest performance as a defensive coordinator – and he’s had a lot of good ones.”

Sure, Tech lost the game, and this is by no means meant to be a Sugar coating of that, but the Hokies’ defense played well, and the offense played solidly, too, with the exceptions being in the red zone and the two turnovers. Tech’s special teams … well, that’s another story.

But the Hokies’ defense turned out to be contrarians during this bowl season. Tech’s defense gave up 184 total yards – and that’s in an overtime game. No other bowl team gave up fewer yards this bowl season, and only one other held its opponent under 200 yards (Texas gave up 195 vs. Cal), at least as of press time on Jan. 5.

Just look at the scores. Oregon and Wisconsin played the highest-scoring Rose Bowl ever. Stanford and Oklahoma State combined for 1,000 yards and 79 points in the Fiesta. Toledo edged Air Force 42-41 in the Military Bowl. And to top things off, Baylor and Washington played the highest-scoring bowl game ever, a 67-56 defensive taffy pull in the Alamo Bowl.

Heck, even Louisiana Lafayette racked up 568 yards and 32 points in a win over San Diego State in the New Orleans Bowl.

Most of these pyrotechnics come about because of the spread offense, which has become the rage in college football these days. Teams spread the field with four and five receivers. Back in the day, if you were 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, you played defensive end or tackle. These days, you’re a receiver.

More importantly, quarterbacks move more, with many serving as a glorified tailback. In the old days, defenses played 11 on 10 because the quarterback wasn’t a threat to run.

Not anymore.

I think right now it's challenging because of the spread offenses and just the dynamic of that position at quarterback,” Foster said when asked before the Sugar Bowl about spread offenses. “That guy can present a lot of problems, not just with throwing the football, but also running and doing different things. You have to be very sound in your assignments and your gap responsibilities and then be good players in space.

“I think that’s kind of what’s happening to college football. Not that I’m going to say it’s basketball, but it’s becoming that kind of game. People are putting a lot of great athletes in space, and you’ve got to have great defenders on our side of the ball to negate that type of offense.”

Tech’s defenders certainly negated Michigan’s spread attack. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson rushed for just 13 yards – a season low for him – and completed just 9 of 21 passes. He came in averaging nearly 100 yards rushing per game and had thrown for more than 2,000, while completing 56 percent of his passes.

“We didn’t do anything special,” free safety Eddie Whitley said. “We didn’t shadow him or do anything like that. We trusted our defense and played base [defense]. That’s what we did.”

Certainly, though, Tech fans are frustrated. That’s understandable. The Hokies have come up short in some big games over the past several years. Even head coach Frank Beamer acknowledged that.

“Well, we didn’t get a win,” Beamer said when asked how he felt his team represented the ACC in the Sugar Bowl. “We need wins … We haven’t done as well as we want to in these BCS games. But you give Michigan credit.”

That said, Tech fans should give the Hokies’ defense credit, too. That group certainly earned it, and maybe, too, the Hokies as a team. An 11-3 record isn’t shabby. At press time, only 16 teams in the country had won at least 11 games.

After all, things could be worse. Just ask Clemson.