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January 11, 2013

Tech defense saves best for last with dominating performance against Rutgers

By: Jimmy Robertson

Several days after Tech’s 13-10 overtime victory over Rutgers in the Russell Athletic Bowl, as most were rushing to purchase champagne to ring in the New Year, a friend submitted an email somewhat stating the obvious.

“Other than dropping those interceptions, did Bud’s defense do ANYTHING wrong?” he wrote, referring to the bowl game.

“Bud,” of course, being Bud Foster, the architect of the Hokies’ defense. The short, simple, sweet and resounding answer to my friend’s question is “No.”

Tech’s defense held Rutgers to just 196 yards of offense and three measly points, and basically carried the Hokies overall on a night in which the offense struggled mightily to put together consistent drives. The defense came up with the play of the game when Antone Exum’s interception and return set up the Hokies’ only touchdown, one that tied things up after Tech trailed 10-0 in the fourth quarter and ultimately sent the game into overtime.

All told, the Hokies held the Scarlet Knights to 67 yards rushing, sacked Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova three times, forced a couple of turnovers and held Rutgers to 3-of-21 on third-down conversions. The Scarlet Knights had just one first down in the fourth quarter and overtime.

“I think we had a good game plan going in,” Tech mike linebacker Jack Tyler said. “I think Coach Foster did a good job with this game plan. He put us in spots to make plays and we executed well and made those plays when we needed to.”

“I can’t commend the defense more,” Tech quarterback Logan Thomas agreed. “That’s kind of how it’s been all season.”

The performance arguably served as the Tech defense’s best performance this season. After all, the 196 yards marked the fewest gained by a Tech opponent in 2012.

It also served as a climax to a great run by that unit to end the 2012 campaign. In fact, most of Hokie Nation was blinded by the offense’s inconsistencies, losing sight of an outstanding second half of the season by the defense.

In the final seven games, including the bowl game, Tech’s defense allowed an average of 284.4 yards per game, including just 80.4 yards rushing. Tech’s seven opponents in that span converted on just 22 percent of their third-down situations.

Some high-powered attacks struggled against the Hokies. Clemson finished with a season-low 295 yards against Tech. Florida State amassed just 311 yards – its second-worst output this season.

That’s not to hide poor performances against Pittsburgh and North Carolina, two games in which Tech’s defense struggled, or the last-drive letdown against Cincinnati. But once players settled into roles, particularly in the secondary, the Hokies got much better as the season went along. In Tech’s three-game winning streak to end the season, the defense did not allow any of the three teams more than 300 yards.

“We’ve had those few let-ups. We go a whole game and play lights out, but four or five plays, we just lose it,” Tech backer Bruce Taylor said, referring to the defense’s play in the second half of the season. “That didn’t happen against Rutgers.”

Tech and Rutgers were the only two bowl teams to hold their opponents to less than 200 yards – both offenses finished with 196 yards. But the Hokies did this last year, too, holding Michigan to 184 total yards. Only Alabama, Tech and Texas held their bowl opponents to less than 200 yards a year ago.

The Hokies now head into what figures to be an interesting offseason. Tech finished with a winning season for the 20th straight year, but also suffered through its worst season in 20 years. Multiple changes could be in the works.

Tech’s defense, though, should be the constant. Foster, who guided Tech’s defense to a top-20 finish in total defense for the 12th time, isn’t going anywhere, and the Hokies return 10 starters, pending the decisions of a couple of juniors who may bolt early for the NFL. Taylor, the leader, stands as the only one departing for sure, and he’s already offered his advice to the ones he leaves behind.

“They (the players) saw what was wrong with our team,” he said. “We’ve had multiple talks about what we need to do and how to do it and how it was hard to get that done this year at certain points. I told them to start early, start the leadership early, so that guys will know what to expect coming in this spring and this summer.”

It’s the time of year to ring out the old and bring in the new. Hopefully, Tech’s defense will stay the same.