As a graduate assistant at Virginia in the mid-1990s and then the Cavaliers’ defensive coordinator from 2001 to 2005, Al Golden got to know longtime rival Virginia Tech pretty well.
So he knows a good defense by coordinator Bud Foster when he sees one. And this year’s Hokies defense — which features a starting 11 with 309 combined career starts — is one that has Golden’s attention.
“One of the best defenses, if not the best defense, we’ll see all year,” Golden said before rattling off a few eye-opening Hokies stats. “Twenty-eight sacks, 29 percent on third down, 16.9 points per game, a world of experience on defense.
“They’re great at turnovers (20 total), get interceptions (17). They’re very disruptive (81 quarterback hurries). They’re hitting your quarterback, making your quarterback throw under duress. That’s as good a secondary as I may have ever seen from Virginia Tech. They’re big and strong up front, play a lot of guys. On the back end, they’re really talented.
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“This is a Bud Foster defense. It has his fingerprints all over it.”
Coming off a humbling loss at Florida State and losing star tailback Duke Johnson to a season-ending ankle injury, the 14th-ranked Hurricanes (7-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) know they’ve got their hands full with the Hokies (6-3, 3-2) on Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium.
Even though the University of Miami beat Virginia Tech 30-12 last season, it wasn’t an offensive outburst that put the Canes over the top. UM was actually outgained by the Hokies 421-347. UM parlayed two big special-teams plays — a blocked punt and an 81-yard kickoff return by Johnson that set up a short field — to jump out to a quick 14-3 lead.
For the most part, Foster’s defense controlled the tempo as the Hurricanes converted just once on 12 third-down plays.
“They have a great front four,” said UM left guard Jonathan Feliciano, who will line up opposite a Hokies front that features four players — ends James Gayle (6-4, 255 pounds) and J.R. Collins (6-2, 248) and tackles Luther Maddy (6-1, 296) and Derrick Hopkins (6-0, 311) — with 127 combined career starts.
“They load the box a lot. Running on them is going to be difficult. I know they’re only averaging 103 yards a game. They’re top five in nearly every category. This is going to be a good challenge for us.”
Miami’s offensive line, which has only allowed eight sacks this season (tied for 15th) and 18 quarterback hurries, knows Virginia Tech is going to be gunning for quarterback Stephen Morris with Johnson out. The Hokies, tied for fourth nationally in sacks, have produced 81 quarterback hurries this season and aren’t afraid to bring extra pass rushers because of the talent they have in their secondary.
Virginia Tech’s pass defense ranks No. 1 in fewest yards allowed (150.6 yards per game) and has allowed the third-lowest completion percentage (47.5) in the nation. Senior cornerbacks Kyle Fuller (coming of a groin injury) and Antone Exum have 76 combined career starts and 12 career interceptions between them.
Golden said UM’s receivers need to do a better job holding onto the football than they did versus Florida State. Golden tallied six drops in all against FSU.
“Pretty much all of them from the safeties to the corners — all of them have speed,” said Canes receiver Allen Hurns, who scored both touchdowns at Florida State, which also boasts one of the best pass defenses in the country.
“As a receiver you love your one-on-one matchups,” Hurns continued. “[Like Florida State, Virginia Tech] runs a lot of man coverage, too. We’re going to have a lot of one-on-one matchups.
“At corner they play a little different — like off sometimes — instead of FSU, where they’re pressed against us. But we’ll get a lot of man coverage.”