MORGANTOWN — As tough a challenge that the West Virginia defensive staff has in front of it as it prepares for No. 15 Virginia Tech on Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium the statistics say the Hokies’ defense is a step ahead of its offense through two games thus far.
Virginia Tech (2-0) ranks third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring defense, yielding just 12 points per game in wins over No. 21 North Carolina and Middle Tennessee while ranking 11th in scoring offense (26 points per game).
It’s certainly been a refreshing return to form for the Hokies fan base as defense has been a bit of struggle in the past few years after decades of stinginess under longtime coordinator Bud Foster. Virginia Tech allowed more than 30 points per game in two of the last three seasons (32.1 in 2020 and 31 in 2018), but so far in 2021 those deficiencies seem to be a thing of the past.
Coincidentally, the Mountaineer coaching staff sees a lot of the stout Tech defenses of the past in this team. And if anyone would know, it may be WVU offensive coordinator Gerad Parker, who has faced the Hokies at three different stops — Marshall, Purdue and Duke — during his coaching career.
“There’s a lot of things you recognize,” Parker said. “I hate to admit I’m getting old now, from starting at Marshall in ’11 and ’12 all the way through going to Purdue and Penn State and here and Duke, almost all those stops except for maybe one we’ve found a way to play them, and from Bud Foster’s days all the way to now, there’s a lot of similarities about some coverages and things you see and notice, and hence the reason they’ve sustained success on defense.”
Schematics under defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton are part of the equation, but the Hokies certainly have shown to have the personnel to execute as well.
WVU head coach Neal Brown started his breakdown of the Virginia Tech defense on Tuesday with an assessment of the defensive line, and that’s certainly warranted if you look at the statistics. The Hokies are tied with Syracuse, having recorded 18 tackles for loss through two games, the best mark in the ACC. The team has also recorded nine sacks, second only to Pitt in the league.
It starts with junior linemen Amare’ Barno and TyJuan Garbutt, who rank third and fifth in the ACC, respectively, in tackles for loss (3½ for Barno and 3 for Garbutt), with the two combining for 3½ sacks as well.
“They go two deep across the board, they’ve got several NFL players up there, they’ve got length to the boundary,” Brown said. “Two really good speed guys off the edge and they rotate four guys at [defensive] tackle and I think they are all difference makers and they do a great job in their scheme.”
“You respect watching it. They’re wired up well and the staff has done a good job with them,” Parker added. “They’ve been very successful playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage whether it’s TFLs or sacks. They do a great job moving them, they play well with their hands up front, they know what they’re doing, they own their gaps and they’ve had success doing it.”
On the back end, Virginia Tech has been great in coverage as well, having already picked off four passes, tied for the best in the ACC. Junior Jermaine Waller has two of them, fellow junior Chamarri Conner has one and sophomore safety Nasir Peoples leads the team in tackles with 17.
“Conner and Waller are great in coverage, I think they’ve played at a high level through two weeks,” Brown said. “Waller might be playing as good as any corner in the country right now.”
The turnover issues that likely cost the Mountaineers a potential win at Maryland were better a week ago as WVU went without a turnover against Long Island. But the issues with the running game were present again as starting running back Leddie Brown was held to just 31 yards on 15 carries. Brown is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry this season.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is sixth in the ACC in rushing defense, allowing just 106 yards per game.
Obviously, with a physical front that has made several big plays already this season, the Mountaineers will have to find some way to improve their consistency in the run game while facing off with a talented, deep pool of players on the other side. Yet, just as there’s no secret in Tech’s intentions of running the ball, there won’t be any on the WVU side either.
And according to Parker, that’s part of taking the next step, one that his team will need to take on Saturday against a swarming Hokie defense that knows just where the Mountaineers want to go with the ball.
“It’s something we’re going to have to earn the right to do because now there certainly isn’t a secret,” Parker said. “Leddie is our running back and is a great player and we’ve got to make sure we honor that with how we find ways to give him room, and of course Leddie has to own his part in making sure when we get that room, we get there.
“People know now. And in order to be really good now you have to be good when everybody knows that it’s a huge piece of our plan.”