Virginia Tech's Defensive Schemes (post-1992) and Bud Foster
The defense that has put Virginia Tech's struggling football team on the map made a pit stop in Syracuse about a dozen years ago en route to Blacksburg, Va.
The Syracuse University football team was preparing to face Arizona in the 1990 Aloha Bowl. Head coach Dick MacPherson, linebackers coach Paul Pasqualoni and secondary coach Phil Elmassian, among others, began to break down the Wildcats' offense by watching films of their previous games.
"Arizona had a very good team that year, and Washington was one of their opponents," Pasqualoni recalled. "As we looked at that film, the more we watched it the more we liked what Washington was doing."
What Washington was doing was employing an eight-man front - four down linemen and four linebackers - that created havoc by shutting down an opponent's running attack and gambling that its fierce pass rush would get to the quarterback before he could throw accurately. Pasqualoni was intrigued.
"After that season was over and the dust cleared," he said, "Coach Mac went to the (New England) Patriots and I became the head coach. I called Coach (Jim) Lambright, the defensive coordinator at Washington, and I invited him to come out here for a few days to explain the concept to us. We looked at it and looked at it and looked at it, but in the end we just felt that it would be too drastic a change for us."
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, with his team struggling and his future uncertain, decided drastic change was just what the Hokies needed. He hired Elmassian in 1993 to implement the Washington defense, and the rest is history.
The Hokies were 24-40-2 under Beamer when their 4-4 defense debuted. Since then, they are 91-26 and have been to nine consecutive bowl games, one of them the Sugar Bowl vs. Florida State following the 1999 season for the national title (FSU won 46-29).
Tech assistant Bud Foster, who had also visited with Lambright, inherited the coordinator's job from Elmassian in 1995, and Tech went on to hold its opponents to an average of 93.9 yards rushing and 15.1 points per game over the next 77 games.
In short, Virginia Tech plays the Washington defense better than Washington does. Here, in layman's terms, is how it works and why Tech is so successful at it: The scheme
Traditional defenses employ a seven-man defensive front featuring four down linemen and three linebackers (a 4-3) or three down linemen and four linebackers (a 3-4). Virginia Tech employs four down linemen and four linebackers (a 4-4). That leaves only three defensive backs - a safety and two cornerbacks - to handle pass coverage.
Or so it appears.
"Two of the four linebackers are defensive backs who can run like hell," SU offensive coordinator George DeLeone said, "so they've really got a nickel (pass) defense on the field at all times. The defensive ends are fast guys. I'm talking about 4.5 range (in the 40-yard dash), so they've recruited speed there. They've upgraded the speed level of the defense tremendously."
They do so at the expense of size. Middle linebacker Mikal Baaqee is 5-foot-11, 217 pounds (SU counterpart Clifton Smith is 6-3, 251). Defensive end Cols Colas, a former Florida high school track sprinter and running back, is 6-foot, 239 (SU counterpart Josh Thomas is 6-7, 288).
Tech's speed and ability to stack more players close to the line of scrimmage than an offense can block negates the size disadvantage.
"He (Colas) can play there because he doesn't have to take on a block in that system," DeLeone said. "He's coming off the edge, he's lined up on air. It's a unique deal, very unique. It's a blitzing, stunting, gap-cancellation defense. They are going to do everything they can to stop the run. They are going to take away the run game by taking away gaps and then see if you're patient enough to still try to bang it in there with them." The trap
The 4-4 invites an opposing offense to pass the ball. The cornerbacks are in man-to-man coverage, and they have only one safety to help out.
DeLeone said it is a trap.
"Wow, look at that, let's throw it," he said, his arms waving and his raspy voice rising an octave as he described the typical first reaction to seeing the 4-4. "They're all up on the line of scrimmage, there are 11 people within five yards of the line of scrimmage ... throw the ball!"
DeLeone said he learned the hard way - to the tune of 62-0 in 1999 - that the Hokies want teams to do just that.
"He's got it right," Foster admitted. "It's a misconception to think teams in an eight-man front are susceptible to the pass."
The statistics suggest otherwise, as Tech yields 224.7 passing yards a game, No. 70 in the nation. Closer inspection, though, supports Foster's claim. Tech's run defense is so good that it forces foes to the air, to the tune of 35.4 passes a game. Teams average only 6.3 yards per pass attempt vs. the Hokies, and they have paid the price for 10 touchdown passes by throwing 15 interceptions and absorbing 33 sacks.
"They gamble, but they get burned so few times," DeLeone said. "You see on film so many close calls that never come to fruition. A guy is wide open but the ball is overthrown. You know why? The quarterback is under tremendous duress."
That is the trap.
The key, Foster said, is for his defense to attack and pressure and force a team into third-and-long situations, where the beauty of the 4-4 really unfolds.
"They do a lot of maximum blitzing," DeLeone said, "so if you have six blockers, they bring seven rushers. If you have eight blockers, they bring nine. They are going to overload blitz you, so you have to get the ball off quickly. Now, if the ball gets out quickly on third-and-10 and you get tackled for five yards, you still punt the ball."
That's only half the problem. Remember, two of the four linebackers are really defensive backs in terms of their size and speed.
"So, they've got that blitz thing going," DeLeone said, "but at the same time they can use two of those linebackers to drop off and double-cover your receivers from the same formation from which they rushed eight guys the play before. If you keep people in to block, they double-team your receivers. If you don't, they maximum blitz. It's a very unique, well-coordinated package."
"We're known as an aggressive defense, but it's a chess match," Foster said. "When it's third-and-long, though, you can pretty much call the shots."
The Hokies send an invitation to pass every time they line up. DeLeone believes it is an insincere invitation. The brains
If the 4-4 is so great - and Tech's numbers year-in and year-out suggest it is - why isn't everybody using it?
"There are a lot of eight-man front teams out there that are scratching their heads saying, 'It works for Virginia Tech, why isn't it working for us right now?'" SU defensive coordinator Chris Rippon said.
Boston College tried it and ditched it. Ditto Rutgers. When Rich Rodriguez was hired at West Virginia last year, one of the first things he did was bring in Elmassian to install the 4-4 in Morgantown. At the end of the season, he fired Elmassion and canned the 4-4.
"I think a lot of people have tried to imitate it," DeLeone said, "but no one knows it like they do at Virginia Tech. They are the one staff, I think, that has made an unbelievable commitment to this defense."
That is the key. Others have tried it, seen its weaknesses and fled. A team with a diverse running attack such as Syracuse - which can mix inside traps, off-tackle blasts and perimeter options - and has the patience to keep at it can force Tech's defense to play honest. That, in turn, increases the potential to throw a deep pass.
Foster knows the risks involved. He is willing to take them.
"They can fix the problems easily," DeLeone said. "There are problems in this defense that they have overcome through coaching and effort by their players. They have a tremendous commitment to it."
The leader is Foster, 43, who said all he has done is "a little tinkering ... actually, quite a bit of tinkering" to the 4-4 over the years. He now shifts into a seven-man front from his base 4-4 as easily as Syracuse shifts into an eight-man front from its base 4-3.
The gambling, aggressive style that puts a premium on pressure never seems to change, though.
Foster's reputation as a defensive mastermind was solidified several years ago when Steve Spurrier asked him to become the defensive coordinator at Florida. In the end, Foster decided to stay at Tech, although he said he still dreams of being a head coach someday.
"I'll help him pack his bags," DeLeone said. "What he has done with that defense is as masterful a coaching job as there is in college football."
How to Solve It?
An Offensive Co-ordinator will try to solve that defense by running the ball patiently at the heart of the eight-man front, trying to grind out first downs against a defense designed to stop the run. Occasionally, when he feels the time is right, he will try to pass over it.
Neither task will be easy. When facing Virginia Tech's eight-man front, they never are.