The Washington Post
Hokies brought back ‘Lunch Pail’ defense in opener
blacksburg, va. — Even in retirement, Bud Foster casts a long shadow over the Virginia Tech football program. The legendary defensive coordinator stepped away after the 2019 season, but his influence remains in the current players he recruited.
So after the coronavirus and non-pandemic injuries in 2020 conspired to doom that unit’s first year under Foster’s replacement, Justin Hamilton, standouts such as Tyjuan Garbutt and Dax Hollifield entered this season seeking to reclaim the defensive supremacy long associated with the Hokies.
Virginia Tech made quite a statement in that regard during a season-opening 17-10 win over No. 10 North Carolina on Sept. 3, sacking Sam Howell six times and intercepting the Heisman Trophy contender three times in a performance reminiscent of Foster’s famed “Lunch Pail” defenses.
Afterward in the locker room, players celebrated with Hamilton, who had his infant son by his side. Hamilton’s bunch remains well aware of the scrutiny he continues to face in following a coach more synonymous with Virginia Tech than any other but Frank Beamer.
“He was jacked up,” Hollifield, a junior linebacker, said of Hamilton. “We’ve been working so hard for the last eight months to really get this last season off our backs. That’s in the past obviously, but it’s just been really wearing on us. I know it was wearing on him. It was hard on him just trying to step up for a guy like Bud Foster, replace him. And to do the job we did last year, it wasn’t good enough, and it’s really a load off his shoulders and a load off a lot of our shoulders.”
The Hokies, who face Middle Tennessee at home Saturday, had a host of issues to manage last season, when virus-related complications kept 23 players, mostly on defense, out of the opener. The defense was shorthanded all year, playing stretches without the entire starting secondary. Circumstances were so dire at times that certain members of the defense, frequently on short notice, filled in out of position just so the unit could field the requisite 11 players.
Hamilton missed the first two games because of complications stemming from the virus. His first game with the team in person was against North Carolina, a 56-45 loss in Chapel Hill.
Virginia Tech finished 12th out of 15 schools in the ACC last year in total defense (447.5) and 10th in scoring defense (32.1).
“Virginia Tech has had a long tradition of great defense over the years, and last year was not up to par as what it needed to be,” said Hollifield, who had four tackles and an interception against the Tar Heels. “I really took that personally, and a lot of other guys took that personally, a lot of older guys.”
Garbutt, a redshirt junior, was among them. The defensive end missed seven games last season, including the first five, to be with his ailing father. The family medical issue had Garbutt understandably distracted when he did come back, and he produced a season short of his standard.
He opened this season with a team-high two sacks and forced a fumble as part of his five tackles. Garbutt and defensive end Amaré Barno were particularly disruptive, never allowing Howell to settle into a comfort zone while helping to keep the North Carolina rushing attack in check.
Virginia Tech held one of the most prolific offenses in the country last season off the scoreboard until 4:20 remained in the third quarter and limited the Tar Heels to their fewest points since 2018. Last year North Carolina led the ACC in total offense (537.3) and was second in scoring (41.7).
“We had several opportunities to end the game, and we could not do it,” Hokies Coach Justin Fuente said. “Our execution was poor, but our defense just continued to rise to the occasion with energy and execution. Looked fast. Just really proud of the defensive staff, Coach Hamilton and the defensive players.”
Howell threw a career high in interceptions, including the final one to cornerback Chamarri Conner with 37 seconds to play after the Tar Heels had marched to the Virginia Tech 40-yard line. Conner was falling as he gained possession and managed to slide his hand between the ball and the ground to secure the catch.
Officials reviewed the play, and when they announced the call stood, the frenzied crowd of 65,632 at Lane Stadium erupted. It was the first time in two years that full capacity was permitted at the venue.
Conner led Virginia Tech with eight tackles and was named ACC defensive back of the week.
The triumph was a dramatic turnaround from last season’s matchup with the Tar Heels, when Virginia Tech surrendered 656 yards.
“Everyone got caught up in the hype of [North Carolina being ranked 10th], what happened last year with the covid year, and it was Coach Ham’s first game coaching, and we didn’t have an offseason,” Garbutt said. “We feel like, and I’m not saying this to make headlines, but we feel like it’s almost a standard, like we know we can go out there and play with those guys for sure, but we feel like it’s a standard, us going out there and dominating.”