Since I began the French on the Bench series, I have discussed certain concepts and rules that Bud Foster follows regardless of the opponent.
- The corners flip-flop. The boundary corner goes to the short side of the field, and the field corner goes to the wide side of the field. If there is not a wide receiver to the boundary, the boundary corner aligns on the outside shoulder of the tackle or closest eligible receiver.
- In a 4-4 look, the rover aligns to the passing strength of the formation and the free safety away from the passing strength.
- In the 46 look, the backer goes to the passing strength and lines up on the line of scrimmage. The rover replaces the backer as a strong side inside linebacker. The whip stays aligned away from the passing strength.
- In the 4-2-5 with the whip in, the whip plays to the field side and the rover plays to the boundary.
- In nickel, the nickel covers the slot receiver to the wide side of the field. The rover covers the slot to the boundary side.
Coach Foster has adjusted his scheme over the years, but generally speaking it is pretty clear where the free safety, rover, boundary corner, and field corner will be on every play. He uses coverage that fits the strengths of his personnel, but he adheres to these rules almost universally, and when he hasn't, it has not had the best results. The best case of Foster breaking his rules was assigning Antone Exum to shadow Clemson tight end Dwayne Allen in the 2011 ACC Championship Game. Not only did Allen win that one-on-one matchup, but it seemed to create more confusion in his own defense, than the Clemson offense.
With Coach Foster, there have always been the rare exceptions to these rules when he has a special talent or a certain matchup which calls for an adjustment. Corey Moore usually aligned very wide and angled at 45 degrees towards the quarterback with the whip or the backer aligned inside him over the tackle. This allowed Moore to use his spectacular edge speed to disrupt offenses. On Saturday, Coach Foster used Dadi Nicolas in a similar fashion off the edge, but with Nicolas playing the role of a whip linebacker, and the defensive end moving inside to align over the tackle. But, there is one rule that I can't recall Coach Foster ever breaking. Foster became the sole defensive coordinator of the Hokies in 1996, and regardless of matchups, personnel, or alignment, I have never seen him align the starting boundary corner on the field side. Instead, Foster slides his coverage over, often with safeties, the whip, or in some cases an inside linebacker covering talented tight ends and slot receivers, while the boundary corner was ostensibly left shadowing a lowly fullback or a tight end max protecting on the other side. Against very talented teams, too often I saw terrific receivers for teams like Florida State line up wide in coverage against a game, but outmatched, linebacker like Ben Taylor rather than flexing a corner across or using a nickel package. (Note Taylor on the bottom of the screen covering FSU speedster Ron Dugans one-on-one on an out route.)
To the best of my knowledge, even after adopting a nickel scheme, the boundary and field stayed put, until this Saturday.
Finally, Foster designated his boundary corner to cross the formation to prevent a mismatch against a top receiver. Several times last Saturday, Pitt aligned with twins to the field side and a tight end to the boundary, with All-ACC caliber receivers Devin Street and Tyler Boyd as the twin receivers. Rather than abandon his five man front with Nicolas or the 4-4 look with Trimble and avoid forcing Detrick Bonner to cover Boyd or Street in the slot, Foster moved Kyle Fuller over to the field side on the slot receiver. This put the Hokies two best man coverage corners one-on-one (sometimes with a deep safety for help) and left the other defenders to focus on stopping Pitt's power running game and rushing the passer.
Here's an example from late in the first half. Pitt goes with a trips formation to the field side, featuring Tyler Boyd in the slot and Devin Street on the hash. Kyle Fuller has flexed over to the field side to cover Boyd, with Edwards now taking outside responsibility and Jack Tyler inside responsibility on the tight end. Bonner and Jarrett play two deep safeties against the two minute offense.
Out of the picture is Brandon Facyson matched up with the third Pitt receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Seeing the alignment, Pitt runs a "four verticals" concept with Pitt's twins receivers each running deep routes along with the tight end. Savage identifies man coverage on Boyd and Street with Bonner as help over the top.
He looks instead to pick on Edwards and Tyler against the tight end, but they have the tight end bracketed. By the time Savage checks to see if Boyd or Street can get inside leverage on the Fullers, Nicolas is there for the sack. Nicolas is quick, but if Savage perhaps looks quick slant to Boyd against Kyle Fuller playing outside leverage, there could be a good gain. But, instead of Bonner being the cover guy, Savage sees where he is supposed to go, and there is the Hokies best cover man. RED ALERT goes off in Savage's head, and the extra second of indecision gives Nicolas that split second to hit Savage before the second progression.
Foster used this formula several times with Street and Boyd both aligned to the wide side. Here is Kyle manned on an outside slot, with Bonner on the 3rd WR to the inside and Nicolas coming off the edge as the whip, but as a whip ON THE BOUNDARY SIDE.
The only unsuccessful effort was a quick WR screen where Kendall was taken to the ground and Tyler Boyd picked up a gain on 10 yards just prior to the deep pass that set up the first Pitt field goal. Savage not only took a pounding, but some of these changes that completely went against past Hokie tendencies clearly confused him, and that extra moment resulted in several sacks and quarterback pressures. Nicolas playing at whip, Kyle Fuller crossing to the field side, and even Josh Trimble aligning as a whip on the boundary in the base 4-2-5 all goes against Foster's normal rules and presents offensive coordinators with even more challenges.
He is getting his playmakers in positions to make plays, and he is taking players who may be limited and maximizes their attributes while hiding their flaws. We saw a smattering of it last year when he moved Tweedy to whip and started playing Jarrett in the box and Bruce Taylor on the edge. Now, he is getting Dadi, Trimble, and the Fullers into position to make plays.
Foster continues to astound me. Watching the film, it looks like every possible offensive option is accounted for on every play, and all over the field the Hokie defenders are winning their individual matchups. As talented, intelligent, and disciplined as each player is, Foster is doing a masterful job of putting each in position to be successful.
Duke presents a new challenge. Both Duke quarterbacks are stalwarts at running read option, and Duke will look to run the ball from the spread more than any other Hokie opponent so far this season. It will be interesting to see what rules Foster alters against the meat of the ACC schedule from here forward.