How will the Hokies handle 'Lord Fangio' and the Stanford defense?
There is so much attention paid to the Stanford offense this year, and maybe rightfully so considering the Cardinal's head coach is a former NFL quarterback and redshirt sophomore Andrew Luck is widely assumed to be the best signal caller in school history besides John Elway.
That, though, fails to identify the real reason Stanford transformed from an 8-5 team led by a Heisman finalist (running back Toby Gerhart) in 2009 into an 11-1 squad led by a Heisman finalist (Luck) this year.
The real change occurred on defense. The Cardinal finished 69th in the country in scoring defense a year ago, and even as Luck was magnificent at times in 2009, the lack of defense cost Stanford a couple wins. But this year, the Cardinal has moved all the way up to 10th nationally in that category. Consider this: Aside from the 52 points Oregon scored against the Cardinal in their only loss of the season, Stanford has given up an average of just 14.7 points per game in its 11 victories, and have allowed 17 or fewer points eight times.
Ask any Stanford player about this drastic mutation and they credit new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, a man they all call "Lord Fangio" now that this season has been such a success. Fangio spent his previous 24 years coaching in the NFL -- he was most recently a linebackers coach for the Baltimore Ravens -- and has three stints as a defensive coordinator at the pro level.
"They were hungry for improvement," Fangio said of his defense. "I think they were intrigued by my past experiences ... But I think we just developed over time. We had a very good spring practice session. Going against out own offense in Andrew Luck, which is a really good offense, we more than held our own against those guys in the spring. Likewise in the fall training camp. And then we started off well."
Said linebacker Chase Thomas: "He brings an NFL approach to everything."
It's this NFL style that seems to concern the Hokies offensive staff most. Stanford plays a 3-4 defense that Virginia Tech coaches have said is similar to Al Groh's defensive scheme at Georgia Tech. But as is the case with NFL teams, the Cardinal feature a ton of pre-snap movement and disguises, and utilize nickel and dime packages on passing downs that can sometimes appear to be a 4-3 formation.
As unlikely as this sounds, perhaps the most important player for the Hokies offense Monday night will be center Beau Warren. It's his job to identify formations and call out blitzes. If he does it well, quarterback Tyrod Taylor will have the time to feed the ball to the multitude of weapons the Hokies have at running back and wide receiver.
“They move around a lot, more than an ordinary defense we go against," said Warren, a Centreville native. "They have a bunch of different defensive looks that we have to pay attention to, so it’ll be interesting. I'm very, very anxious, but I'm excited to get out there and play."
Offensive line coach Curt Newsome said it's imperative for Virginia Tech to stay out of third and long situations, as that's when Stanford's blitz packages are most effective. What's important to realize is that outside linebackers like Thomas and Keiser are actually converted 4-3 defensive ends that excel rushing the passer.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring said last week what impresses him most about the Cardinal defense is Fangio's ability to make in-game adjustments depending on what emerges as an opponents' strength. In this regard, Monday night could turn into a chess match. Stinespring has shown in recent weeks he's been able to alter his game plan if something isn't working -- a prime example would be the win over Miami when he ditched any slow developing passing plays once it became clear the Hokies couldn't keep the Hurricanes defensive line at bay.
Fangio said repeatedly last week that what scares him most about Virginia Tech is Taylor's ability to create even when a play breaks down. Playing in the Pacific-10 Stanford has faced its fair share of mobile quarterbacks in the past, but according to Cardinal defensive back Delano Howell, they've watched "probably hundreds of hours" of film on Taylor. Howell called Taylor the shiftiest quarterback he's ever seen at the college level.
There's no doubt Virginia Tech's offense has been its strength this season. They've scored more points than any other team in school history, and had perhaps their best performance of the season putting up 44 points against Florida State in the ACC championship game. In particular, the Hokies balance of late has been remarkable. No team has been able to key on the run or the pass. The question is can they replicate that against a Stanford defense that resembles an NFL outfit?
"You don't make the improvement that they have from one year to the next defensively unless something is going on there in terms of coaching and playing," Stinespring said. "Their defense is predicated on trying to determine what you're going to do, the foundation of what has gotten you into this position and try to take it away from you and they're going to try to get you into plan B and plan C as much as anything else. I think they do a terrific job of that."
| January 3, 2011; 12:25 PM ET
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