Three Defensive Takeaways From Virginia Tech's 21-20 Loss at Notre Dame

By: Tim Thomas | @TimThomas1996 | Nov 04, 2019
Photo Credit: Jake Roth

Virginia Tech's defense made some big plays against Notre Dame, but gave up an 18-play, 87-yard drive at the end that ended up being the game-winner in a 21-20 thriller for the Fighting Irish. There were plenty of things to be learned from it so with that said, here's our three defensive takeaways from Saturday.

1. Divine Deablo's Best Spot

Divine Deablo had plenty of great moments that earned him Defensive Hokie of the Game honors from our staff, but he also had plenty of not so good moments in man coverage. Overall, Deablo's performance made it clear what his best skills are and how Bud Foster should use him going forward.

Deablo's best fit is as a deep safety who can provide help over the top or occasionally drop into the box if Foster wants to throw some different looks. What Deablo shouldn't be doing is playing man coverage.

His play and skill set draws some comparisons to another former Virginia Tech free safety, Detrick Bonner. Like Bonner, Deablo is very good when he's allowed to be a rangy deep safety who has great ball skills and does agreat job at being able to read the progression of a play.

However, Deablo is not fast enough to be a reliable man coverage player at this point in his career likely due in part to his past foot injury. Like Bonner, Deablo becomes a player to attack when teams see that the redshirt junior safety is being used in man coverage instead of being allowed to be a deep safety providing help over the top.

Given the youth at cornerback and the talent of Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman, it would be wise for Foster to use Deablo in his best role especially since Jermaine Waller will be out for the first half Saturday due to his fourth quarter targeting penalty. Putting Deablo in that deep safety role will be an ideal setup for a Bud Foster defense that has been built around man coverage, but may not be able to do so without having a little help over the top for younger, unproven guys like Armani Chatman or safeties who have struggled in man coverage like Reggie Floyd.

2. TyJuan Garbutt is Getting Healthy and Playing Better

Before the season, TyJuan Garbutt was a top candidate of mine to have a breakout season after showing lots of promise in a role that grew by necessity last year. Unfortunately, the opportunity for a breakout season was shut down when he suffered an early injury against Boston College that caused him to miss multiple weeks.

In this game, we saw the potential that Garbutt has shown to be the dangerous edge pass rusher that the Hokies desperately need on a consistent basis.

While Garbutt didn't have a sack (but did have 4 tackles, 1 of which was for a loss), the redshirt sophomore defensive end had 3 QB hurries. He consistently seemed to be the one that made Ian Book uncomfortable and forced him to scramble which would usually end in him throwing the ball away.

Garbutt's athleticism also allowed Bud Foster to throw some different looks with Garbutt and at times dropping him into coverage even to add some confusion. However, Garbutt was at his best rushing the passer and went after Notre Dame's backup right tackle who, while having been in their program for a few years, proved to be no match for Garbutt.

Now Garbutt did get shaken up late in the game, but his return was encouraging news for a defense that is weak at defensive end overall. Watch out for a big closing stretch for Garbutt now that he appears to be back to 100% and in rhythm especially after a game where he made Ian Book quite uncomfortable when given the opportunity to do so.

3. Defensive Predictability Was Costly On Final Drive

The issue for Virginia Tech's defense on the final drive wasn't necessarily the choice to use a lot of 3-man rush zone coverage plays, but rather the lack of throwing in any sort of different look. Throw in a different look and not only does it likely prevent the smart Ian Book QB run call at the end against a defense playing conservative not trying to get beat, but it also doesn't allow Book to get in a rhythm as easily.

Now the reasoning for not being more aggressive is understandable. With Jermaine Waller out, Virginia Tech had only a couple proven guys in man coverage in Caleb Farley and, when guarding bigger receivers, Chamarri Conner, who was also surprisingly very much M.I.A. in this game for some unknown reason.

Additionally, the last fourth down conversion could have been a call that worked if Virginia Tech's zone defense didn't have both Divine Deablo and Khalil Ladler biting on the slot leaving the deeper receiver to find the hole in the zone.

Regardless, Foster still could have used a blitz or 2 to keep things a little unpredictable. The lack of unpredictability allowed Notre Dame to feel confident about taking a chance on a QB run believing that VT would drop in coverage and by the time they would react, Notre Dame's blocking would have the down-field momentum to clear the way. While VT had a hybrid play queued up, Notre Dame still attacked what was a defense trying to play conservatively to prevent a TD with ND able to control the blocking and create enough space for Book to make a smart decision and score.

Going with the drop 8 zone coverage wasn't a bad idea, but the lack of even a couple plays that gave Notre Dame a different look created a predictability that the Fighting Irish were able to capitalize off of.