COLUMBIA -- Jack Tyler checked his cell phone after Virginia Tech's 38-0 win Saturday at Virginia, where Tyler was awarded a game ball for making six tackles, recovering a fumble and helping the Hokies limit their rival to 241 yards.
Tyler saw the typical congratulatory text messages from his friends. He also noticed he had a voicemail. It was from Bruce Taylor, who Tyler replaced as Tech's middle linebacker after Taylor suffered a season-ending foot sprain. Taylor, who grew up in Myrtle Beach, watched the game on television and called Tyler to tell him he was proud of his performance.
"It meant a lot to me," Tyler said.
The win at Virginia put Virginia Tech in Saturday's ACC championship game against Clemson, the only team to beat the Hokies this season (23-3, Oct. 1 in Blacksburg). The fifth-ranked Hokies (11-1) will try to win their fifth title in eight seasons in the league. They won the ACC last year despite inconsistent play from their usually dominant defense, which flopped miserably in the Orange Bowl, allowing 534 yards in a 40-12 loss to Stanford.
During the spring, defensive coordinator Bud Foster still felt sour about that game. He knew, looking ahead to 2011, that Tech would have a new quarterback, Logan Thomas, and the defense needed to play better than it did in 2010, when it ranked No. 52 nationally in yards allowed and No. 26 in points allowed. That broke a six-year streak of top 12 finishes in both categories.
"I just didn't want us to be one of those defenses that can be up and down," he said.
Foster's group is up again. Despite dealing with injuries this fall, the Hokies rank seventh nationally in scoring defense (15.5 points) and 12th in total defense (302 yards). Tech has played the past four games without Taylor (its leading tackler last year), defensive tackle Antoine Hopkins and its top two whip outside linebackers, Jeron Gouveia-Winslow and Alonzo Tweedy.
"I think it's been one of our better coaching jobs," Foster said.
You sometimes hear TV commentators talk about "a Bud Foster defense," as if it is something you can buy in the hardware aisle at Home Depot. But in Blacksburg, where people have come to expect years like this, defense really is a brand. On Main Street, you can buy T-shirts bearing the image of a lunch pail -- the symbol of Tech's defense. Flip on the TV, and you'll see Foster doing commercials for George Harvey's car dealership in which he never identifies himself and simply punctuates his spiel by saying, "And tell 'em Bud sent ya."
That's why last year, and the Orange Bowl, stung so badly for folks in southwest Virginia. Most troubling for Foster, the Hokies allowed 155.9 rushing yards per game last season, their most since 1992. This season: 98.7 rushing yards allowed per game, which ranks No. 9 nationally.
"That was our main goal going into the season -- we need to get back to how Tech used to play defense," Tyler said.
Tyler typifies the undersized, under-recruited players Foster has won with in his 17 seasons as Tech's coordinator, guys like end Corey Moore, the 1999 Nagurski Trophy winner, and linebacker Cody Grimm, a former walk-on who in 2009 was Tech's best defensive player and a third-team All-American.
Tyler, a 6-0, 229-pound sophomore, had one scholarship offer from a Bowl Sub-division school -- Buffalo. Virginia Tech pursued him as a recruited walk-on, and he received a scholarship the second semester of his first year. Tyler followed Grimm's career closely, because they were close friends from growing up in northern Virginia.
"When I saw Cody be so successful, I knew that if I had the opportunity, I could accomplish some of the same things that he was accomplishing," Tyler said.
Tyler got his chance last year, when an injury forced him to start the Orange Bowl, next to Taylor. Tyler was a backup again this season, until Taylor -- again Virginia Tech's leading tackler -- got hurt in the eighth game. Foster, who coaches the inside linebackers, tried starting Barquell Rivers (the starting middle linebacker in 2009) at Taylor's spot. But Rivers is still a step slow because of a devastating quadriceps injury that knocked him out for 2010.
After Rivers started against Duke, Tyler played almost all of the next three games. Tyler has played "very, very well," Foster said, and is showing that the comments Taylor made the day after he learned he was out for the year weren't just lip service.
"The guys behind me, they could be starters at other schools," Taylor said at the time. "This injury, it sucks for me more than I feel like it does (for) the team."