Willie Taggart's big Florida State debut went up in flames; here is who's responsible for that

Virginia Tech Hokies wide receiver Damon Hazelton, left, and quarterback quarterback Josh Jackson (17) celebrate a touchdown on their first drive against Florida State. (AP)
Virginia Tech Hokies wide receiver Damon Hazelton, left, and quarterback quarterback Josh Jackson (17) celebrate a touchdown on their first drive against Florida State. (AP)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The two Hall of Fame coaching legends greeted each other on the sidelines Monday night, resplendent icons in their twilight. Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer drew cocoons of microphones and television cameras for some benign pregame soundbites, recalling the days of building and defining their respective programs.

As No. 20 Virginia Tech proceeded to suffocate and embarrass No. 19 Florida State, 24-3, the third Hall of Fame-caliber coach in Doak Campbell Stadium on Monday night reminded everyone that he’s still locked into the prime of his career. On a night where the 75,237 fans roared pregame for the debut of first-year coach Willie Taggart, stalwart Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster further etched himself as the preeminent assistant coach of this, or perhaps any, generation.

Tech knocked Florida State woozy all night, forcing five turnovers and keeping the Seminoles out of the end zone at home for the first time since 2008. The final flare of Foster’s artistic performance came from authoring a Tech defense that created more tackles for loss (14) than Florida State mustered first downs (12). Somewhere up above the field in a box, Beamer smiled as Tech scored on a blocked kick, won here for the first time since 1974 and ended the game hearing Virginia Tech fans mocking the sing-song Tomahawk Chop chant in the south end zone.

For third-year Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, the win ranks as his biggest in terms of scope and scale in his Hokie tenure. And he can thank the defensive coach who stuck around after Beamer retired, as Tech improved to 100-1 in games with Foster as defensive coordinator where they’ve held the opponents to 10 points or less. (If you are wondering what the one loss is, search Wake Forest-Virginia Tech and 0-0.)

After the game, I lobbed the idea to Fuente that Foster, Tech’s stalwart coordinator since 1996, should be the first coach enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame solely for his work as an assistant coach. Fuente immediately started his stump speech.

“First of all, he should be in the Hall of Fame,” Fuente told Yahoo Sports. “Second of all, it’s hard to quantify the longevity, the consistency. You can’t point to one player. He’s been the steady force behind those performances.”

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster talks to players during a spring practice in Blacksburg, Virginia. (AP)
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster talks to players during a spring practice in Blacksburg, Virginia. (AP)

And that force just kept pushing Florida State backwards on Monday night, leaving Taggart looking as overmatched on the sideline as his offensive line did in the trenches. Florida State spent much of the offseason hyping up Taggart’s “Gulf Coast” offense and the “Lethal Simplicity” of his spread system. Foster just made it look simple to stop.

It’d be unfair to cast imminent doom on the entire Taggart era with this loss. (Let’s remember, Chip Kelly flopped in his debut with Oregon at Boise and went 46-6 in Eugene after.) But it’s fair to say that Taggart took a step backward from the 7-6 Florida State program that Jimbo Fisher abandoned last season when he left for Texas A&M.

Under Taggart, FSU spent most of the night in the fetal position – hurt by penalties and moving laterally or backward. (It was telling that Foster said he wasn’t particularly surprised by anything FSU did, other than a few possessions of empty backfield.) In his return from injury, FSU quarterback Deondre Francois completed just 22-for-35 for 233 yards and threw three interceptions. (Taggart didn’t consider replacing him.) “We didn’t handle adversity well,” Taggart said. “And there was a lot of adversity.”

No play better summed up Florida State’s inertia better than receiver Nyqwan Murray running backwards on a gadget play in the first half, losing eight yards and then fumbling after minimal contact from linebacker Rayshard Ashby. It provided a microcosm of the night – Florida State looked lost, soft and heading in the wrong direction. That play unfolded like so many others, with Tech’s defensive front renting a timeshare in the FSU backfield. “We played a sloppy game and that’s on all of us, starting with me,” Taggart said.

Tech had eight new starters on defense and a secondary that stalwart Daily Press beat writer Norm Wood tabulated was the least experienced Tech has returned in 15 years. None of that mattered, as Tech looked like the aggressive, fundamentally sound and ball-hawking unit that Foster has been putting together since the Clinton administration.

“Florida State can run now and have skill all over the place,” Fuente told Yahoo Sports. “We played the perimeter game and the vertical game really well with a young secondary. That’s a lot harder to do that it is to say.”

No single coach in FBS college football has held their position longer than Foster, who arrived at Tech in 1987 and has firmly established himself as the standard for defensive coordinators in college football since taking over that role solo in 1996. Since that time, Tech ranks No. 1 in college football in sacks (813), sack yards (5,573), interceptions (373) and third-down defense (31.2%).

“We’ve had good players in our history,” Fuente said. “I don’t know if what he’s done has been matched, in my opinion. In terms of consistency of play. It’s really special.”

Foster, 59, may be a grandfather of three but he’s shown no signs of slowing down. His most telling quote of the night came when describing what he told his team, which doubled as an accidental career summation: “Don’t get tired of doing your job and being consistently good.”

Foster’s contract goes through 2019, and it’s clear that he could keep going as he keeps thriving at the top of his game. He’d have a unique case for the College Football Hall of Fame, as no other coach has been inducted solely for his work as an assistant. (According to this USA Today article, there’s been assistants inducted into the Men’s Basketball Hall and Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. None in hockey, pro football or baseball with their primary accomplishments coming as an assistant.)

“With all respect to other assistants, I can’t think of one who’d go before him,” said Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock.

Yahoo Sports ran the thesis of this column by Foster late Monday night. He chuckled, as sweat weaved through his gray-and-white beard on a sticky night.

“I don’t know what to say about that,” Foster said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Foster explored head jobs over the years but never wanted to rebuild a mid-major program or revive a downtrodden one in a power conference. The elite schools never hired him, so he stayed and dominated and forged a legacy that could end with him in a unique niche in college football history.

“My ego doesn’t drive me,” Foster said. “I wasn’t going to take a head job just to take a head job. I wanted one where I knew I had a chance to win. And I like winning.

“How do you spell fun? W-I-N.”

Foster tabulated this summer that this game marked a chance at 300 career wins. He’d been part of 280 under Beamer and 20 under Fuente. That’s a lot of fun, perhaps even a Hall of Fame amount.

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