2007 Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. East Carolina

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Saturday, September 1st, 2007, noon

TV: ESPN

Forecast (from WeatherUnderground.com):

Click the “Blacksburg Weather” link to the right.
Game time forecast, as of 2:00 pm Wednesday: Partly cloudy with a 10 percent
chance of rain. Temperature 75.


Click here for TechSideline.com’s VT/ECU roster card


Game Preview: #9 Virginia Tech (0-0) vs. East Carolina (0-0)


by Chris Coleman, TechSideline.com

It’s been a long, tough offseason for Tech fans. First there was the second
half collapse against Georgia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Then there was April 16.
Then there was Michael Vick and his dog fighting. It hasn’t been a pretty 2007.
Like everybody else, I’m ready for some football.

The East Carolina Pirates visit Blacksburg on Saturday in hopes of pulling
the upset. Skip Holtz has built ECU back up over the last couple of years. They
finished the regular season 7-5 last year, earning a bid to the PapaJohns.com
Bowl where they lost to South Florida. Their biggest win of the regular season
came against Virginia, whom they knocked off 31-21 in a game that wasn’t as
close as the final score indicated.

So do they have any chance of pulling the upset Saturday? Read on.

The ECU Offense

Game week had barely arrived when news came out that East Carolina starting
quarterback Rob Kass was arrested over the weekend and charged with a DWI.
He has been suspended and will not play on Saturday.

Kass is a big (6-4, 247) sophomore who is 14-of-30 for 184 yards and one
interception in his career. As inexperienced as he his, his backups have even
less time behind center.

Brett Clay (6-0, 201, So.) is listed behind Kass on the depth chart. Clay has
played in one game in his career and did not attempt any passes. He is more
mobile than Kass. The other quarterback, Patrick Pinkney (6-0, 198, Jr.), is
even less experienced. His only college action came in a Jayvee game against
Hargrave Military Academy.

East Carolina’s leading returning receiver is Phillip Henry (6-0, 183, Sr.).
He is a former walk on who is very effective playing as the slot receiver. He
caught 34 passes for 484 yards and two touchdowns last season.

Steven Rogers (6-0, 182, Sr.) and Jamar Bryant (6-2, 193, So.) will be the
other top targets for whichever quarterback ends up playing for the Pirates.
Rogers caught 22 passes for 378 yards in 2006, while Bryant had 11 receptions
for 108 yards. Junior College transfer T.J. Lee (6-0, 206, Jr.) could end up
being a top target as well.

The Pirates have a good tight end in Davon Drew (6-4, 249, Jr.). Drew was
Third Team All CUSA last season when he caught 16 passes for 187 yards and three
touchdowns. He should be an even bigger part of the passing game this year.

The Pirates have solid talent at tailback with Chris Johnson (5-11, 195, Sr.)
and Dominique Lindsay (5-10, 207, Jr.). Johnson is an all-purpose running back
who had 314 yards rushing, 176 yards receiving and 482 return yards. He has
excellent quickness and speed. ECU loves to use him in the passing game. He has
caught 88 passes in his career for 768 yards. He’ll line up in the backfield and
as a slot receiver.

Lindsay is more of a power back than Johnson. He rushed for 192 yards last
season despite missing seven games with an injury. 85 of those yards came in the
Papajohns.com Bowl against South Florida when he was finally 100%. He could be
ECU’s best every-down running back when he’s healthy. Expect to see plenty of
both Johnson and Lindsay on Saturday.

East Carolina’s strength on the offensive line will be on their left side. At
left guard, Matt Butler (6-4, 306, Sr.) will get the start. He is very
experienced, starting every game for the Pirates the last two seasons. Next to
him at tackle will be Josh Coffman (6-7, 292, Sr.), a former tight end who was
Second Team All CUSA last season.

Although Coffman is experienced, he’s not experienced at left tackle. He
started all 13 games last season, 11 of them at right guard and the other two at
right tackle. As a former CUSA All-Freshman tight end, he moves very well for
his size.

Things aren’t quite as good on the rest of the offensive line for ECU. Their
center and right guard have never taken a snap in a college football game as
offensive linemen. Their right tackle has never taken a college snap, period.

Center Fred Hicks (6-0, 306, Jr.) spent his first two years on the defensive
line. He then moved to center, and redshirted last year to get used to the
position. He’s never seen action on offense in a game. Steven Heis (6-5, 292,
So.) could also see some time at center. The right guard will be Doug Palmer
(6-3, 306, So.). He played defensive tackle last season, and was moved to guard
in the spring. Redshirt freshman D.J. Scott (6-6, 309) will start at right
tackle.

The Pirates will be starting a quarterback who has never thrown a pass in a
college game (Brett Clay or Patrick Pinkney) behind an offensive line that
features three players who have never blocked in a college game. That’s not
exactly a recipe for success against the #1 defense in the country, on the road,
and in what will be a very emotional atmosphere at Lane Stadium.

The ECU Defense

East Carolina believes the strength of their defense will be in the front
seven this year. They return almost every starter and contributor off last
year’s front seven, which was part of a defense that finished 52nd nationally in
total defense. They also add North Carolina transfer defensive tackle Khalif
Mitchell.

East Carolina’s front seven should serve as a good early season test for
Virginia Tech’s offensive line. The Pirates have good size and plenty of
experience up front, and they’ll attempt to stay in the game by trying to shut
down Virginia Tech’s running game and put pressure on Sean Glennon.

At defensive end, four players return with a lot of experience. Defensive end
Marcus Hands (6-5, 272, Jr.) is the most talented end, and his career has
resembled that of Tech defensive end Chris Ellis. Hands had 5.5 sacks in just
eight games as a freshman in 2005. Shoulder surgery forced him to miss the last
four games of the season and severely limited him in 2006. He finished with just
two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks last year.

Duane Brown will spend a lot of time getting to know Hands on Saturday. If he
can shut him down, it will be a good sign that Brown is going to have a very
good senior season.

Behind Hands is Scotty Robinson (6-4, 258, So.), who had four tackles for
loss and 1.5 sacks last season. He played a lot last season as a freshman.
Willie Smith (6-6, 265, r-Fr.) is a very imposing physical specimen who could
also see action.

At the other end spot, Zack Slate (6-5, 222, Jr.) is listed as the starter.
He had 1.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks last season. His backup is listed as
C.J. Wilson (6-4, 269, So.). Wilson had a great freshman campaign in 2006,
finishing with six tackles for loss and four sacks in 13 games, seven of which
he started. The combination of Wilson and Marcus Hands could be ECU’s best
defensive end combo.

ECU’s top returning defensive tackle is Mark Robinson (6-3, 296, Sr.).
Robinson had 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last season. He is very solid
and experienced. He’ll be making his 25th consecutive start against Virginia
Tech on Saturday.

However, tackle might not be quite as deep as end. The other projected
starter right now is Jay Ross (6-3, 300, So.). Ross had seven tackles as a
freshman last season. Khalif Mitchell (6-6, 307, Jr.) could also end up
starting, but he’s been banged up in the preseason. Mitchell is a transfer from
UNC, where he had 4.5 tackles for loss for the Tar Heels in 2005. He is from the
state of Virginia, so he’s going to come out fired up playing in his home state.

East Carolina’s linebackers have good size and a lot of experience. All three
are returning starters. Quentin Cotton (6-2, 234, Jr.) is the starting weak side
linebacker, and he plays in the backfield more than any other member of the
Pirate defense. Cotton had 68 tackles last season, including eight tackles for
loss and two sacks. He is the team’s leading returning tackler, and he missed
two games with an injury.

At strong side linebacker, Pierre Bell (6-2, 231, Jr.) is the starter. He
made 66 tackles last year, with 3.5 tackles for loss. Manning the middle
linebacker position is Fred Wilson (6-2, 260, Sr.). Wilson had 64 tackles and
two tackles for loss as a starter last year. He gives East Carolina a big,
physical presence in the middle.

The Pirates lost some major contributors from their secondary. Safety Jamar
Flournoy, the team’s leading tackler last season, is gone. So are Kasey Ross and
Pierre Parker, who tied for the team lead with four interceptions apiece in
2006. Cornerback Travis Williams (5-10, 186, Sr.) is the lone returning starter.
He had two interceptions a year ago.

The other cornerback is likely to be Leon Best (6-0, 199, Jr.), who played in
all 13 games last year, with one interception. The safety spots are the biggest
question marks. The starter at free safety is Chris Mattocks (6-0, 200, Sr.). He
is very inexperienced, playing in nine games as a freshman last season, seeing
most of his time on special teams and recording just two tackles.

The strong safety is Van Eskridge (6-0, 198, So.). He is a proven football
player, but not a proven strong safety. Eskridge made six starts at outside
linebacker last season because of injuries and had 7.5 tackles for loss. He was
a very athletic outside linebacker who made plays. How will he adjust to playing
strong safety? We’ll find out on Saturday.

Special Teams

Like Virginia Tech, East Carolina will be breaking in some new guys in the
kicking game on Saturday. Placekicker Ben Hartman (5-11, 193, So.) saw a little
bit of action last year, going 3-of-5 on his field goal attempts. However, he
has never been a full-time starter until this season.

At punter, Matt Dodge (6-2, 219, So.) looks like he’ll get most of the
action. He is a transfer from Appalachian State. They could also use Nathan
Przestrzelski (6-5, 184, Fr.). Neither player has any experience.

We’ve already mentioned tailback Chris Johnson and how he is an all-purpose
player. He averaged 23 yards per kickoff return last season, including one he
took back 96 yards for a touchdown. They don’t use him on punt returns, instead
relying on the sure-handed Steven Rogers. Rogers isn’t going to scare many
special teams coaches with his 6.2 yards per return average.

Conclusion

I’m going to repeat a paragraph that I’ve already typed:

“The Pirates will be starting a quarterback who has never thrown a pass
in a college game (Brett Clay or Patrick Pinkney) behind an offensive line that
features three players who have never blocked in a college game. That’s not
exactly a recipe for success against the #1 defense in the country, on the road,
and in what will be a very emotional atmosphere at Lane Stadium.”

Think about that for a second, and think about the guys those new players
will be facing. On the defensive line, you’ve got seniors Chris Ellis, Carlton
Powell, and Barry Booker, who have been through wars against Miami, Florida
State, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Boston College, etc. At linebacker, there’s the
best inside duo in the nation, Vince Hall and Xavier Adibi. At corner, there’s
All-American Brandon Flowers.

And more. Many more. Those experienced guys for Tech, who have finished #1 in
the nation in total defense for two consecutive years, will be playing against
three offensive linemen who have never even played offense in a game and a
quarterback who has never even thrown a pass. Am I the only one thinking that’s
going to get pretty ugly for the visitors?

I don’t think Tech’s offense will dominate. ECU has a solid defense that will
show up. However, I think they’ll be on the field the whole game, and they won’t
be able to shutdown offensive playmakers like Branden Ore, Eddie Royal and Josh
Morgan forever. Besides, with the way Tech’s defense is likely to play against
so many inexperienced players, they won’t need to score much anyway.

Look for a good game early, with the Hokies gradually extending their lead
throughout the game.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, East Carolina 0

Will Stewart’s Take: Chris and I agree with regards to the difficulty ECU is
going to have scoring on Virginia Tech, provided the Hokie defense comes out
focused and executes their assignments. Frank Beamer has told his team not to
let emotion carry the day, but rather to keep their heads in the game and
execute the game plan. We’ll see how successful the Hokies are with that.

We all know the strengths of this year’s Hokie team: defense, Branden Ore,
the wide receivers, etc. I’ll be concentrating on the things I think might
derail this team this season, namely the kicking game and leadership (or lack
thereof).

By “the kicking game,” I don’t mean “special teams.” I
mean “the kicking game,” specifically the placekickers and punters. I
want to see accuracy from the placekickers, and from the punters I want to see a
quick release and some distance. I only attended one scrimmage this fall, the
last one, and there wasn’t a placekicker or punter on the field who fulfilled
those expectations. This is a bad setup going into Baton Rouge, so I want to see
how PK Jud Dunlevy and P Brent Bowden do in their live debuts against ECU.

The other thing I’ll be monitoring closely is leadership and team chemistry,
because they’re going to be needed in gobs on September 8th and throughout the
rest of the season. This Hokie team has some serious talent, but if they can’t
keep their heads and they can’t get along — Boston College 2006, anyone? —
talent alone won’t get them where they want to go. Let Raleigh Hokie, Phil
Martin, and Chris Coleman monitor the X’s and O’s and stats. I’ll be looking at
the intangibles.

Someone asked me what the betting line is on this game is, and I told them
the Hokies were favored by 23, the last I heard. That sounds about right to me.
If you assume the Pirates are going to struggle to score — like Chris, let’s
think goose egg — it becomes a question of whether the Hokies can put 24 points
on the board to cover that spread.

I think they can. As a matter of fact, I think they can score 27. The only
things that can derail my prediction, I believe, are problems like blocked punts
and missed field goals. I’m going with 27-0, but kicking game problems can
quickly change that to 24-7 or even 21-10.

Will Stewart’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 27, East Carolina 0

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