2008 Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. East Carolina

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Saturday, August 30th, 2008, noon

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Game Preview: #15 Virginia Tech (0-0) vs. East Carolina (0-0)


by Chris Coleman, TechSideline.com

Virginia Tech begins the 2008 football season on Saturday with a big game in
Charlotte against the East Carolina Pirates. This is a game to be excited about,
not because it’s the first one, but because ECU should give Tech a test. The
Hokies are always good, and they will be good again in 2008. But how good? We’ll
start to get an idea on Saturday, when they face a team that is expected to go
bowling for the third straight season.

The Pirates are coming off an 8-5 season. After starting 1-3, they rallied to
earn a trip to the Hawaii Bowl, where they upset Boise State 41-38. It was their
second straight bowl appearance under head coach Skip Holtz, who has done an
outstanding job of turning the program around.

They expect to be even better this year. ECU returns most of their starters
from last year’s team. They will be the most experienced team on the field on
Saturday afternoon.

They will also not be intimidated. The Pirates will enter this game believing
they have a very real chance of beating the Hokies, and to them, it wouldn’t be
an upset. Here is how they’ve fared against other ACC teams over the past two
years.


East Carolina vs. ACC Opponents

Year

Opponent

Result

2007

Virginia Tech

17-7 L

2007

UNC

34-31 W

2007

NC State

34-20 L

2006

UVA

31-21 W

2006

NC State

21-16 W

3-2 over the last two years is pretty good, though none of those teams were
winning teams the year ECU beat them.

The East Carolina Offense

East Carolina has a quarterback situation similar to that of Virginia Tech.
They have two quarterback options, one a mobile threat and the other a pocket
passer. Patrick Pinkney (6-0, 198, r-Sr.) will get the start. He played
effectively against the Hokies in Lane Stadium last season.

Pinkney is the dual threat quarterback. Last season he started five games,
throwing for 1,358 yards while completing 60.5% of his passes. He threw for 11
touchdowns and four interceptions.

Against the Hokies, he was 14-of-25 for 115 yards. He also ran for 48 yards
on nine carries against Tech, part of his 306 total rushing yards for the
season. He had success running the read option against Tech’s defense last year,
and generally did a good job of keeping the Hokies on their heels all day long.
His biggest game of the year came against UNC, when he passed for 406 yards and
three touchdowns.

Rob Kass (6-4, 250, r-Jr.) is a prototypical pocket quarterback. He started
seven games last year. He completed 96-of-175 (54.9%) passes for 1,164 yards,
with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. He is a solid option for the
Pirates, though he won’t start against Tech.

Pinkney has experience against the Hokies, and he will get the start on
Saturday. At this point it’s unknown whether or not we’ll see any of Kass, and
if so, how much. Tech has two quarterbacks to prepare for, but will more than
likely focus their preparation on Pinkney.

East Carolina has suffered some serious attrition at tailback. Last year’s
starter, Chris Johnson, was a first round draft pick in April. Senior Dominique
Lindsay (5-11, 210, Sr.) was slated to start this year, but he is now out for
the season with a knee injury. J.R. Rogers (5-11, 197, r-Jr.) was going to get
playing time, but he is now very doubtful for this game on Saturday. If he
doesn’t play, the Pirates will be missing two of their top three running backs.

The starter will be Brandon Simmons (6-1, 223, r-Sr.). Simmons has been
around, but he’s never been particularly effective on the ground. He has 53
career carries for 116 yards, just a little over two yards per carry. He’s a
bigger back, so look for the Pirates to use him on the inside to test Tech’s
defensive tackles.

A guy to watch out for at tailback is Jonathan Williams (6-1, 196, So.). He
earned CUSA All-Freshman Team honors last year. He ran for 150 yards and
averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and also made an impact on special teams. He and
Norman Whitley (5-9, 187, r-So.) should see time in this game along with
Simmons.

The Pirates have some solid weapons at receiver, led by Jamar Bryant (6-2,
208, Jr.). Bryant started all 13 games for ECU last year, catching 48 passes for
704 yards and six touchdowns. He’ll be joined by the talented Dwayne Harris
(6-0, 198, r-So.). Harris had 782 all purpose yards last season, including 246
receiving. He caught 26 passes as a freshman, and should be even better this
year.

The ECU offensive line should be solid this year. It will be a good test for
a completely new group of Virginia Tech defensive tackles. Here is a short look
at the starters up front for ECU.


ECU Offensive Line Experience

Posn

Player

Ht

Wt

Year

Career
Starts

LT

Stanley Bryant

6-5

282

Sr.

8

LG

Cory Dowless

6-5

287

r-So.

8

C

Sean Allen

6-3

307

Jr.

2

RG

Doug Palmer

6-3

300

Jr.

13

RT

D.J. Scott

6-6

320

r-So.

8

The Pirates have some guys who have started some games before, but only one
player has started an entire season. While they do return four starters, those
four starters have only combined for 39 career starts. As a comparison, the
Hokies return four starters on the offensive line as well, but they have
combined for 79 career starts.

ECU’s best lineman is right guard Doug Palmer. He was an honorable mention
All-CUSA pick last season. Left guard Cory Dowless was a CUSA All-Freshman
selection in 2006 before redshirting in 2007. Right tackle D.J. Scott was a CUSA
All-Freshman last season.

At center, Sean Allen started two games as a true freshman in 2006. He is the
only projected starter who did not start last season. However, he played nearly
300 snaps in 2007, so he’s got experience. Left tackle Stanley Bryant is a
former walk-on defensive tackle.

ECU will put a good Conference USA offensive line on the field, but I think
Tech’s front seven will be able to stand them up. Tech’s top three defensive
tackles are all third or fourth year players, while ECU’s interior offensive
line is all third year players. From a strength standpoint, they are even, and
with so much attrition at tailback I don’t see the Pirates racking up a lot of
rushing yards on the Hokies.

There are two parts of Tech’s defense that are untested. The first part is at
defensive tackle, which we mentioned above. ECU will attack the middle of the
Hokie defense to test these new players. They are also likely to test the
boundary side of the defense, so pay attention and see if you notice the Pirates
attacking the short side of the field, on the ground and through the air.

Why the short side? Because the Hokies are breaking in a new boundary corner
(Macho Harris, a field corner last year), rover (Davon Morgan) and backer
(Purnell Sturdivant). All of those positions play on the short side of the
field. Macho is a returning starter, but he’s at a new position, and he might be
playing on an injured foot on Saturday. If he doesn’t play, then Rashad
Carmichael will get the start, and he has never started before.

Luckily, Tech returns Orion Martin at the end position (the boundary side
defensive end). He is excellent in containment and run support. He will play an
important role in slowing down the read option to the boundary side of the
field.

The ECU Defense

East Carolina returns most of their starters on defense as well. They are
pretty deep on the defensive line. The front seven is clearly the strength of
their defense, while the secondary is the weak link. However, Tech probably
won’t have the receivers to exploit the Pirate cornerbacks, as they did last
season.

Zack Slate (6-5, 221, r-Sr.) is East Carolina’s best defensive end, despite
his size. He is a preseason All-CUSA selection. He had seven tackles for loss
and 4.5 sacks last season. He has deceptive strength for a player his size, and
he is obviously quick for a defensive end. Blake DeChristopher will have a tough
challenge in his first collegiate game.

Although he won’t be starting, Marcus Hands (6-5, 281, Sr.) is ECU’s most
talented player up front. He was a top five player in the state of North
Carolina coming out of high school, and originally signed with UNC. However,
Hands has had shoulder problems throughout his career, undergoing surgery on
three different occasions.

As a result, Hands isn’t particularly effective at the point of attack. He’s
more of an edge rusher who can run from sideline to sideline. When he’s in the
game, it would be better to run right at him rather than away from him.

C. J. Wilson (6-4, 271, Jr.) was a Second Team All-CUSA selection last
season. He finished with seven sacks. Entering his third season, he should be
poised to have an excellent season. He and Zack Slate combine to form an
excellent combination of defensive ends.

Other defensive ends who will see action are Scotty Robinson (6-4, 250,
r-Jr.) and A.J. Johnson (6-2, 256, r-So.). Robinson started six games as a
r-freshman in 2006. This is a very deep group of defensive ends.

ECU has talent at defensive tackle, but they have also had injury issues.
Brandon Setzer, a part-time starter and major contributor, has been lost for the
season with a knee injury. Big tackle Linval Joseph (6-6, 300, So) has been
suffering from a back injury. He’s expected to play on Saturday, but he might
not be 100%. He was a member of the CUSA All-Freshman team last year.

Jay Ross (6-3, 306, Jr.) was an Honorable Mention All-CUSA defensive tackle
last year. Joining him in the starting lineup will be Khalif Mitchell (6-6, 306,
Sr.), a transfer from UNC, where he saw some starting time for the Tar Heels as
a freshman. Like Ross, he was an Honorable Mention All-CUSA selection in 2007.

All four of ECU’s starters on the defensive line made some sort of postseason
Conference USA list. Despite the injuries at defensive tackle, this is a deep
group of players. This will probably be the deepest defensive line the Hokies
face until they play Boston College in October. We’ll see how much Tech’s
offensive line has improved right away.

ECU has a good group of linebackers as well. Starting in the middle is Pierre
Bell (6-2, 233, r-Sr.). He has been a full-time starter at ECU since he was a
sophomore. He earned Honorable Mention All-CUSA honors last season when he
finished with 97 tackles and five tackles for loss.

Quentin Cotton (6-2, 225, Sr.) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Like
Bell, he has been starting since he was a sophomore. He was a Third Team All-CUSA
pick in 2006. Last season he was a major playmaker for the Pirates, finishing
with 11 tackles for loss. He has 19 tackles for loss in his career. He blew up
on the Hokies last year, finishing with 14 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack
and a forced fumble.

The third starter at linebacker is weakside backer Jeremy Chambliss (6-0,
235, r-Jr.). He started four games last season, though he was limited by
injuries. He is the only member of the East Carolina front seven who has never
earned postseason Conference USA accolades.

Behind that stout front seven is a secondary that can be exploited. The
Pirates do have a very good free safety in Van Eskridge (6-0, 200, r-Jr.). He
was named Second Team All-CUSA in 2007. He led the team in tackles with 104. He
is a good safety against the run, having started six games at linebacker as a
r-freshman in 2006.

Strong safety J.J. Milbrook (5-9, 191, r-Sr.) started three games last
season, and led ECU in interceptions with three. The starting cornerbacks are
Jerek Hewitt (5-11, 195, Sr.) and Dekota Marshall (6-1, 195, r-So.). Hewitt
started eight games last season. He’s a good athlete who also saw action at wide
receiver early in his career.

The Pirates are high on their backup cornerbacks, Darryl Reynolds (6-1, 189,
So.) and Emanuel Davis (5-11, 190, r-Fr.). They should both see action against
the Hokies.

Although seven of ECU’s defensive starters last year received some sort of
post season accolades, the defense was not good as a group. Take a look at these
stats.


2007 East Carolina Defensive
Statistics

Category

Stat

National Rank

Rushing Defense

142.15 ypg

50

Pass Defense

289 ypg

114

Total Defense

431.15 ypg

95

Scoring Defense

30.38 ppg

83

Pass Efficiency Defense

134.85

85

Ouch, not good. The Pirates allowed 31 points to UNC, 48 to West Virginia, 35 to
Houston, 38 to UCF, 42 to UTEP, 34 to NC State, 40 to Memphis and 38 to Boise
State. ECU allowed more than 30 points in eight of their 13 games.

So how does a team with so many good individual defensive players have such
bad numbers? I don’t know. I do know that turnover margin helped them. The
Pirates finished fourth nationally in turnover margin a season ago.

Special Teams

East Carolina also has a key injury on special teams. Starting kicker Ben
Hartman might miss the game. If that’s the case, the Pirates will go with
r-freshman Ben Ryan. That could be a major advantage for the Hokies.

At punter, Matt Dodge (6-2, 220, r-Jr.) returns as the starter. He averaged
41.3 yards per punt a year ago. However, as a team ECU was only 102nd nationally
in net punting with an average of 32.77.

The Pirates will have Dwayne Harris as their punt returner. He averaged 8.1
yards per return last season, and should be one of ECU’s most dynamic players
this year. Cornerback Jerek Hewett and running back Jonathan Williams are the
likely kick returners.

Obviously, the Hokies could do themselves a big favor by winning the special
teams battle. With such inexperience at the wide receiver position, Frank Beamer
probably isn’t expecting his offense to score that much. You know he’s getting
the special teams ready to try and make a few big plays.

Conclusion

You’ve been hearing the stat all week. 41% of Tech’s travel roster has never
played a snap in a college game. We all know that the Hokies have a young
football team. That’s scary, but it’s also exciting.

I’m excited to see Dyrell Roberts return punts, but it also scares me. I’m
hoping the Tech offense gets the ball first, so he can get the jitters out
before he has to return that first punt. A punt returner is like the quarterback
on offense and a cornerback on defense. All it takes is one momentary lapse of
concentration, and boom, you’ve cost your team the game.

I’ll be interested to see how aggressive the Hokies are offensively. Frank
Beamer said on Monday night’s Hokie Hotline that ECU is too good defensively to
be conservative, and that Tech must attack the Pirates. What does that mean?
Less off tackles and a different variety of flanker screens? Or does it mean
throwing the ball downfield to exploit their secondary? Tech’s receivers are
young, but they are still superior athletes to the ECU defensive backs? We’ll
find out on Saturday.

I don’t think the Hokies will be quite as good this year defensively, but I’m
still confident that they’ll play well against ECU on Saturday. This game will
come down to how well Tech’s offense can move the ball, or perhaps the first
team to blink on special teams.

East Carolina is a good team who will be playing in a bowl game this year,
yet again. They are a confident team. They know they can beat Tech, and they
believe they will. However, I think they are going to see a much stronger Tech
team at the point of attack this year. They looked good in shutting down Tech’s
running game last season, but remember, so did William & Mary. With Ed Wang
at tackle and Nick Marshman at guard, I’m thinking the Hokies would have had
more than 33 yards on the ground a year ago.

In short, this will be a test. We’ll find out a lot about the Hokies in the
first week of the season, and that’s always good. I think Tech will pull out a
hard-fought game, and a score on special teams or defense will be the major
difference.

Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, East Carolina 14

Will Stewart’s Take: Here’s a shocker from Tuesday’s
Hokie Hotline Notes
:

Beamer said Tech must attack East Carolina to be successful. Being
conservative won’t beat them. They are so good up front defensively. Their
offense is very good as well, and you can’t wait for them to make the first
hit. It won’t be a conservative game plan for Tech.

(THUD)

That’s the sound of me hitting the floor after fainting.

Assuming Frank was talking about the offense, God love him, but I’ll believe
it when I see it. I fully anticipate a steady diet of the power running game up
the middle, laced with the good ole flanker screen, ad nauseum. Down and out
patterns when you need to go farther than five yards, plus the occasional bomb
downfield to try to take advantage of ECU’s defensive backfield. Play field
position football and get the wide receivers’ and tailbacks’ feet wet, without
asking too much.

It will be interesting to see how much the Hokie coaching staff uses Greg
Boone in his new, multi-dimensional H-back role. We’ve seen a lot of Boone this
fall, and he’s been impressive, but when the lights go on, Tech tends to stick
with the familiar offensively.

Perhaps Frank was talking about defense and special teams. I’m no football
strategist, but defensively I can see the Hokies playing assignment football for
awhile, as they figure out what ECU’s doing, then bring the heat when the weak
points of the ECU offense become apparent. Macho Harris isn’t going to be a
hundred percent and may not play at all, and Jason Worilds has been nursing a
sore hamstring this fall, so the last thing Bud Foster’s going to do is give up
a couple of cheap scores while the Tech offense figures itself out.

ECU is a team with momentum and confidence, but they’re running into one of
the most focused and cohesive Hokie football teams we’ve seen in a while, if
fall press clippings are to be believed. Multiple sources have been saying for
weeks that the Tech coaching staff is sweating this game. That said, the Hokie
coaches are fortunate that their players are no-nonsense types, and with the
announcement of Tyrod Taylor’s redshirt, there will be no looking around for
second options.

I think ECU will bring more offensive flair to the fight than the Hokies, and
the Pirates might try some tricky stuff. The Hokies might mix in a trick play or
two, but Tech won’t roll the dice a lot on offense, because there’s too much
youth out there in orange and maroon, facing too much experience in purple and
gold.

I don’t look for flash or fireworks. I think this one will be a nasty,
toe-to-toe brawl for 60 minutes. Both teams have a lot at stake, and while
there’s not much national attention being paid to this contest, the rest of the
country is missing a good one if they don’t tune in. This one will be a
dogfight.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 17, ECU 13

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