2009 Football Game Preview: #23 Virginia Tech at East Carolina

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  • Date: Thursday, November 5th, 2009
  • Time: 7:30 PM
  • TV: ESPN

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Virginia Tech is coming off two straight ACC losses, and now they must
journey to Greenville to take on a tough ECU team on a Thursday night. This will
be the biggest home game of the season for the Pirates. Their fans are excited,
and their players have nothing to lose because it’s not a conference game.
Meanwhile, the Hokies have question marks on both sides of the football, and
they might be suffering from some confidence issues. This is a scary game, if
you’re a Tech fan.

East Carolina is 5-3, but they are playing their best football of the season
right now. Here’s what they’ve done so far.


ECU Results

Opponent

Result

Appalachian State

29-24 W

West Virginia

35-20 L

North Carolina

31-17 L

UCF

19-14 W

Marshall

21-17 W

SMU

28-21 L

Rice

49-13 W

Memphis

38-19 W

The Pirates have won four of their last five games. They are getting healthier,
and over those five games they have held their opponents to under 100 yards
rushing on four occasions. Offensively, they are averaging 400 yards per game
over that five game stretch. This is a good football team that is strong up
front on both sides of the line of scrimmage. They will be a tough matchup for
the Hokies from that perspective.

The East Carolina Offense

The ECU offense is led by sixth year senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney (6-0,
205, r-Sr.). Pinkney is obviously a very experienced quarterback, and a very
mature player. He is also very experienced against the Virginia Tech defense. He
has enjoyed a lot of success against Bud Foster over the last two years.


Pinkney vs. Virginia Tech

Year

Comp.

Att.

Yards

TD

INT

Rush Yds

Rush TDs

2007

14

25

115

0

0

48

0

2008

19

23

211

1

0

24

1

Total

33

48

326

1

0

72

1

Those are good numbers against a good defense. The Pirates have figured out how
to use Pinkney against the Hokies. They have used him on a read option, they
have used him from the pocket, and they have used him on rollouts on the edge.
They’ve done a good job of keeping the Virginia Tech defense off balance.

Pinkney is a talented player, and he’s got other talented skill position
players at his disposal. Running back Dominique Lindsay (5-11, 202, r-Sr.) is a
very good player who has run for 570 yards on the season, averaging 95 yards per
game and 5.8 yards per carry. Lindsay has good quickness, and he’s a deceptively
strong runner for his size. He missed the 2008 season with a knee injury, but he
is back and stronger than ever in 2009.

Lindsay is a talented running back that you won’t hear a lot about on the
national scene. However, he’s a legit player. At the beginning of the 2007
season, he was starting over current Tennessee Titan starting tailback Chris
Johnson.

The Pirates also use Brandon Jackson (5-10, 202, r-So.) and Giavanni Ruffin
(6-1, 215, r-Jr.). Jackson has run for 264 yards and three touchdowns while
averaging 3.6 yards per carry. Ruffin is from Virginia Beach, where he played
just one year of football at Hickory High School. After attending junior college
for two years, he signed with East Carolina. He has 165 yards on 48 carries. He
is coming off his best game in which he ran for 87 yards on 14 carries against
Memphis. Ruffin will be fired up to play against the Hokies on Thursday night.

The best player for East Carolina is probably wide receiver Dwayne Harris
(6-0, 205, r-Jr.). Harris is a dynamic player who can hurt you in a number of
ways. He is East Carolina’s leading receiver, catching 47 passes for 521 yards
and three touchdowns on the season. The next-closest receiver, Jamar Bryant
(6-2, 219, Sr.), has 21 catches.

Harris will also line up at quarterback in ECU’s version of the Wildcat
offense. He played quarterback in high school, so he can throw the football. He
has completed 1-of-2 passes on the season for 35 yards. Harris also has 19
carries for 104 yards and four touchdowns.


But that’s not all. Harris is also the primary kick returner for ECU. He has
25 returns for an average of 25.8 yards per return on the season. He has
returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. The Pirates find ways to get the ball in
his hands, and he is very productive. He has reached the end zone a total of
nine times on the season, with touchdowns in the passing game, running game and
on special teams.

Jamar Bryant, the other starting receiver, is also a talented player. Bryant
isn’t as explosive as Harris, but he is a big, physical receiver. He originally
committed to Georgia out of high school.

Will Stewart and Raleigh Hokie have discussed Virginia Tech’s interior
defense getting pushed around by a North Carolina offensive line that isn’t
particularly good. This week the Hokies will be facing a big offensive line
whose strength is on the interior.


ECU Offensive Line

Pos.

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Year

LT

Willie Smith

6-6

290

Jr.

LG

Terence Campbell

6-5

318

Sr.

C

Sean Allen

6-3

310

Sr.

RG

Cory Dowless

6-5

309

Jr.

RT

D.J. Scott

6-6

323

Jr.

The strength of that line is right in the middle. Terence Campbell, Sean Allen
and Cory Dowless are all returning starters, as is right tackle D.J. Scott. They
successfully controlled the line of scrimmage against the Hokies in 2008, and
they also kept the Tech defense off Patrick Pinkney. Tech had just one sack on
ECU last season, and only one other tackle for loss. ECU has allowed just eight
sacks this season.

In short, the ECU offense is not easy to defend. They have a mobile
quarterback who can run and throw, a tailback who would be on his way to a 1,000
yard season if not for missing two games with an injury, a couple of wide
receivers who can beat you in the passing game, and a big, experienced offensive
line.

This game will also be played on the road, where the Tech defense has
struggled this year. In three games away from Lane Stadium, the Hokies are
allowing 205 rushing yards per game, 213.33 passing yards per game and 417.33
total yards per game. Opponents can run it or throw against Tech when they catch
them out of Blacksburg. This game will be a major challenge for the Virginia
Tech defense.

The East Carolina Defense

The strength of this ECU defense lies in their front seven. The Pirates are
big and physical on the defensive line, and they have successfully shut down the
run during their recent winning streak. They’ve allowed just 87.8 yards per game
on the ground in their last five games.

The size of their defensive line is one reason why.


ECU Defensive Line

Pos.

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Year

DE

C.J. Wilson

6-4

278

Sr.

DT

Jay Ross

6-3

314

Sr.

DT

Linval Joseph

6-6

322

Jr.

DE

Scotty Robinson

6-4

271

r-Sr.

All of those players were critical in ECU’s win against Virginia Tech last
season. The Hokie offensive line couldn’t move them off the ball. Tech went
against the UNC defensive line last Thursday night, which is similar in size,
and did not have much success.

C.J. Wilson is the best player on the line. He was one of the top defensive
ends in the nation in 2008, recording 18.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. He
plays left defensive end for ECU, so he’ll be matching up with Tech right tackle
Blake DeChristopher. This is not a great matchup for the Hokies. Wilson only has
6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this year, but those numbers are misleading.
He will be selected in the 2010 NFL Draft.

The best player on the inside is massive Linval Joseph. Joseph has lost a lot
of weight during his career, and he’s down to a listed weight of 322.
That makes him a quicker player, and it’s showing this season. He has been ECU’s
biggest defensive disruptor up the defensive line, with 9.5 tackles for loss and
three sacks this year.

Joseph plays nose guard, and the ECU coaches surely like his matchup with
Tech center Michael Via (6-7, 284, r-Fr.), who is playing for an injured Beau
Warren. Via is a very young player, and a very smart player. He has quick feet,
and he’s going to develop into a quality offensive lineman for the Hokies.
However, he needs another year in the weight room before he can physically
compete with a guy like Linval Joseph, or Jay Ross, the other ECU defensive
tackle.

Overall, this is not a big pass rushing defensive line. The ECU defense has
just 14 sacks on the season. However, they do have 49 tackles for loss. They get
penetration against the running game.

The Pirates also have the luxury of having experienced linebackers, led by
outside linebacker Jeremy Chambliss (6-0, 220, r-Sr.). Chambliss was a starter
last season and a part-time starter in 2007, so he has plenty of experience. He
has six tackles for loss, a sack and an interception on the season.

The other outside linebacker is Chris Mattocks (6-0, 214, r-Sr.). Mattocks is
a former safety who has moved to linebacker. He brings athleticism to the
position, but he lacks the size that you would want in a traditional linebacker.

The middle linebacker is Nick Johnson (6-1, 217, Sr.). Johnson is a tough,
instinctive player, though he lacks the ideal size for the position. He leads
the team with 60 tackles on the season, and he also has 4.5 tackles for loss and
two sacks. The entire ECU linebacking corps is undersized, but they play
effectively behind a very big defensive line.

The obvious weakness of the ECU defense is their secondary. They rank 103rd
nationally in pass defense, and 73rd in pass efficiency defense. This group
doesn’t have the talent to use the UNC or the Nebraska game plans on the Hokies,
which involved playing man-to-man defense in the secondary while the front seven
concentrated on defending the run or containing Tyrod Taylor.

The best player in the secondary is free safety Van Eskridge (6-0, 195,
r-Sr.). Eskridge has been starting since he was a freshman, first as an outside
linebacker and then as a free safety. His experience at linebacker makes him a
very physical player. He tackles well, and he makes plays for the ECU defense.
He is second on the team with 57 tackles, and first with three interceptions.

The Pirates play a strong cornerback and a weak cornerback. The strong corner
is Emanuel Davis (5-11, 190, r-So). He had four interceptions as a freshman last
year, and has added another in 2009. He is the most physical of ECU’s
cornerbacks. The weak corner is Travis Simmons (5-10, 177, Jr.). He also has an
interception this season. Davis and Simmons are solid players, but the Hokie
wide receivers should be able to make some plays in this game.

Attacking the middle of ECU’s defense isn’t likely to be successful. The
Hokies had their biggest plays last year against the Pirates by attacking the
edge and going deep in the passing game. They had successful outside running
plays by Kenny Lewis, and Dyrell Roberts was able to get behind the defense for
a 62 yard gain.

This year, the Hokies have new weapons with which to attack the edge.
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor didn’t play against ECU last year, and Ryan Williams
will be taking those outside zone plays rather than Kenny Lewis. Look for the
Hokies to try and get Tyrod Taylor on the edge, the most attackable spot of
ECU’s defense. He should have run/pass options to put maximum pressure on the
Pirate secondary.

Special Teams

ECU returns both kickers from last year’s team. Ben Hartman (5-11, 209, Sr.)
is 8-of-12 on the season. He’s got a good leg, and he’s generally a pretty
consistent kicker. However, two of his misses this year have been blocked. Ben
Ryan (6-2, 199, So.) has also attempted two field goals this season, and one of
his attempts has been blocked. That’s three blocked field goals in eight games
for East Carolina. Don’t think that Frank Beamer hasn’t noticed that. A big
field goal block could be the difference in a game like this.

Matt Dodge (6-2, 220, Sr.) is averaging a booming 45.3 yards per punt, and
ECU is 29th nationally in net punting. The Pirates have a very good kicking
combination with Hartman and Dodge.

We’ve already discussed Dwayne Harris and his two kickoff returns for
touchdowns. East Carolina is also fourth nationally in punt return average.
Travis Simmons has averaged 17.7 yards per return this year, but he’s only
returned seven punts. He’s obviously dangerous when he has open space, so Tech
gunners Zach Luckett and Alonzo Tweedy need to get downfield quickly.

With the exception of allowing three field goals to be blocked, East Carolina
has been pretty good on special teams. They have dangerous players in the return
game, and solid kickers.

Conclusion

Pardon me if I have no idea what is going to happen in this game. Coming off
two straight losses, I could see the Hokies rolling down to Greenville flat and
getting beat. This is the biggest game of the season for ECU. A Thursday night
home game, and they are apparently having some sort of a “Pirate Out”.
Fans are encouraged to dress like Pirates, and there will be skulls and
crossbones on players’ uniforms. This is a pretty big deal for those guys.

This is also a big deal for East Carolina’s 12 senior starters. This is their
last chance to play in a truly big football game, live on an ESPN national
audience. They have a chance to do something special for the last time in their
college football careers. They are confident they can beat the Hokies, because
they did it last season.

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Square Condominiums, Blacksburg’s Premier Address

I could also see the Hokies winning this game handily. Tyrod Taylor and Ryan
Williams weren’t on the field last season against ECU. They can make big plays
on the edge, and the Tech wide receivers are capable of making plays downfield
against the Pirate defense. This Tech offense is much more capable than the one
that took the field in 2008 in Charlotte.

College football is about three things: talent, execution and emotion.
Virginia Tech holds the overall talent edge in this game, while ECU should hold
the emotional edge playing at home on a Thursday night. The key here is
execution, which the Hokies haven’t done very well recently, and which they
haven’t done well on the road all season. How many times have we heard “we
played hard, but we didn’t execute” after a game this season?

I don’t have great confidence that Tech will out-execute ECU on Thursday
night. If they haven’t gotten their consistency level to a high point this late
in the season, is it likely that they will now? No. They will probably still be
inconsistent from here on out. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. If the Pirates
catch the Hokies on one of those bad nights, they will win the game.

I’m going with the Hokies in this one, because I think Tyrod Taylor and Ryan
Williams will make enough big plays to sneak out with a narrow win, and because
Tech has never lost two Thursday night games in a row. But I also have to admit
that I’m not supremely confident about this one. From 1 to 10 on a confidence
scale, put me down for a 5.5.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, East Carolina 20

Will Stewart’s Take: This has all the makings of a loss. The Hokies
struggle with good defensive front sevens, and the Hokies are going to face a
solid front seven with an inexperienced center who isn’t quite ready weight- or
strength-wise. On the other side of the ball, ECU has a multi-faceted offensive
attack and the personnel that enable them to change up game plans depending upon
the opponent. The Pirates are not limited offensively.

One of the primary reasons Tech lost to ECU last year was the play of Patrick
Pinkney, who started out 2008 smoking hot. Pinkney was 19-of-23 for 211
yards against the Hokies in the opener, and he followed that up with a 22-of-28
effort for 236 yards in his next game against WVU, a game the Pirates also won.
Pinkney tossed no interceptions and two touchdowns in those two games. ECU was
the “BCS Buster” flavor of the week early last year, until losing to
NC State in the fourth game of the season.

Our memories of Patrick Pinkney are visions of him shredding the Hokie
offense, but Pinkney’s reality is very different. He tailed off as the season
wore on last year, and went from being the hottest QB in the nation to finishing
#46 in pass efficiency.

This season, Pinkney’s pass efficiency numbers are down. He is only the 98th
rated passer in the country, with more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (8).
Then again, T.J. Yates is the #100 passer in the nation, and that didn’t hinder
UNC’s operation last Thursday night, did it? Yates hit 11 of his first 12
attempts in the second half. The reason why is that Tech didn’t get pressure on
Yates. Left alone to play pitch-and-catch without any defensive pressure,
experienced QBs like Yates — and Pinkney — will do fine.

Moving on to larger topics, ECU is going to be fired up for this game.
This is what it’s like to be Virginia Tech now: everyone is circling their date
with VT on the calendar, and the Hokies are getting everyone’s best shot.
They’re going to get ECU’s best shot.

I’m no football coach, but I think that walking into Dowdy-Ficklen and doing
the same things the Hokies have done all year is a recipe for a big, fat L.
There’s plenty of game film on how to defeat the Hokies, both offensively and
defensively, so the pressure is on the Hokie coaching staff to do something
different, something the opposition hasn’t seen on film. This isn’t a generic
call to “be more unpredictable” or try a bunch of trick plays. It’s a
call to come out and surprise the opponent, instead of bull-headedly doing
things the same way.

Some of the matchups in this game are poor matchups for the Hokies, and the
challenge in front of the Tech coaching staff is cover for the poor matchups,
and to find and exploit good matchups.

For example, I’m told that Michael Via needs more time in the weight room at
this point in his career and is a better pass blocker than run blocker. I’m also
told that ECU’s defensive front seven is pretty good. Okay. Draw some
conclusions about how you would handle that situation.

Another thought: It was critical to this season that Tyrod Taylor stay
healthy, so limiting his exposure in the run game and having him throw the ball
away or run out of bounds was advisable. Fair enough. But we’re eight games into
the season now, and the Hokies have fallen out of the national championship race
and the ACC championship race. So we’re running out of things to protect. Turn
the kid loose. What does that mean? I don’t know, I’m not a football coach, so
I’m not going to get presumptive and tell you how I would use him. But I do know
that Tyrod is one of the difference makers on this team, and using him
effectively is a key to getting some more wins.

Virginia Tech hasn’t lost three games in a row since the 2003 season. This is
the third time the Hokies have lost two games in a row since then, and the
previous two times, they turned things around and won their next game. I don’t
like the situation Tech’s going into down in Greenville, and I don’t know how
the Hokies are going to win — I literally don’t — but Tech has been resilient
over the last five-plus seasons, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, East Carolina 20

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