2011 Football Game Preview: #11 Virginia Tech at East Carolina

Chris Coleman, TechSideline.com, on September 7, 2011
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  • Date: Saturday, September 10th, 2011
  • Time: 3:30
  • TV: Fox SportsNet (check local listings)


Virginia Tech has won 14 consecutive road games in the state of North
Carolina. On Saturday, they’ll look to make it 15 in a row when they travel to
Greenville to take on East Carolina.

It’s true, the state of North Carolina is more known for its basketball than
its football. Still, 14 consecutive wins is pretty impressive, and it’s even
more impressive when you consider that eight of them have come by double digits.
That includes an 11-point win at NC State last season, as well as a 16-point win
at UNC.


Carolina Road Trips

Year

Opp.

Result
1994 ECU 27-20 W
2000 ECU 45-28 W
2004 Wake 17-10 W
2004 UNC 27-24 W
2005 NC State 20-16 W
2005 Duke 45-0 W
2006 UNC 35-10 W
2006 Wake 27-6 W
2007 Duke 43-14 W
2008 UNC 20-17 W
2009 Duke 34-26 W
2009 ECU 16-3 W
2010 NC State 41-30 W
2010 UNC 26-10 W

The last time the Hokies dropped a road game in the state of North Carolina
was 1992 … at East Carolina. The only time Tech has lost in North Carolina
since then was a neutral site game in Charlotte in 2008 … against East
Carolina. The Pirates are the only program to beat Frank Beamer in the state of
North Carolina during the Beamer Bowl Era.

East Carolina is 0-1 following a 56-37 loss to South Carolina in Charlotte on
Saturday night. Despite the number of points scored by South Carolina, it
appears the Pirate defense has improved after being horrendous against the run
and pass last season. The Gamecocks scored a defensive touchdown and a special
teams touchdown, and had several other short scoring drives thanks to turnovers.

That said, the Pirates still did a poor job of keeping SC out of the end
zone. South Carolina also fell down 17-0 early before putting in starting
quarterback Stephen Garcia, who was being kept on the sideline for disciplinary
issues. With Garcia quarterbacking the Gamecocks over the final 2.5 quarters,
East Carolina was outscored 56-20.

Nevertheless, this has the potential to be a very difficult road trip for the
Hokies. This will be East Carolina’s first home game of the season, and the
Pirates are always looking to upset an ACC team at home. What could be better
than knocking off the defending ACC Champions?

The East Carolina Offense

With head coach Ruffin McNeill coming from Texas Tech, the Pirates like to
spread the field with multiple receivers and throw the ball a lot. East Carolina
will use many of the same formations as Appalachian State, but they will not be
nearly as balanced in their run-pass playcalling. Pirate quarterback Dominique
Davis (6-3, 210, r-Sr.) threw the ball 56 times last week against South
Carolina. He threw it 44 times against the Hokies a year ago.

When East Carolina does run the ball, their runs are generally shotgun
handoffs or read option plays. Their passing game isn’t particularly difficult
to figure out. They rely on very quick passes that get their receivers in space
with the opportunity to make big plays. The key to defending the East Carolina
offense is tackling their receivers in the open field. They will pick up some
first downs, but you can’t miss tackles and give up big plays.

As a result of their quick passing game, East Carolina only allowed 15 sacks
in 2010. They didn’t allow any against a good South Carolina front seven last
week. Virginia Tech got to Dominique Davis three times last season, which is
very impressive considering the type of offense they run.

Davis is a former Boston College quarterback who started against the Hokies
in the 2008 ACC Championship Game. In two career games against Tech, Davis is
47-of-87 for 514 yards, with two touchdowns and four interceptions. Don’t let
those interception numbers fool you, as he is a very capable quarterback. Last
week against South Carolina, the defending SEC East Champions, Davis was
37-of-56 for 260 yards, with four touchdowns and just one interception.

His numbers against the Gamecocks show what the East Carolina offense is all
about. Despite completing 37 passes, Davis had just 260 yards through the air.
The South Carolina defense took away the deep ball, and did a good job tackling
the ECU receivers.

Their best wide receiver from last year, Dwayne Harris, is gone. Lance Lewis
(6-3, 209, Sr.) and Justin Hardy (6-0, 181, r-Fr.) were the top two targets for
Davis against South Carolina. Lewis had 13 catches for 108 yards and two
touchdowns, while Hardy caught 11 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. No East
Carolina receiver averaged over 8.3 yards per catch, so perhaps they don’t have
the playmakers on the outside this year that they had last year in Harris, who
had 10 catches for 119 yards against the Hokies.

East Carolina also lost two quality runners in Jon Williams and Giavani
Ruffin. Replacing them are JUCO transfer Reggie Bullock (5-9, 176, Jr.) and
Michael Dobson (6-0, 190, r-So.). Bullock was one of the most prolific JUCO
players in the country last season, and he had 18 carries for 67 yards against
South Carolina. Dobson is a very inexperienced player who has seen very little
game action.


The East Carolina Offensive Line

Pos.

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.
LT Jordan Davis 6-3 290 r-So.
LG Adhem Elsawi 6-5 319 r-So.
C Doug Polochak 6-3 303 r-Sr.
RG Will Simmons 6-5 310 r-So.
RT Grant Harner 6-6 287 r-So.

Center Doug Polochak is a sixth-year senior who has had most of his career
taken away from him due to injuries. He is the oldest member of the offensive
line. Davis, Elsawi (transfer from 1-AA Campbell) and Simmons are first-year
starters, while Grant Harner is probably the best lineman on the team. Harner
started as a r-freshman last season and did a good job.

This is not an offensive line that is designed to do well in a power running
game. This is a line that can move its feet in the passing game, and get to the
correct angles and the second level in the running game.

Don’t look for the Hokies to blitz very much in this game. Bud Foster will
reserve his blitzes for third and long situations. Tech will use a lot of nickel
package in this game to counter East Carolina’s spread formation. As we saw on
Saturday, when the Hokies use their nickel formation, r-senior Cris Hill enters
the game at field corner while sophomore Kyle Fuller slides inside to the nickel
spot.

On third and long situations, look for the Hokies to bring the blitz,
particularly up the middle with Bruce Taylor and Tariq Edwards/Telvion Clark.
East Carolina’s backs were soundly whipped by Bruce Taylor and Lyndell Gibson on
the blitz last season, and this year the Pirates have two new running backs that
are smaller and not used to pass protecting against guys like Taylor, Edwards
and Clark.

The Hokies have two big keys this week: stop the run, and tackle well in the
open field to prevent big gains after the catch. If the defense can do that,
they’ll have a successful afternoon.

The East Carolina Defense

East Carolina was statistically the worst defense in the country last season,
finishing #120 out of 120 teams. They were bad against both the run and the
pass. In the offseason, Ruffin McNeill decided to switch to a 3-4, which suits
the ECU personnel better than a 4-3. This unit did appear to be much improved up
front in their first game against South Carolina, though the Gamecocks didn’t
bring in starting quarterback Stephen Garcia until midway through the second
quarter.

South Carolina had just 351 yards of total offense against East Carolina, and
that’s a big improvement for the Pirates on paper. Still, when you do a little
digging, there are other things you notice.

  • South Carolina likely would have had 400+ yards with Garcia under center
    for the entire game.
  • East Carolina only had one tackle for loss, and that was a sack. They had
    zero TFL’s against the running game.
  • East Carolina never kept South Carolina out of the end zone when they
    threatened to score. With their backs against the wall, the Pirate defense never
    held the Gamecocks to a field goal.

East Carolina’s defensive line is as inexperienced as Virginia Tech’s. It
features a r-senior, a junior, a r-sophomore, two true sophomores and two
r-freshmen.

The starting defensive ends are Derrell Johnson (6-1, 263, So.) and Matt
Milner (6-4, 257, r-So.). Johnson had ECU’s only tackle for loss and sack
against South Carolina, and overall he is probably the top playmaker on the
defensive line. The starting noseguard is Michael Brooks (6-3, 297, Jr.), who
has had two right knee surgeries that have kept him out of the last two spring
practices (the only two of his career). His backups are Terry Williams (6-1,
324, r-Fr.) and Chrishon Rose (6-4, 288, r-Fr.).

The backup defensive ends are Antonio Allen (6-4, 284, r-Sr.) and Lee Pegues
(6-2, 280, So.). Allen isn’t a natural defensive end, while Pegues is just a
second year player. Personnel is still an issue for ECU up front, though overall
they are better than last season.

The Pirates have four players who are capable of starting at the outside
linebacker spots. At one spot, it will be either Justin Dixon (6-1, 252, r-So.)
or Chris Baker (6-3, 238, Jr.). Dixon was once one of the top 10 recruits in the
state of North Carolina in 2009, originally signing with UNC. However, he ended
up at ECU where he played a lot as a defensive end last season. He had a sack of
Tyrod Taylor in Lane Stadium. Baker is a JUCO recruit who is a good fit at the
outside linebacker spot.

Marke Powell (6-3, 222, Jr.) is one of the co-starters at the other outside
linebacker spot, along with Cliff Perryman (6-1, 224, r-Sr.), who is an alum of
Hermitage High School in Richmond. Powell played defensive end last season,
while Perryman hasn’t enjoyed a particularly good career at East Carolina.

Daniel Drake (6-0, 237, r-Jr) and Jeremy Grove (6-1, 230, r-Fr.) led the team
in tackles from their inside linebacker positions against South Carolina. Drake
is a former walk-on at Marshall before transferring to East Carolina, and he
also attended Hargrave Military Academy. Grove is a young player with only one
college game under his belt.

Overall, East Carolina has improved up front. They have a scheme that fits
their personnel much better this season, and they have made some position
changes that make sense. However, they still aren’t particularly good in the
front seven. They allowed 220 rushing yards against South Carolina, with both
Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Stephen Garcia having big games.

They are good in the secondary, with three senior starters. They are
particularly good at cornerback, where Emmanuel Davis (5-11, 182, r-Sr.) is one
of the best defensive backs in Conference USA. This is his third season as a
full-time starter, and he has eight career interceptions. The other corner is
Derek Blacknall (5-11, 176, r-Sr.). He isn’t particularly big, but he is very
experienced. This is his second year as a full-time starter.

Bradley Jacobs (5-10, 210, Jr.) is East Carolina’s hard-hitting strong
safety. He forced two fumbles against Virginia Tech last season, and he is
probably better against the run than against the pass. This is his second season
as a starter since transferring from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College,
so he adds even more experience to the ECU secondary.

Damon Magazu (5-11, 199, So.) is the new starter at free safety for the
Pirates. Magazu comes from Providence High School in Charlotte, and he is used
to winning a lot of games. He has a nose for the football, intercepting 11
passes as a junior in high school, including four in one game. He also made 124
tackles that year. Magazu has a good future at East Carolina.

Look for the Hokies to try and establish the run early against East Carolina.
The Pirates couldn’t stop it last season, and they couldn’t stop it against
South Carolina in the opening game. David Wilson had 12 carries for 89 yards and
two touchdowns against ECU last season, and he also had one catch for 26 yards.
As the new feature back, look for him to put up even bigger numbers against a
Pirate defense that has struggled to stop the run since they lost so many
seniors following the 2009 season.

Special Teams

Ben Ryan (6-2, 204, Sr.) is a name to remember. He kicks off for East
Carolina, and he also serves as their punter. He averaged just 57 yards per
kickoff against South Carolina, so there will be an opportunity for the Hokies
to get good field position on their kickoff returns.

Ryan also averaged just 36.2 yards per punt on six attempts against the
Gamecocks, and had one returned 68 yards for a touchdown by Ace Sanders. It was
South Carolina’s first punt return for a touchdown since 2003. The Hokies have
an opportunity to gain an advantage in the kicking game on Saturday. Hidden
yardage is critical, particularly when trying to win on the road.

Look for the Hokies to kick to Danny Webster (5-10, 188, Fr.) on kickoffs.
Webster is only a true freshman who is still very new to the college game, yet
he holds a big responsibility for the Pirates. He also starts at one of the
inside receiver positions. Lance Lewis will also return kicks, and tailback
Reggie Bullock can be used as well.

Michael Barbour (5-10, 185, Sr.) is a very good kicker who was 16-of-18 on
his attempts last season, with a long of 52 yards. He is nearly automatic for
the Pirates.

Final Thoughts

This game is concerning for a couple of reasons. As much as we’ve praised the
physical capabilities of Logan Thomas since the spring, this will be his first
road game. East Carolina recently expanded their stadium to seat 50,000 and you
can bet all of those seats will be filled for this one. The Pirates want to beat
an ACC team, and they’d like nothing more than to do it at home.

How will Thomas respond against a hostile crowd? How will he play against a
senior-laden secondary? How will he handle the blitz from a defense that has
nothing to lose? We don’t know, because he’s never been in this situation
before. That’s a concern.

I think Tech’s starting defense is really good, but they will face a
challenge in this game. They will have to be sound tacklers. If they limit East
Carolina to paltry yardage after the catch, I don’t see how the Pirates can beat
the Hokies.

I’m not sure how big of an impact Logan Thomas will make on this game. You
know East Carolina will load up to stop David Wilson, but that didn’t help them
last season, and it didn’t help them last week against South Carolina. I believe
that we’ll see more big plays from #4 this week.

I like playing this game in week two. After playing so well last week against
Appalachian State, the Hokies need to keep the momentum going. If they play well
for two consecutive weeks, that’s a very good sign as we creep towards ACC play.

Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, East Carolina 16

Will Stewart’s Take: The Hokies got off to a strong start last week
against Appalachian State with a very crisp performance, despite it being the
first game of the season with a new starting quarterback. You always wonder how
much a big win over a 1-AA opponent matters, even a good one like Appalachian
State. This game at ECU will be another piece of the puzzle for the 2011 Hokies.

Against App State, the Hokie defense was disciplined, played its gaps very
well and tackled well. They’ll need more of the same against ECU this week. I
like Tech’s chances to limit the ECU passing game, because although Dominique
Davis is one year better, he no longer has Dwayne Harris at his disposal, and
the Hokies’ nickel package should be much better this year than it was against
ECU last year.

Last season, the Hokies were missing Jayron Hosley (suspension), Kyle Fuller
was a true freshman, Antone Exum was a redshirt freshman, and the Hokies tried
their nickel for the first time. Defensively, with the exception of Davis having
another year of seasoning, things have shifted in VT’s direction in this matchup
since last year. ECU scored 27 points and had 362 yards last year, but couldn’t
move the ball effectively after half time.

Given all that, I like VT’s chances to hold ECU to two or three touchdowns,
which would be an improvement over last year’s effort.

Where things get dicey is trying to figure out how Tech’s offense is going to
do against ECU’s defense. Given that it’s Logan Thomas’s first road start, look
for the Hokie coaching staff to lean hard on David Wilson. Wilson left, Wilson
right, Wilson up the middle. How well will that work? We don’t know. When ECU
loads up to stop Wilson, the Hokies will have to rely more on the passing game.
How well will that work? We don’t know. Will the Hokies turn it over? We don’t
know.

There are too many unknowns to peg with confidence how the Hokie offense is
going to do, but this is David Wilson’s chance to be The Man. I’m looking
forward to seeing what he can do in these circumstances.

Special teams are the wild card. ECU has a very good placekicker, Tech’s is
unproven. VT wins the kickoff battle, while the punting battle is almost a wash.

All told, I think this one won’t be as high scoring as last year (49-27),
because Tech’s defense is better, and the Hokies will be conservative on
offense. But it will be more entertaining than the snoozefest in Greenville in
2009 (16-3).

My first inclination was to pick it 31-17, Hokies, but I think VT will come
on strong at the end and add a late touchdown that makes the final margin
larger.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, ECU 17

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