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After blowing out Boston College 49-0 last week, Virginia Tech remains at home to face the always dangerous East Carolina Pirates. The Hokies are hoping to avoid what’s happened to them the last two years: a loss to ECU the week after a big win.
In 2014, the Hokies knocked off #8 Ohio State 35-21 in The Horseshoe, and then promptly lost to ECU in Blacksburg 28-21 a week later. Tech was ranked #17 in the country for that game, and that’s the last time the Hokie football program has been ranked.
Fast forward to 2015, and the Hokies were coming off a 51-24 blowout win at Purdue. They took a 14-0 lead on East Carolina the next week, but ultimately lost 35-28.
Last week’s win wasn’t on the road, and it wasn’t against a Big Ten team, but it was a big win for the team and the fan base, and they’re looking to build momentum. East Carolina crushed that momentum each of the last two years, and that trend needs to be reversed.
The Tale of the Tape
Here’s the Tale of the Tape for both teams, courtesy of OXVT…
ECU vs. the ACC
On September 14, 2013, the Hokies defeated East Carolina 15-10 in Greenville. That marks the last time the Pirates have lost to an ACC team. Here are their results since then…
Sept. 28, 2013: 55-31 W at UNC
Nov. 23, 2013: 42-28 W at NC State
Sept. 13, 2014: 28-21 W at Virginia Tech
Sept. 20, 2014: 70-41 W vs. UNC
Sept. 26, 2015: 35-28 W vs. Virginia Tech
Sept. 10, 2016: 33-30 W vs. NC State
East Carolina has wanted to be in the ACC for a long time, and they clearly play to the best of their ability whenever they face an ACC team. The Hokies should have a very good understanding of that after the last two seasons.
The ECU Offense vs. the VT Defense
With three games under the belt of each team, it’s time to start looking at the advanced stats in our weekly game previews. We’re using the S&P+ formula, which seems to be the most widely accepted version of advanced stats. I believe advanced stats are a better resource than the regular stats that the NCAA keeps, though keep in mind that UVA still ranks #75 in the S&P+ (ahead of ECU, who is #87), so it’s still a little bit early to have a complete understanding of all teams. We should have a better idea after this week’s games.
Click here for a glossary of advanced terms.
Here are the advanced stats for the ECU offense:
Field Position: #126
Finishing Drives: #102
Rushing Success Rate: #67
Rushing IsoPPP: #27
Passing Success Rate: #23
Passing IsoPPP: #93
The ECU offense is middle of the pack in terms of explosiveness, and they only average 4.17 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40 yard line. They’ve gotten more big plays out of the running game, whereas their passing game generally relies on quick hitters.
Here’s how Bud Foster’s defense compares…
Field Position: #121
Finishing Drives: #55
Rushing Success Rate: #25
Rushing IsoPPP: #91
Passing Success Rate: #3
Passing IsoPPP: #21
Tech’s defense has been exceptional against the passing game in all phases, though ECU will be a much greater passing challenge than Liberty, Tennessee and Boston College. Tech has been good against the run with the exception of defending Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Keep that in mind, because the Pirates will use a mobile quarterback who we all remember from last season.
On balance, the ECU offense will be Virginia Tech’s biggest challenge to date. However, the Tech defense will also be the biggest challenge the ECU offense will face all season.
The VT Offense vs. the ECU Defense
Here’s how the Tech offense stacks up to the ECU defense. First, let’s start with the Hokie offense…
Field Position: #21
Finishing Drives: #87
Rushing Success Rate: #108
Rushing IsoPPP: #40
Passing Success Rate: #9
Passing IsoPPP: #102
Overall, the Tech offense hasn’t been quite as efficient as it seems. However, the improvement since the Liberty game (when the Hokies weren’t turning the ball over against Tennessee) has been obvious, and I think we’ll see that overall ranking go up as the year progresses, if things continue along recent trends.
Here’s how the ECU defense stacks up…
Field Position: #106
Finishing Drives: #25
Rushing Success Rate: #58
Rushing IsoPPP: #121
Passing Success Rate: #87
Passing IsoPPP: #83
The East Carolina defense has not been impressive, with the exception of holding the opposition to a limited amount of points (3.56) on drives inside the 40. It will be important for the Hokies to beat that trend and score touchdowns when they get inside the 40. The Pirate defense has struggled to stop the big play as well.
Special Teams Comparison
S&P+ is doing special teams ratings this year, and this is where the Hokies have a huge advantage (on paper). First, VT’s special teams ranks…
FG Value: #78
Punt Success Rate: #38
Kickoff Success Rate: #1 (thanks, Joey Slye!)
Punt Return Success Rate: #84
Kick Return Success Rate: #49
Now, compare that to East Carolina…
FG Value: #61
Punt Success Rate: #101
Kickoff Success Rate: #92
Punt Return Success Rate: #97
Kickoff Return Success Rate: #120
Special teams has cost East Carolina a lot of field position this year. Virginia Tech has to take advantage on Saturday.
Completion Percentage: The Unstoppable Force vs. the Immovable Object
Now that you’ve completely skipped the boring statistical section, let’s take a closer look at the East Carolina offense, which is the most balanced the Hokies have faced to date.
Quarterback Philip Nelson (6-1, 216, r-Sr.) is a transfer from Minnesota who has found a new lease on life at East Carolina. His two years at Minnesota were not particularly impressive, though he was a very young player who was thrown into the fire. He completed exactly 50% of his 338 passing attempts in 2012 and 2013, which is a terrible number in this era of college football. However, his 2016 numbers at East Carolina have been extremely impressive.
2016: 105-of-133 (78.9%) for 1,095 yards, 7 touchdowns, 3 interceptions
The Pirates throw the ball around a lot, and their short, quick passing game is basically the modern day college football version of a running game. Nelson makes a lot of high percentage throws, and through three games Western Carolina, NC State and South Carolina have not been able to slow him down, except for when the Pirates turn the ball over.
Nelson ranks #1 in the country in completion percentage. He’ll have his biggest challenge of the season on Saturday when he faces a Virginia Tech defense that has allowed the following passing numbers…
2016: 28-of-75 (37.3%) for 241 yards, 3 touchdowns, 5 interceptions
Not one single quarterback has completed 50% of his passes against the Hokies, and not one single quarterback has passed for 100 yards. Tech ranks #3 in the country in defensive completion percentage. This is going to be one of the most interesting battles in all of college football this weekend.
ECU Running Game Provides Balance
I believe the Tech secondary matches up very well with the ECU passing game this year. However, that won’t matter nearly as much if the Pirates are allowed to run the football. Whether or not the Hokie defense can keep the ECU offense one-dimensional is the key to this game.
Here are the top runners for ECU…
RB Anthony Scott (5-9, 189, Jr.): 32 carries, 209 yards, 6.5 ypc, 2 TDs
QB James Summers (6-3, 218, Sr.): 27 carries, 207 yards, 7.7 ypc, 2 TDs
RB Devin Anderson (5-9, 208, So.): 19 carries, 92 yards, 4.8 ypc, 0 TDs
Anthony Scott is a solid back from Green Run High School in Virginia Beach. He’ll surely have a big contingent on hand, and he’ll be looking to perform at a high level in his home state.
Scott received a scholarship offer from Virginia Tech on November 19, 2013. He was visited by Bryan Stinespring on January 22, 2014, and Frank Beamer, Cornell Brown and Stiney all visited him on January 28. In between, he took an official visit to Blacksburg on January 24. He later signed with ECU on February 5 because the Hokies wanted him to prep for a year. Though the Hokies have a completely new offensive staff and head coach, Scott will obviously want to show Virginia Tech that they made a mistake.
James Summers hurt Virginia Tech with his arm and legs in Greenville last season. Here were his numbers…
Passing: 5-of-8, 110 yards, 1 TD
Rushing: 21 carries, 169 yards, 2 TDs
This year he has only thrown one pass for the Pirates, but he has been a big part of their running game. ECU will put him and starting quarterback Philip Nelson in the game at the same time, so the Hokies will have to be aware.
Zay Jones (6-1, 197, Sr.) caught 22 passes last week against South Carolina, which was only one reception shy of the FBS single-game record. He caught 98 passes for 1,099 yards a year ago, and 81 passes for 830 yards in 2014. Here are his numbers against the Hokies throughout his career…
2014: 3 catches, 11 yards
2015: 2 catches, 55 yards, 1 TD
Jones has been limited against the Hokies for the last two years, but you can expect him to be a major part of the Pirate game plan on Saturday.
Trivia: Jones is the son of former Dallas Cowboy linebacker Robert Jones, who is an ECU Hall of Famer. Robert nearly came to Virginia Tech out of high school, but the Hokies were coming off probation and their new academic standards sent Jones to East Carolina (as well as Herman Moore to UVA).
East Carolina Helps Force Tech’s Defensive Changes
The picture below captures perfectly why Virginia Tech moved away from the boundary/field corner scheme to a left/right corner scheme…
In this play, Greg Stroman is running all the way from one side of the field to the other between plays because the ball has gone from one hash mark to the other. Not only is he not lined up, but once he did get lined up, he’d have to read the offense and go through any potential checks with the rest of the defensive backs. However, he never got a chance to do that on this play, as ECU snapped the football before he ever made it to his assigned position and threw an easy touchdown.
Three things are different about the secondary this year…
1: Left/right corner as opposed to boundary/field corner.
2: More zone.
3: Fewer/easier checks.
In Tech’s new defense, it’s much easier to get lined up against teams that run a fast-paced offense. Against teams who try to snap the ball every 15 seconds, it was difficult to get lined up properly, communicate with the other defensive backs, etc. With the new scheme, the secondary can line up quickly, catch their breath, communicate with each other, and be more prepared for what’s coming.
Besides all that, the Hokies have gotten back to their concept of multiple coverages. For the last two years, ECU has been able to sit back and throw lobs down the field against single coverage, and it has worked. To ECU’s credit, Ohio State tried the same thing in 2014 and couldn’t execute. The Pirates did. The success ECU has had against the Tech defense over the past two years is part of the reason for the changes Bud Foster made.
The Tech defense fared much better against ECU in 2011 and 2013 when they were playing multiple coverages. Here are ECU’s passing stats for both of those games…
2011: 20-of-38, 127 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT
2013: 18-of-31, 158 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs
That’s a lot of passing attempts, and very few passing yards. I think Bud Foster is going to make it a lot more difficult for the Pirates to throw the ball down the field this year, and they’ll be forced to try and move the football through small chunks of yards.
If you go back far enough as a Tech fan, you should have a lot of respect for East Carolina, and some sympathy as well. 25 years ago, Tech and ECU were pretty much the same program. The talent level was even, the fan bases were even, the recruiting was even…an outside observer probably wouldn’t tell any major differences between the two programs.
Then the Hokies got into the Big East, and the Pirates did not. Had it been the other way around, ECU would be playing in a 66,000 seat stadium. It would be Tech who would be playing in a 50,000 seat stadium, trying to upset ACC programs, and desperately hoping that the Big 12 expands east so we could finally land in a Power 5 conference.
Fortunately for the Hokies, they got that invitation, and ECU did not. Because the schools have similar backgrounds, I feel bad for the Pirates, because I believe they have the best football fan base in the state of North Carolina. Only NC State is comparable. If I were a recruit, I’d rather play for ECU because their fans actually care about football, but that’s just me.
At any rate, there’s a football game to be played on Saturday, and I think the Hokies are going to win it. I think they’re going to win partly because of the way they lost the last two games against East Carolina. The Pirates were part of the reason Bud Foster changed things up in the offseason, and that change is going to give Tech the edge in this year’s meeting.
I believe both of these teams are better than they were last season, and I believe ECU made a very nice hire in former Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery. But I think Tech’s defensive improvements combined with a better offensive approach give the Hokies the advantage in this one. It will be a good game, but Tech will win.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, East Carolina 20
Will Stewart’s Take: To add to something Chris said about how the programs were once basically the same, I did a little research, and from 1987-1990 — which is the start of Frank Beamer’s tenure up to the point where VT got the Big East invitation — the Hokies were 17-26-1 with no bowls, and ECU was 18-25-1, with no bowls. And sure enough, the two teams met four times and split those meetings 2-2.
Sifting through ECU’s recent history with Virginia Tech is all well and good, but both teams are under new leadership this season. Even the elements that remain the same for the Hokies — Bud Foster and his defensive personnel, plus the Hokies’ offensive personnel — are functioning in different ways this season.
Saturday looks to be a beautiful day for football: sunny and 85 degrees. Okay, that’s a little hot for football, but it shouldn’t affect the passing game for either team, so we’ll get each offense at its best.
ECU runs at a very high tempo on offense, and with their short passing game, they put pressure on you to make the tackle in the open field. They’ll also run some option and read option, not just with James Summers, who shredded Tech a year ago, but with their starter, Philip Nelson. While ECU relies heavily on the pass, it’s imperative that Tech’s linebackers defend the occasional runs up the middle very well, or things could get out of whack for the Hokie D.
What if ECU gets it going offensively? Then we’ll get to find something out about Virginia Tech’s new coaching staff, especially their ability to get the Hokies to engage in — and win — a shootout.
Something to remember as ECU comes to town: Since the start of the 2012 season, the #Hokies are 1-15 when they give up 30 points or more.
— TechSideline.com (@TechSideline) September 20, 2016
(The lone win was the 55-52 bowl win over Tulsa last year.)
To be fair, lots of teams probably lose most games where they give up 30+. To pick a random example, the Pitt Panthers are 3-14 when they give up 30+ points since the start of 2012. Clemson, an example of a better team with a more high-powered offense, is 11-5. VT wants to be more like Clemson, not Pitt.
As for the Hokie offense, I have a hard time believing they’ll be as dominant as they were last week against BC, though I think they’ll be strong. They shifted my perceptions in a big way against the Eagles; another game like that will shift things yet again, and I won’t know what to think.
Let’s assume that game-changing turnovers and special teams plays are minimal this weekend, as they were in last week’s Boston College game. If that’s the case, I think a lot of points are going to be scored Saturday, or at least, “a lot” in traditional Virginia Tech terms. This one could be a real back-and-forth.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 37, East Carolina 27
I thought about picking ECU to score 30, and I have a lot of respect for their offense, but their efficiency numbers don’t quite match my perception, so I dialed it back a bit. And I’ll admit that I’m still trying to figure the Hokies out. This one will be fun.