Virginia Tech football is 2-0 to start the 2017 season, but will face a different challenge this week. The Hokies will take their show on the road to East Carolina, marking Tech’s first true road game of the year.
East Carolina is in a bit of disarray at this point in the season. The Pirates are 0-2 and have lost both games by a combined 56 points, including a home loss to FCS competitor James Madison. East Carolina then lost to West Virginia 56-20 last weekend in Morgantown.
Still, head coach Justin Fuente sees East Carolina as a formidable foe.
“I can tell you they’ve played two really, really quality opponents,” Fuente said. “I know there are not a lot of people in America running to their ADs, asking for James Madison to get on the schedule. I can promise you that.”
An interesting part of the road test will be East Carolina’s defense, which is now under new leadership. Pirates head coach Scottie Montgomery announced on Sunday that defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson had been “reassigned” within the program, and that defensive line coach Robert Prunty would take over as defensive coordinator, effective immediately.
Because of the change, the Pirates’ defense could look a little different schematically than it has through the first two weeks of the season.
“Well, we’ll find out Saturday,” Fuente said. “They’ve only got a week to prepare, and they’ve been working on what they do defensively for, this is going into their second year. We’ll do the best we can in getting ready for it and if we need to make adjustments, we’ll make adjustments. The good thing is, we’ve been around each other long enough, we’ve been in games and made adjustments before, and if we need to we will.”
Hokies looking to be more efficient in running game
Virginia Tech is hoping to run the ball more efficiently vs. East Carolina than they did vs. Delaware. The Hokies finished Saturday’s game with just 81 rushing yards on 28 carries, an average of 2.9 yards per rush. Tech’s running game, or lack thereof, forced a lot of third down and longs, which made it difficult for Virginia Tech to sustain anything offensively.
Fuente has never cared about where the rushing yards come from, but he knows that the Hokies need to be better on the ground for the rest of the season. Even if the numbers aren’t great, Fuente wants Virginia Tech’s offense to force opposing defenses to load the box with eight or more defenders, leaving them open for big pass plays down the field.
“The other thing is, when you can get to 3rd and three or 3rd and five, and the other team does not know if it is a run or a pass, I think you are having success running the football,” Fuente said. “Statistically, I’ve never really gotten too much into that. Obviously, we didn’t run the ball very well last week, and there are several reasons for that. We also didn’t make very many plays throwing the ball as well. They were preordained to line up and commit themselves to defending us from running the football, and we couldn’t make plays, or not enough plays, to really be efficient in other areas.
“But to me, it’s about keeping the other side off balance. Can you run the ball on some mid-level downs well enough that you feel confident about doing it, and in turn, set yourself up for making some big plays.”
Turnovers a key focus for Virginia Tech
If Virginia Tech wants to win on Saturday, they’ll likely need to win the turnover margin yet again. The Hokies have turned it over just once this season, thanks to a Cam Phillips fumble vs. Delaware. The 2017 season has gone much smoother in that regard, whereas the 2016 season saw four turnovers vs. Liberty and five turnovers vs. Tennessee in the Battle at Bristol.
“I’m not saying Jerod (Evans) didn’t do a good job early in the year last year. Many of those were not his responsibility, but I think it starts with our quarterback has done a good job of obviously valuing the football,” Fuente said. “Then, I think it’s carried through our other skill players. Obviously we’ve tried to make it a point of emphasis and we did that last year, but I think there’s a genuine recognition that we can’t afford to do those things in order to give ourselves a chance to win. The key for us is, continuing that mindset. As coaches, as assistant coaches, we can’t get tired of reinforcing those points.”
So far this season, Virginia Tech is plus-2 in the turnover margin. The Hokies intercepted Will Grier and West Virginia once in week one, and Tech forced two turnovers vs. Delaware, while only turning the ball over once.
Slye’s inconsistent start
Another sticking point thus far is Joey Slye’s inconsistency in the kicking game. While Slye has recorded a touchback on all of his kickoffs this season, he is 3-7 on field goal attempts. Slye missed two field goals from inside 40 yards vs. West Virginia, and then missed another from 51 yards vs. Delaware. He also had a field goal blocked vs. the Blue Hens.
Special teams coordinator James Shibest is confident that Slye will get his issues taken care of, but knows things need to improve fast.
“There’s no question,” Shibest said. “We’re going to be in a lot of close games this year, and Joey is going to have to execute his job more consistently. So, that’ll play out as the season goes. I did feel good after the first game that he did hit the first one, and then we’d like to see more consistency throughout the day.”