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2007: 17-7 Virginia Tech
2008: 27-22 East Carolina
2009: 16-3 Virginia Tech
2010: 49-27 Virginia Tech
2011: 17-10 Virginia Tech
2013: 15-10 Virginia Tech
2014: 28-21 East Carolina
2015: 35-28 East Carolina
2016: 54-17 Virginia Tech
No wonder Virginia Tech fans got tired of playing East Carolina around 2014 or 2015. With the exception of the 2010 game, the Pirates were either beating the Hokies, or the game was a very boring, low-scoring affair. Even Tech teams that featured players such as Tyrod Taylor, Ryan Williams, Jarrett Boykin and David Wilson had trouble scoring on the Pirates.
The series got little more offensive in 2014 and 2015, but East Carolina won both of those matchups. Finally, the Hokies broke through last season with a 54-17 victory. Tech led 38-0 at halftime, and at that point an ECU fan told me that he hadn’t seen his team handled that way in years.
That was East Carolina’s fourth game of the season. The previous three games went like this…
52-7 win vs. Western Carolina
33-30 win vs. NC State
20-15 loss vs. South Carolina
I was convinced that the Hokies were playing a very capable team on September 24, but apparently not. The wheels fell off that day for the Pirates, and since that day they are 1-10. Overall, they have lost 11 of their last 12 football games, mostly in blowout fashion.
East Carolina fired Ruffin McNeill and replaced him with Scottie Montgomery following the 2015 season. While the firing of McNeill might not have been justified, it did seem like they were dropping off a bit towards the end of his tenure. He had a losing record in three of his six seasons. He was good, but he wasn’t that good. I’d argue that losing offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to Oklahoma after 2014 was the biggest blow. ECU had a 5-7 record the year after he left, McNeill got fired, and ECU hasn’t been the same since.
The Pirates are 0-2 this season, with a 34-14 home loss to James Madison, and a 56-20 loss to West Virginia. Neither loss was as close as the score indicated. JMU led 34-7 before East Carolina tacked on a late touchdown, and West Virginia was winning 49-3 in the second quarter. Those two losses led Montgomery, whose seat has become as hot as it gets, to make a major decision on Sunday.
On Sunday Montgomery “reassigned” defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson and replaced him with defensive line coach Robert Prunty. If that name sounds familiar, it should.
Robert Prunty, A Familiar Name
Robert Prunty turned around the Gretna High School program in Southside Virginia, and later became the head coach of the postgraduate team at Hargrave Military Academy. After that he coached at Texas Tech and Cincinnati, and he served as co-defensive coordinator at Cincinnati under Tommy Tuberville. If you’ve followed Tech recruiting for awhile, you definitely remember when Prunty was at Hargrave.
It’s a little bit worrisome that East Carolina changed their defensive coordinator during the middle of the season. There aren’t many changes that Prunty can make to the scheme is just one week. They’ve been practicing that scheme since the spring of 2016, and you can’t make wholesale changes during the middle of the season. However, they could make subtle alignment changes against certain formations and personnel groupings, and Prunty’s tendencies in certain down and distance situations could be different from his predecessor.
Fortunately Fuente and his offensive staff led Memphis against Prunty when Prunty was at Cincinnati, so there is some familiarity. I’m a little bit worried about the unknown, but not as worried as I would have been had Fuente and Brad Cornelsen never faced him before.
East Carolina’s Defense — Gashed Through the Air and Bludgeoned on the Ground
The ECU defense has had two very different outcomes through the first two games. Against James Madison, they were brutalized on the ground, and against West Virginia they were abused through the air.
First, here are the numbers from the James Madison game…
Rushing Yards: 410
Yards per carry: 9.8
Passing Yards: 204
Total Yards: 614
James Madison averaged nearly 10 yards per carry against East Carolina, and they managed to go an efficient 17-of-24 through the air as well. Yikes.
West Virginia attacked them through the air.
Passing Yards: 403
Passing TDs: 5
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers still managed to rush for 211 yards and finish with a grand total of 614 yards of total offense.
The Pirate defense allowed 614 yards of total offense in each of its first two games. That’s pretty random, and it’s also pretty bad. No wonder Montgomery decided to make a change.
East Carolina has run a 4-2-5 of defense, but with a new defensive coordinator we don’t know exactly how they’ll line up. With just a week to prepare, there can’t be any drastic changes. As noted above, any changes will likely be different tendencies. Here’s a look at the Pirates’ smallish front six…
DE Kiante Anderson (6-foot-4, 243 pounds, Sr.)
DT Demage Bailey (6-foot-5, 294 pounds, Sr.)
DT Tyree Owens (6-foot-4, 285 pounds, Jr.)
DE Kendall Futrell (6-foot-2, 230 pounds, So.)
LB Jordan Williams (6-feet, 230 pounds, Sr.)
LB Ray Tillman (6-foot-1, 207 pounds, Sr.)
That’s a pretty experienced group, but their experience hasn’t help them thus far. Likewise, four of ECU’s five starters in the secondary are seniors, but that hasn’t helped them stop anybody’s offense.
The Pirate defense is capable of making plays, particularly defensive end Kiante Anderson, who has 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks through the first two games. But on the whole, this is a bad group. I expect they’ll play better this week because of the coordinator change, and the fact that Virginia Tech’s offense is so young, but they aren’t capable of drastic improvements over a short period of time. If the Hokies have a bad game offensively this week, it’s their own fault.
Thomas Sirk, Another Familiar Name
Former Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk (6-foot-4, 220 pounds, r-Sr.) is now a quarterback for East Carolina. He beat the Hokies in a thriller in Lane Stadium back in 2015, while playing at Duke. Here are his numbers from that day…
Sirk in 2015: 19-of-39, 270 yards, four touchdowns, 18 carries, 109 yards
Sirk completed just under 50 percent of his passes, but he threw four touchdown passes and he did a lot of damage with his legs. He eventually ran in the game-winning two-point conversion in the fourth overtime as No. 23 Duke beat unranked Virginia Tech 45-43. (That just doesn’t sound right, does it?)
He’s now at ECU, where he has split time in the first two games of the season with Gardner Minshew (6-foot-, 216 pounds, Jr.). Sirk started last week’s West Virginia game, but was knocked out of the game and is in concussion protocol this week. Justin Fuente and Bud Foster is banking on him playing against the Hokies on Saturday, and so am I.
However, Sirk hasn’t enjoyed much success this year, completing just 53.6 percent of his passes with one touchdown and four interceptions. Meanwhile, Minshaw has completed just 45.2 percent of his passes, with a touchdown and an interception. Overall, ECU’s quarterbacking numbers look like this…
East Carolina quarterbacks: 51-of-100 (51 percent) for 620 yards, two touchdowns, five interceptions
The Pirates certainly have some skill at the wide receiver position. Davon Grayson (6-foot-2, 187 pounds, r-Sr.) and Jimmy Williams (5-foot-11, 198 pounds, Sr.) have had very good careers, and they are very capable players on the outside. They can both make tough catches, and both would likely start for Virginia Tech. Grayson was a high school teammate of former Virginia Tech safety and current Baltimore Raven Chuck Clark.
East Carolina and the Running Game
With a defense that can’t stop anybody, and a passing game that keeps throwing the ball to the other team, it would behoove the Pirates to try and establish a running game against the Hokies. They need to do it for several reasons…
- To shorten the game. The longer they are in the game, the more they will believe.
- To keep their defense off the field and put their quarterback(s) in more manageable situations.
- Virginia Tech’s defensive weakness is defensive line depth.
We all know that Sirk is mobile, too. If I were the ECU coaches, I’d try to hammer the Hokies early and often with the running game, particularly the read option, for all the reasons listed above.
The running game hasn’t been very effective for the Pirates so far this season. They are averaging just 106 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. Tyshon Dye (5-foot-11, 220 pounds, r-Sr.) is the leading rusher with 14 carries for 71 yards.
That doesn’t seem like very much, but those stats don’t necessarily mean that ECU can’t run the football. Against West Virginia, they were blown out from the opening kickoff. Against James Madison, they were only down 7-0 at halftime, but they were quickly blown out in the second half.
I’m not sure how capable East Carolina is of running the ball against the Hokies, though. They have some youth up front on the offensive line.
LT D’Ante Smith (6-foot-4, 336 pounds, So.)
LG Garrett McGhin (6-foot-6, 327 pounds, Jr.)
C John Spellacy (6-foot-1, 285 pounds, Fr.)
RG Austin Lee (6-foot-1, 287 pounds, r-Fr.)
RT Brandon Smith (6-foot-8, 327 pounds, r-Sr.)
The weak spot is right up the middle, where true freshman center and right guard Austin Lee are neither big enough or experienced enough to cope with guys like Tim Settle and Ricky Walker. ECU could choose to start Cortez Herrin (6-3, 346, So.) at left guard, in which case Garrett McGhin would slide down and start at center. That might be the best way for the Pirates to play, considering the size of Settle and Walker.
Special Teams, Also Bad
East Carolina has to be good at something, right? Apparently not. Here are their special teams S&P+ ratings after two games…
FG Value: No. 96
Punt Success Rate: No. 104
Kickoff Success Rate: No. 109
Punt Return Success Rate: No. 113
Kick Return Success Rate: No. 51
Against a team like Virginia Tech, which has dominated the hidden yardage battle over the first two weeks of the season, that’s not a good sign.
From everything I’ve read and heard, Scottie Montgomery is one of the best guys in coaching. Check out this video of him awarding a player a scholarship by visiting his mother at her place of work for Mother’s Day. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Check out East Carolina’s most recent losses, dating back to last year’s Virginia Tech game…
Virginia Tech 54-17
Their average loss during that stretch, rounded to the nearest whole number, is 46-22. Their closest loss was a 12-point defeat at the hands of a 4-8 Cincinnati team.
Against Delaware, the Hokies didn’t look like a team that would hammer very many programs. However, that was a short week, and they did beat West Virginia, and the Mountaineers went on to beat ECU by 36. Last I checked, Virginia Tech is favored by 21, but ECU’s history over the past year suggests they will be beaten by more than 21 on Saturday.
Still, the Hokies are young, and it will be their first true road test. I’ll be conservative and call a push.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 38, East Carolina 17
Will Stewart’s Take: How can a team that starts 15 seniors and graduate transfers be so bad? It’s as if Greg Stroman broke the ECU football program when he returned that punt for an 87-yard touchdown last year to start the scoring in Lane Stadium, and the Pirates have never recovered.
As Chris noted, ECU has gone 1-11 since they started 2-0 last year, with a combined score of 486-273. Take out the one win, a 41-3 blowout over UConn, and the Pirates’ last 11 losses are by a combined score of 483-232 (44-21 average).
They’re terrible. Really terrible. Over an extended period of time. They had a three-game stretch towards the end of last year where they gave up 55 points a game.
Except I’m not buying it. I know ECU is a program with zero confidence right now, and the Hokies blasted them the last time these two teams met, but I just can’t commit … yet. Maybe I’ll get on board if the Hokies blow the Pirates out again, something Tech hasn’t done in Greenville since … well, never. The Hokies are 6-3 in Greenville, with the largest margin of victory being a 45-28 win by Michael Vick’s Hokies in 2000. (Okay, that was a blowout, with Tech leading 31-0 at half time, then letting off the accelerator.)
The 54-17 win over ECU was part of a three-game streak last year where the Hokies announced they were for real, spanking BC, ECU, and UNC by a combined score of 137-20. That came after a 1-1 start. It’s possible Virginia Tech could put the pedal to the metal in similar fashion this season, starting with this game.
The two X-factors here are (1) ECU can’t keep playing that poorly, can they? and (2) Virginia Tech is young on offense and thin on defense.
Very little of what I’m saying here has anything to do with this game, so let’s just quit rambling and get to the pick.
Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 35, East Carolina 13
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: Let’s be honest folks, this game shouldn’t be close. Just like last week’s game vs. Delaware should have been a massive blowout.
East Carolina is a bad team right now, in every measurable way. Their quarterbacks keep turning the ball over, they can’t run the ball efficiently, the defense is allowing a ton of points and the special teams have struggled too. When you have two quarterbacks, you usually don’t have one, and when you fire your defensive coordinator two games into the season, you obviously have problems on that side of the ball as well.
Virginia Tech should win this game with Josh Jackson and Co. warming up the bus in the fourth quarter, but this offense has some work to do. The offense was realistically responsible for just 17 points vs. Delaware, with the defense and special teams gifting them the other 10. The run game vs. Delaware was poor, and Jackson failed to connect on a few deep throws to his young receivers.
The Hokies’ offense needs to show out vs. East Carolina. I know they’re on the road, but East Carolina is a bad football team, and Virginia Tech should force them into submission. This shouldn’t be a game. Still, I think the offense will only be slightly better than they were vs. Delaware, and I think the defense will allow just a couple of scores in a rather dominating performance.
Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 31, East Carolina 10