Virginia Tech Faces Struggling East Carolina

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DriveFor25_shield-320pxVirginia Tech and East Carolina have played some pretty good football games in recent years, and several of them didn’t go the way Tech fans wanted.  Check out these scores since 2007…

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…

Rushes: 42
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.

Completions: 24
Attempts: 34
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…

  1. To shorten the game.  The longer they are in the game, the more they will believe.
  2. To keep their defense off the field and put their quarterback(s) in more manageable situations.
  3. 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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Unfortunately for Montgomery and ECU, being a great human being doesn’t always translate to being a great head football coach.  It’s still too early to draw total conclusions about Montgomery, but the early returns are not promising at all.  ECU has a fan base that is very proud of the history of their program.  At one point, Virginia Tech and East Carolina were basically on the same level.  I feel bad for their fans because of what they are going through right now, and I hope Montgomery can get it turned around.  But, I hope he gets it turned around after this week’s game. 

Check out East Carolina’s most recent losses, dating back to last year’s Virginia Tech game…

WVU 56-20
JMU 34-14
Temple 37-10
Navy 66-31
SMU 55-31
Tulsa 45-24
Cincinnti 31-19
USF 38-22
UCF 47-29
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

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26 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. CC- you mentioned that the LG could slide over to C to counteract VTs big DTs. That’s assuming he can snap the ball the whole game effectively, right? Unless he’s the back-up C, that’s a lot to ask of a player to take on that responsibility for more than a series. He’d also be expected to QB the line and help point out potential blitzes, etc.

    I’m not familiar with ECU and maybe he IS the back-up C- then at least he’d already have some experience in that role. Otherwise, they’re definitely not interchangeable, like either side G, or Tackles.

  2. Go Hokies! My brother went to ECU and when we lose to ECU I catch crap for 365 days. I don’t like catching crap from my brother and that alone should be motivation enough for us to beat ECU handily this Saturday. Make this coming year a no-crap year!

  3. Sorry, but I see this as a potential trap game.

    ECU is a senior-laden team with their backs to the wall. They have historically played us tough, and the game is in Greenville. Thomas Sirk absolutely abused us when he was at Dook. I’m not believing that the Pirates are as bad as they’ve appeared to be.

    Meanwhile, our heroes were not exactly overwhelming last weekend. We are still very green at so many positions, that our expectations must be tempered. And we don’t know what effect the Beckett situation may have on the team’s focus and morale. I can’t forget that VT teams historically tend to look past struggling opponents. Remember the Syracuse debacle last year? Overconfidence led to a crushing beat down by an opponent we should’ve handled

    If VT plays up to their potential, and ECU plays down to theirs, then we should win handily. But I don’t expect either of those things to happen. And that’s why they play the games.

    I’ll be there Saturday. I have a feeling that our team will need the full-throated support of the traveling Hokie nation before it’s all over. Go Hokies!

  4. We didn’t play Temple in 1998, but if we had played Temple in 1998, this feels like that game – in that it should be a cakewalk against the worst team we have played against in years.

  5. I will be there Saturday , Love going to the ECU games. Also will be glad when the series is over. I pick like you will, but VT 38..ECU 13 . Time Bud stops them down there. And maybe JJ and his WRs can hookup on the long ball. Open all day Saturday , least I hope.

  6. I don’t know where these huge scoring predictions are coming from? After what we saw last week I’m not convinced our WRs other than Cam can consistently get open. ECU IS better than Del. And ECU does have (semi) mobile QB who torched us a couple years back. We know how VT fairs against mobile QBs….they will continue to move the chains with Sirk running. It’ll be much closer than the experts say. I’m going 24-13

  7. Good memories. My daughter was born the morning of that 2000 game. I watched it in the hospital room while she slept in my arms. We came out fast and got an early lead so I never had to worry about getting too excited and throwing her down like a crazy Alabama fan (jk). Anyway let’s do it like that again this year. Go Hokies!

  8. Turnovers… That’s the key to winning this game as it changes field possession, is a driver killer, pumps up a defeated defense, can quickly wear out a team short on depth and has the ability to give a home crowd a shot of electricity. Too often a team, especially young players trying to make big plays can get careless with the ball…Turnovers are the result….I’m concerned this week, as 3rd down has been the enemy w/in us…. that said, turnovers can also go the other way and break the back of down trodden teams who have found more ways to lose than win.. and that would define ECU last 12 games.

    Gonna have my fingers crossed in Greenville, NC

    Let’s Go…Hokies!!!
    Turnovers for Touchdowns by Foster’s & Shibest’s squads!!!

  9. I have a warm spot in my heart for ECU, my grandmother went to ECTC, had a cousin play there and a cousin once – removed coach there (under Sonny Randle no less) I root for them except when they play VT. BBQ’s pretty good down there too. Hope their luck improves… a couple weeks from now.

  10. In the past I haven’t appreciated having the Hokies play ECU and I found a loss to the Pirates to be beyond irritating. But after seeing this video and then checking into Coach Montgomery’s history I think I will be an ECU rooter except for this Saturday.

  11. Special teams score, defensive score, and shutout. That’s beamerball and lunch pail defense. Let’s do this Hokies!

  12. ECU may have a lot of seniors starting on defense, but how many times have they started a game in previous years? You usually include that information.

  13. Vick played in 2000 but special teams dominated scoring two touchdowns and put the game away early.

    1. I was there with a friend. ECU fans behind us, after the 2nd quick strike score, said “goddamn…another Thursday night massacre”

  14. Will, If I remember correctly, Vick didn’t play in the 2000 ECU game; he was injured. Suggs led that victory 🙂

      1. Vick played but it was the Lee Suggs show. I was at the game with a friend and we left after they took Vick out in the 4th. Their fans were rabid at kickoff and in their cages by halftime and you could only hear the Hokies.

      2. UCF maybe? Believe that was the one where Vick was hurt and Suggs had like 4 rushing touchdowns or something.

    1. I was at the game and if I remember correctly we returned their first punt for a TD, blocked the second punt for a TD and blocked the third punt that led to a FG. The game was pretty much over in the first quarter

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