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Virginia Tech will head to Greenville for a big road game against East Carolina on Saturday afternoon. The Pirates are 2-0 on the season, and they are putting up big yardage through the air as usual.
East Carolina beat Old Dominion 52-38 in their first game of the season, and then easily dispatched Florida Atlantic 31-13 last Thursday night. They are the odds-on favorite of many folks to win Conference USA East this season, and they have played in six bowl games in the past seven years. This is a good, solid program that is used to winning, and you can bet that Virginia Tech will get their best shot.
Virginia Tech has taken on the Ruffin McNeil version of East Carolina on two occasions.
2010: 49-27 W
2011: 17-10 W
The Tech defense got off to a rough start in 2010, but settled down after the first quarter. In 2011, they completely dominated the ECU offense, holding the Pirates to -15 rushing yards and 127 passing yards.
Despite playing what is generally a below-average ECU defense, the Tech offense hasn’t exactly put up huge numbers. They’ve averaged 245 yards per game on the ground thanks to David Wilson, Darren Evans, Tyrod Taylor and Logan Thomas, but the passing game has struggled.
In fact, the Tech offense generally doesn’t play well against ECU, even before the Ruffin McNeil era.
2007: 17 points vs. ECU
2010 was obviously the outlier when the Hokies scored 49 points. Generally the Tech offense struggles against the Pirates. With a new offensive coaching staff this year, there is new hope as the Hokies head to Greenville.
Shane Carden and the Passing Game
East Carolina’s passing game starts with Shane Carden (6-2, 218, r-Jr.) of Houston, TX. He put up big numbers last year in his first year as a starter, and he’s off to a good start in 2013 as well.
vs. ODU: 46-of-54 for 447 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 INTs
vs. FAU: 17-of-25 for 191 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 INTs
ECU got locked into a shootout with ODU (52-38 win), but five days later they established control early against FAU and ran the ball a little more than usual. Last season he was 273-of-413 (66.1%) for 3,116 yards, with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Carden doesn’t have a rocket for an arm, but he has good pocket presence, good touch, and he appears to be very accurate. He likes to spread the ball around to a number of different receivers:
WR Justin Hardy (6-0, 186, r-Jr.): 20 catches, 227 yards, 11.4 ypc, 1 TD
WR Danny Webster (5-10, 180, Jr.): 9 catches, 83 yards, 9.2 ypc, 1 TD
WR Reese Wiggins (5-11, 193, r-Sr.): 8 catches, 64 yards, 8 ypc, 0 TD
RB Vintavious Cooper (5-9, 200, Sr.): 7 catches, 63 yards, 9 ypc, 0 TD
WR Davon Grayson (6-2, 175,Fr.) : 6 catches, 57 yards, 9.5 ypc, 4 TD
Those have been Carden’s top targets through the first two games of the season. Hardy and Webster are both inside receivers, while Wiggins and Grayson are outside receivers.
As you can see from the yards per catch for each of those guys, this is a quick passing team. They don’t look deep very often. The Pirates will throw short, and that includes a number of targets for tailback Vintavious Cooper.
The key for Virginia Tech is to lock down ECU’s easy-to-complete short routes and make Carden look deeper down the field. If the Hokies can get Carden to hold the ball in the pocket longer than he wants to, that will create an advantage with Tech’s athletic defensive line against ECU’s offensive line.
Watch East Carolina challenge the field side of Virginia Tech’s defense, where true freshmen Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson will be playing right next to each other. They will use trips formation on that side of the field quite a bit, and they will try to confuse Fuller and Facyson. A trips formation by Western Carolina last week managed to sneak a wheel route behind Facyson on third and 14, so it’s something to watch.
On the other hand, Brandon Facyson has always shown in practices and scrimmages that he loves to break on short passes. He has a number of breakups and interceptions in practice against routes of 10 yards or less. I would look for him to be aggressive against the East Carolina passing game. The proper way to attack Facyson at this point is with double moves, but does ECU realize that yet?
East Carolina’s longest completion through the first two games was just 23 yards. I fully expect the Tech defense to sit on ECU’s short routes and try to force the Pirates to beat them down the field.
The Offensive Line and the Running Game
East Carolina has a big and experienced offensive line. Here’s how the Pirates line up from left to right:
LT Ike Harris (6-7, 304, r-So.): Harris is in a starting role for the first time after participating as a backup in 2012.
LG Jordan Davis (6-3, 297, r-Sr.): Davis is in his third year as a starter, and he also played a key role as a backup in 2010. He is the most experienced interior lineman the Hokies will have faced thus far. He has started 22 straight games, and he has very good lower body strength.
C Taylor Hudson (6-5, 300, r-Jr.): Hudson started seven games at center for the Pirates a year ago. He could split time with C.J. Struyk (6-2, 296, r-So.).
RG Will Simmons (6-5, 342, r-Sr.): Simmons is a preseason All-CUSA offensive guard. He was second team All-CUSA a year ago. He has started 27 consecutive games. Simmons is one of the biggest offensive lineman Tech will face this year.
RT Adhem Elsawi (6-5, 308, r-Sr.): Elsawi has been starting since his sophomore season. He is a preseason All-CUSA pick by Phil Steele, and he was honorable mention All-CUSA in 2012. He has a 670lb back squat, which is an ECU record for offensive linemen.
That’s four returning starters up front for ECU, and the right side appears to be the strongest part of the line. Coming into the season, this offensive line was rated as the top line in Conference USA. From an experience standpoint, that’s most certainly true. However, I don’t think this line is athletic enough to match up with Tech’s defensive front in pass blocking.
If the Hokie defensive backs can make Shane Carden hold the ball longer than he wants, I can see the Hokies pressuring him a lot. That’s what they did back in 2011 to the tune of five sacks and numerous other pressures.
The offensive line might be better suited for run blocking than pass blocking. Vintavious Cooper was held to 38 yards on 12 carries against ODU, but he had 20 carries for 95 yards and one touchdown during the course of the Florida Atlantic game. He is a capable back, and the Pirates will need him and the offensive line to establish a running game if they want to beat the Hokies. It’s highly unlikely that ECU can win if they are one-dimensional.
Check out the rushing yards/passing yards totals in Tech’s six losses last year:
Pitt: 254 rushing yards, 283 passing yards
Cincinnati: 103 rushing yards, 392 passing yards
UNC: 339 rushing yards, 194 passing yards
Clemson: 135 rushing yards, 160 passing yards
Miami: 157 rushing yards, 190 passing yards
FSU: -15 rushing yards, 326 passing yards
The Florida State game was the outlier. Each other team that beat the Hokies rushed for over 100 yards and were able to at least be a threat on the ground. East Carolina must be able to do the same if they want a realistic chance to win. That’s not a good sign for the Pirates, because a VT defense that featured many of the same players held ECU to -15 rushing yards in Greenville in 2011.
The ECU Defense
East Carolina technically runs a 3-4 defense, but like any other 3-4 it can quickly be converted into a 4-3 by standing up a linebacker on the line of scrimmage. However, this is a defense that struggled in all phases in 2012.
Rushing defense: #53
Pass defense: #107
Total defense: #87
Scoring defense: #88
Pass efficiency def: #83
The Pirates picked right up where they left off when Old Dominion – who is in their first season of 1-A football – dropped 38 points on ECU in Greenville. Things got better when they held FAU to just 282 yards, but the Owls had to play on the road just five days after taking on Miami on the road. That’s brutal scheduling, and the Pirates were the beneficiary.
East Carolina’s defensive front looks like this…
DE Terrell Stanley (6-2, 266, r-So.): Stanley has 2 TFL and 1 sack so far.
NT Terry Williams (6-1, 322, r-Jr): Returning starter, Williams has great size for nose tackle.
DE Lee Pegues (6-2, 294, Sr.): Honorable mention All-CUSA. 3 TFL and 3 sacks in 2013.
Pegues is easily the top playmaker up front for ECU. They will also align Will linebacker Derrell Johnson (6-2, 264, Sr.). Johnson is arguably ECU’s best defensive player. He’s a first team All-CUSA player, and he finished last season with 11 TFL and seven sacks. He is one of the best pass rushers in Conference USA, perhaps the best. Though he’s technically an outside linebacker, the Pirates will stand him up at defensive end and he’ll spend most of his day going after the quarterback. He will be a challenge for Virginia Tech’s offensive tackles.
Virginia Tech is catching a break, because both of East Carolina’s starting senior inside linebackers will miss Saturday’s game with an injury. Jeremy Grove is a First Team All-CUSA player who made 12 tackles with a TFL against the Hokies two years ago. Kyle Tudor started part of last season and was Preseason Second Team All-CUSA player according to Phil Steele. Those two guys are good, veteran players and their presence will be missed.
Their replacements will be Zeke Bigger (6-2, 228, r-So.) and Brandon Williams (6-1, 240, Jr.). Both guys appeared to play well against FAU, finishing with nine tackles each. Bigger also had a sack in that game. However, there is no replacement for experience, and Grove and Tudor are both all-conference-caliber players. Their loss is a potential big blow for East Carolina.
Gabe Woullard (6-3, 227, Sr.) is the final starting linebacker. He starts at the sam spot. The former JUCO transfer had five TFL and 3.5 sacks in 13 games (8 starts) a season ago.
Overall, that’s a solid ECU front seven, and this defense is better against the run than against the pass. However, how much will the loss of Grove and Tudor (particularly Grove) hurt their run defense? That remains to be seen.
At the field cornerback (wide side of the field) position, East Carolina starts Adonis Amstrong (5-10, 182, Sr.). Formerly of Hines Community College, Armstrong broke up 14 passes last season and was a Second Team All-CUSA pick in the 2013 preseason by Phil Steele. He is ECU’s best cover corner.
On the boundary (short side), ECU starts Josh Hawkins (5-10, 183, r-So.). Hawkins started three games as a r-freshman last season. Though he ran for over 1,600 yards as a senior at Glenn High School in Winston-Salem, Hawkins was not recruited heavily and he had to walk on at East Carolina. He’s done a good job for the Pirates thus far, but I feel like he can be taken advantage of in the passing game.
East Carolina starts two seniors at the safety spots. Damon Magazu (5-11, 204, Sr.) has been starting since his sophomore season, and he picked off Logan Thomas in Greenville two years ago. Chip Thompson (6-0, 216, Sr.) starts at strong safety. He is another JUCO from Hinds Community College. He started 12 games last season and had three interceptions.
With Armstrong, Hawkins and Magazu, this is a very experienced secondary. They’ll be going against a very young group of Virginia Tech wide receivers who have struggled at times this season. This would be a big week for this receiving corps to take a step forward.
Warren Harvey (5-11, 225, r-Jr.) serves as East Carolina’s placekicker. He was 15-of-20 on his field goal attempts last season, including a 54 yarder. He is 2-of-3 this year, and seven of his 14 kickoff attempts have gone for touchbacks. He’s one of the better kickers the Hokies will face this season.
Trent Tignor (6-5, 212, Sr.) is a strong punter who is averaging 44 yards per punt this year. Three of his eight punts have travelled 50+ yards. He also serves as East Carolina’s holder.
Justin Hardy, star wide receiver, also serves as East Carolina’s punt returner. He hasn’t been able to get much going so far this year, but we saw the Hokies struggle in punt coverage against Alabama, so they will have to be aware of Hardy. Lance Ray (6-2, 208, Sr.) has an 85 yard kickoff return to his credit this season.
East Carolina has an experienced kicker and punter, as well as talent at the return spots. They could present a challenge on special teams for the Hokies. Winning the special teams battle is critical in tough road games. If the Hokies can get the advantage in hidden yardage against ECU, they’ll stand a much better chance of winning.
There is reason for optimism as the Hokies head to Greenville, and there is also pause for concern. I’m optimistic for a few reasons…
1: Despite the youth on the wide side of the secondary, I like the way the Tech defense matches up. ECU will attempt to throw the ball all over the field against a Tech secondary that has superior talent, and that’s not going to work, most likely. I don’t think the Pirates can be balanced against the Hokies, either. I think Bud’s defense is going to play very well on Saturday.
2: Virginia Tech’s offensive line has improved. I don’t think they’ll go down and dominate ECU, but I don’t think they’ll be a liability either.
3: The Hokies have running backs who can play. With an improved offensive line and injuries at linebacker for ECU, I think the Hokies can establish an inside running game.
However, I haven’t seen enough from the Tech passing game to make me 100% confident that the Hokies will win. Logan’s receivers have let him down at times, but Thomas himself has made a few very questionable decisions that make me worry. I don’t completely trust him to not turn the ball over at ECU, and I feel like turnovers are the only way the Pirates can upset the Hokies this week. If they get a short field and convert the chances into touchdowns, they can win. However, I don’t see them moving the football down the field on a Tech defense that hasn’t allowed a scoring drive of more than 49 yards. In my opinion, this one will come down to turnovers – or the lack thereof – from the Tech offense, and specifically from Logan Thomas.
If you could guarantee that Thomas doesn’t throw any field position altering interceptions, I would feel 100% confident in my pick. Unfortunately, some of the decisions I saw him make last week don’t inspire confidence. I think he’ll get better, but when will it begin? If it starts this week, I think the Hokies will win with relative ease. If it doesn’t, then this could be a good one.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, East Carolina 10
Will Stewart’s Take: The behind-the-scenes buzz in the preseason was that the Hokie coaches were worried about this game. Virginia Tech is taking a young offensive team into Greenville, where the Pirates return eight starters on both offense and defense.
This will be a great road test for the Hokies, and they’ll find a lot out about themselves in this game. It will prep them for road games later in the season. East Carolina is a solid program with experience, and their fans will be fired up for this, though the noon start will take a little of the starch out of the Pirate faithful. Good thing this one’s not a night game.
Defensively, I think the Hokies are in really good shape here. ECU’s got a good thing going offensively, but they haven’t seen a set of defensive backs as good and as physical as Virginia Tech’s. Manning up in coverage is key, and the Hokies also have to defend Cooper out of the backfield in the passing game. Open-field tackling is critical.
The plan for the passing game is to cover them tight, make Carden hold the ball to give the D-line a chance to be disruptive, and put Cooper on the ground when they dump it off to him. About the only other thing ECU will do is run some up the middle with Cooper out of the spread, and I think Jack Tyler and Tariq Edwards can handle that. Cooper’s good and has decent speed, but he didn’t look terribly elusive to me when I watched their game vs. Florida Atlantic.
Offensively, the running game is paramount, and I think Scot Loeffler will also continue to develop the passing game to the tight end. He’ll have to throw some wrinkles into that, because ECU has seen the naked bootleg rollout pass to the TE on film already. Watch for something different from the staff with Kalvin Cline, as they continue to work with him and try to bring him along. (Then again, they may not throw to the young freshman on the road; we’ll see.)
Virginia Tech is the more talented team, but they need to play well to win this one, and they need to limit mistakes, as you always need to on the road. Logan Thomas is going to have to avoid the drive-killing interceptions (two in the end zone last week) and in particular not turn it over in VT territory.
I like the Hokie defense in this one, and I think the offense will still be a work in progress.
Will Stewart’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 23, ECU 10
(Wow, not much margin between Chris’ pick and mine this week! Remember … I write my stuff before reading his prediction. Honest.)