After a dropping two in a row at the hands of Florida and Navy, the ECU Pirates prepare for arguably their toughest matchup so far against Virginia Tech.
Coming off a 45-21 drubbing from Navy, in which Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds set an American Athletic Conference record for rushing touchdowns in a game with five, East Carolina on paper looks to have a tough matchup with a Virginia Tech team that visits, what is expected to be a packed house at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, after handedly beating Big 10 Purdue 51-24 last week.
“You watch the games and see the teams we play, and there is no margin for error,” ECU Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill told the media Monday. “This week is no different coming up against Virginia Tech.”
Coach McNeill is never one to shy from the truth when dealing with the media so it is of little surprise that he openly hit the nail on the head for their matchup this weekend. In order for the Pirates to upset the Hokies for a second-straight season, they must play mistake free football in all three phases of the game. Something the Pirates have failed to do the past two weeks in a 31-24 loss to Florida to go along with the previously mentioned loss to Navy.
“We’ve learned a lot about ourselves as a team in the first three games,” said McNeill. “We realized that we have to have a total, three-prong feeding frenzy as we call it. Our offense, defense, and special teams all have to play well. We know we’re facing a great team in Virginia Tech, a great program.”
A key to the offensive portion of this three-prong attack will be finding a way to combat the aggressive nature of the Virginia Tech defense. Last year the Pirates were able to do just that when the now graduated Shane Carden burned the Hokie defense with four total touchdowns and won the game 28-21 in Blacksburg.
While new starting quarterback Blake Kemp has been serviceable, completing 70 percent of his passes so far this season, he has yet to show the ability to push the ball downfield on a consistent basis. It would be remiss not to note that Kemp’s 893 yards passing in three games currently has him tied for the 20th most of all eligible FBS quarterbacks, however ECU ranks 125th out of 127 FBS schools in yards per completion at 8.8 – compared to last season when the pirates finished 65th in the nation with 12.03 yards per completion. This lack of explosiveness in the passing game is the largest difference between last year’s team, and it has allowed teams to fill up the box and take ECU running back Chris Hairston out of the game.
“They’re loading the box up on us and making us fight for it,” noted McNeill discussing the running game’s lack of success in recent games. “That group up front has to play like a quarter, not like five nickels. I want to run the football, and I’ve been disappointed that we haven’t been able to these last few games. You have to give those teams a little bit of credit, too. We’ll figure it out. This week will be a good week to start, but it’s a tough opponent to do it against.”
The Frank Beamer coached Hokies have long been touted for their aggressive, attacking style of defense that rarely gives an offense the chance to breathe. The question Saturday will be can the Pirates use the Hokies’ aggressiveness against them, or will they give into the chaos and find themselves in an early hole.
Conversely, after giving up over 400 yards rushing a week ago to Navy, it would be a shock not to see a very run-heavy offense from the Hokies. Furthermore, 142 yards of that was from the quarterback position, something that should be a large concern for the Pirates heading into a game against dual-threat Brenden Motley, who has filled in more than admirably in for an injured Michael Brewer the past two weeks.
“They’ve got Motley, who is mobile, big and has been around the program,” said McNeil not surprisingly very impressed with Motley’s game against Purdue last week. “He has size, athleticism and a strong arm. You see him, like in the Purdue game, for example, extend plays and he’s got a lot of weapons around him.”
This is important, as ultimately this game will likely come down to the running game for both teams. Look for the ECU Pirates to try and push the ball downfield a bit more this week and if successful, open up holes to get their running game going. If ECU is able to accomplish this while proving last week’s disappointing effort versus Navy was more a product of the Midshipmen’s disciplined triple-option attack than an inability to stop the run as a whole, they could be on their way to a fifth-straight win over an ACC opponent. If neither of those things happens, it could be a very long day for the Pirates and their fans.