My, oh my, what a difference a year makes!!! Going back and watching last year's VT vs. ECU game in preparation for this preview, an entire flood of memories came back. If you haven't fully repressed the horrors, you too may recall where you were sitting as the Hokies prepared to take on East Carolina in 2010. Tech was 0-2 and I was as bad off as I can remember feeling as a Superfan (certainly back to the loss to Cincinnati in 1995).
I remember writing the blog post after the game-that-shall-not-be-named referencing that very feeling (warning some of these are graphic but so was how bad I felt). And yet I somehow still was able to conjure up a sense that the Hokies - because of who Frank Beamer is - might just be made of the sort of stuff that would allow them to go on and have a remarkable season. Sure enough, they were and they did.
But while re-watching that 2010 matchup against ECU, I vividly recall conjuring up a sense that I was stupid. The Hokies were down 17-7 and facing a 3rd and 20 on their own 19 yard line. Tyrod Taylor as he did so many times during his remarkable career stepped up and with the game - and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say the season - on the line, delivered a strike to Jarrett Boykin for a first down......and Boykin fumbled. An ECU player landed on the ball and had he held onto it, who knows what would have happened? But it came out and Andre Smith fell on the loose ball. The Hokies went on to score a TD on that drive to make it 17-14 and turned everything around (at least until the following week against NC State when David Wilson and Tyrod Taylor had to pull rabbits out of their hat all over again).
To say that play was an emotional roller coaster for me would be accurate if the roller coaster you were referring to was this one.. But ironically, it is the steadiness of Taylor and Beamer and their effect on the team that led the Hokies to the big win against ECU as the first of 11 straight victories they ripped off. And THAT is really the key to the entire game this weekend against ECU in all three phases of the game. Let's break it down:
Hokies Offense vs. ECU Defense
I had to watch the ECU game against South Carolina for comparison here because the Pirates switched defensive alignment from 2010 to 2011. Now playing in a 3-4, they theoretically are much better prepared to defend run gaps and mix their coverages and blitzes up. The problem I saw against South Carolina was that the Pirates may have switched schemes but they don't quite have the personnel to execute this defense. The 3-4 defense relies on a massive and powerful nose tackle to take up space and people in the middle so that an extra LB is always free to make a tackle. The Pirates don't have that yet and QB Stephen Garcia and RB Marcus Lattimore took advantage of big gashing runs up the middle, especially in the 2nd half.
The Hokies should similarly be able to press their advantage in the running game to draw the entire secondary up and allow Logan Thomas to get some 1-on-1 situations with his receivers that he can take advantage of. From what I've seen out of O'Cain in the booth, I have a lot more confidence in some accurate playcalling here.
However, Logan Thomas is not Tyrod Taylor. And I don't mean they are just physically different. Taylor, against ECU last year, was a senior who'd been through it all. He was able to stay steady and deliver play after play even with the Hokies down 10 points. Can Thomas do the same thing this weekend? The fact is I hope he doesn't have to. If the Hokies get down early, on the road, with Thomas in there facing a blitz and some pre-snap movement by the defense, can he stay calm and deliver the ball where it needs to go? And what if I'm wrong and O'Cain still hasn't knocked all the rust off as a playcaller? Can Thomas do what Taylor did last year and make something happen when a play doesn't go as planned? He doesn't have to do it the same way as his toolkit is different than Taylor's. He showed me a lot last weekend in moving around inside and out of the pocket, but that was Appalachian State. Yes they were good and yes they ran a 3-4 defense but East Carolina is probably a little bit better overall athletically than the Mountaineers were (and I don't say that sardonically, I do mean "a little bit better").
So the Hokies have the talent and ability to put up quite a few points in this game. How they play early and how well they maintain their poise will be a HUGE key to that.
Hokies Defense vs. ECU Offense
The closest that ECU comes to matching up with the Hokies is when their offense goes against Tech's defense. Watching the 2010 matchup, this offense was very dangerous even before they really knew what they were doing and young offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley knows how to attack a defense (learned, no doubt, from his mentor Mike Leach). Then last week against South Carolina, they hung 37 points on the Gamecocks and it would have been a lot more if not for 4 turnovers. QB Dominique Davis has faced the Hokie defense twice already and knows how important it is to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
And quickly is right, because this Hokie defensive line is serious. They get a lot of push up the middle and James Gayle and JR Hopkins are coming off the edge, and they are fast. I expect them to be able to generate similar pressure as they did against Appalachian State, but it won't result in as many tackles for loss because Davis isn't going to hold the ball long enough. The Hokie linebackers and secondary are fast enough to keep up with the receivers and backs out of the backfield so speed isn't going to be the problem here.
In fact, the Pirates don't really have much of a running threat at all but they spread you out so wide that it doesn't take but a broken tackle at the line of scrimmage to hit a big gainer. The passing game tries the same philosophy - spread you out, short passes, break that one tackle for the big gainer. So the key to this matchup is - which unit loses patience first?
If Davis gets frustrated early and the Hokies get ahead, he may start to press, which is what happened in last year's game in Blacksburg. He may stop taking the short routes and try and hold the ball a little longer to hit a bigger play. That's when the line can start getting to him. Or he may try and force a ball allowing the Hokies' opportunistic defense to get a pick.
On the flip side of the coin, the Hokie defenders may not stay fundamental in their tackling. Or a DB might try and jump a route early in the game to get an interception. A pass rusher may not maintain his lane and allow Davis to scramble for key yards. This will be about maintaining discipline and choosing the right time to attack on defense (like Rock Carmichael did last year in the 2nd half on his game changing pick-six). They have the playmakers to make plays if they can stay patient and force ECU to try and execute their offense all the way down the field repeatedly.
Hokies Special Teams vs. ECU Special Teams
Field position will be big early in this game and on kickoffs, kickoff return and punt return the Hokies have a big edge here with players like K Justin Myer, and returners Dyrell Roberts, David Wilson and Jayron Hosley. ECU's kicker is a senior but Hokie kicker Cody Journell looks to have a bigger leg. That said, it will be important for Journell to continue kicking the way he did against Appalachian State. The wildcard, of course, is Hokie punter Scott Demler. If he thought he was jittery in the game in Blacksburg, wait until he faces this hostile crowd in Greenville, NC. He HAS to find his poise and deliver good kicks here. The Hokies won't need an All-ACC punting performance Saturday but they can't have that 32 yds/punt garbage they got last weekend either. Don't forget (as if you could) that a blocked punt at the end of the 2008 game in Charlotte was a huge play that helped ECU beat the Hokies that day.
So it comes down to poise. I like what I'm hearing out of the Hokies so far this week; phrases like "we're going to take care of business" and "it's not so much about what they do as it is about what we do". It's one thing to say it during gameweek and it's another to go out and do it on the road with as much youth as there is on this roster. Out of the 72 players going to Greenville, 45 of them are headed there for the first time as members of the football team. They need to play beyond their years and stay steady and poised to allow their physical offensive line and speedy defense to slowly wear down the Pirates and come out of there with a big win.