No podcast this week. As you might have read, we had some layoffs in Roanoke. That has affected our ability to get the podcast up and running. Perhaps next week. We’ll see.
If you missed last night’s injury report, you can get to it here. Here’s the Cliffs notes version: RB J.C. Coleman and WR Charley Meyer are out. RG Andrew Miller and DL Tyrel Wilson are probable.
Virginia Tech at East Carolina
- Where: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Greenville, N.C.
- When: 12:05 p.m., Saturday
- TV: Fox Sports 1
- Records: Virginia Tech (1-1, 0-0 ACC), East Carolina (2-0, 1-0 C-USA)
- Series: Hokies lead 12-5
- Last meeting: Virginia Tech won 17-10 in Greenville in 2011
- Line: Virginia Tech by 7.5
When Virginia Tech passes
Logan Thomas didn’t fare so well on his last trip to Greenville, when he was a sophomore making his first road start. He hasn’t been totally sharp to start this year. The Alabama game could be chalked up to drops and a tough defense, but he didn’t necessarily pick apart an overmatched Western Carolina defense last week, going 17-for-31 for 200 yards, a touchdown and two picks. It seems like Tech has diversified its passing game. Josh Stanford, Willie Byrn and tight end Kalvin Cline combined for 12 catches last week. Expect more of that, with D.J. Coles still not able to push his knee too much, Demitri Knowles still with some catching issues and Charley Meyer out with a hamstring injury. The o-line has done a good job keeping Thomas upright. He’s been sacked only once in two games. Still, he needs to do better than complete 54 percent of his passes, like he did last week.
It’s tough to tell just what ECU’s 96th-ranked passing defense means. The Pirates, after all, faced pass-happy Old Dominion in the opener, giving up 370 yards but doing so on 52 pass attempts. Florida Atlantic, hardly an offensive juggernaut, had only 178 passing yards last week. But you have to remember this was a group that gave up 275.7 yards per game in the air last year, among the worst units in the country. Cornerback Adonis Armstrong and safeties Damon Maguazu and Chip Thompson are back as starters from that group. Newcomer Josh Hawkins, a cornerback, has a team-high 14 tackles and one of the Pirates’ two picks. ECU has eight sacks in two games, tied for fourth most nationally. Defensive end Lee Pegues has three of them and should give the Hokies a challenge up front. Still, this is mostly the same group that gave up 1,377 passing yards and 13 touchdowns in the final four games last year. The question is: can the Hokies get things together and take advantage of that?
When Virginia Tech runs
The Hokies won’t have running back J.C. Coleman again after he tweaked his ankle injury last week. Trey Edmunds, who is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has 200 yards in two games, was going to be the starter regardless. All this means is a bigger role for Chris Mangus, who had a long touchdown run last week, and Joel Caleb, who had a nimble scoring run as well. Thomas didn’t have a carry in a game for the first time in his career last week, but after the Hokies flashed the triple option against Alabama in the opener, it wouldn’t be surprising if they brought it back in this game. He’ll probably have a bigger role — or at the very least, some role — in the running game. Tech got a boost when right guard Andrew Miller was listed as probable on the injury report. The Hokies’ offensive line, particularly its run blocking, has been one of the pleasant surprises this year.
ECU will be without a pair of starters in the middle. Two inside linebackers in the Pirates’ 3-4 scheme are out with injuries. Jeremy Grove had a chest injury and Kyle Tudor is bothered by a knee issue. Grove, an All-C-USA preseason pick, led the team with 83 tackles last year. Tudor was fourth with 62. Zeek Bigger (9 tackles, sack) and Brandon Williams (11 tackles, 2 TFL) will start in their place, although they’re not nearly as experienced. Outside linebacker Derrell Johnson, a converted defensive end from ECU’s old 4-3 scheme, is very active, with 62 tackles and a team-high seven sacks and 11.5 TFLs last year. The Pirates are giving up only 3.4 yards per carry, although again, ODU is a team that doesn’t put much emphasis on running the ball. Florida Atlantic got to the 100-yard mark on the ground last week but needed 34 carries to do so. Tech should provide more of a challenge than that.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When East Carolina passes
As Tech coaches have mentioned all week, ECU quarterback Shane Carden is among the most accurate passers that they’ll face. He’s completing 79 percent of his passes this season (which pretty much every Hokies coach has said is hard to do in pass skel, let alone a game) and is averaging 315 yards per game. He’s good, but he needs receivers too. And Justin Hardy, an inside guy, has been his favorite target. The 6-foot, 186-pound junior has 20 receptions for 227 yards in two games, with a 16-catch, 191-yard effort against ODU in the opener. Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster likened him to former ECU and current Dallas Cowboys receiver Dwayne Harris, who had a 1,000-yard season his senior year in Greenville. The Pirates took a blow before the year when 6-foot-8 tight end/inside receiver Justin Jones was ruled academically ineligible. But freshman Davon Grayson seems to be the red zone target. He has four touchdown catches in two games.
The Hokies’ young cornerbacks — freshmen Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson — will face a tough test in this one. While Alabama was a stronger opponent, the Crimson Tide didn’t intend to throw the ball all over the field like ECU will. Tech should be in a nickel almost the entire game against the Pirates’ spread look, meaning major playing time for both in this one along with Kyle Fuller at corner. So far, they’ve performed well beyond their years. Facyson had a pick last week. Kendall tipped a pass that Detrick Bonner picked off for a touchdown. While ECU will challenge Tech in space, the Hokies have been good at swarming to the ball, a key against a quick pass team like the Pirates, who like to throw screens to the perimeter. It might mean a different kind of game for the d-line. Carden gets rid of the ball quickly, making it hard for ends like James Gayle, J.R. Collins and Dadi Nicolas to get in the backfield fast enough for sacks. They’ll have to get their arms up to disrupt some throwing lanes Saturday.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When East Carolina runs
Although the Pirates get a lot of publicity for their passing game, Vintavious Cooper ran for 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns last year. In fact, ECU is 23-5 in its last 28 games when out-rushing its opponent, including a 3-1 record last season. He’s averaging 4.2 yards a carry so far this year, with 133 yards total, even though he has been a featured part of the offense. Guard Will Simmons is a preseason All-C-USA pick, part of an offensive line that three starters from last year’s team. Carden isn’t a threat to run, so stopping ECU’s ground game will largely come down to limiting Cooper, who was the league’s newcomer of the year last season after breaking the 100-yard mark four times.
Despite ECU’s passing exploits, Foster doesn’t change his primary goal of stopping the run first. The Hokies did it two years ago against the Pirates, holding them to negative 15 rushing yards when sacks were included. Those kind of numbers might be unrealistic to produce again this year, but the Hokies have a pretty stout front seven. Virginia Tech is allowing 103.5 yards per game (27th nationally), although the 2.65 yards per carry it is giving up ranks 15th. D-line coach Charley Wiles said Derrick Hopkins (11 tackles, 1.5 TFLs) is playing as well as any defensive tackle Tech has had, clogging up the middle. Linebackers Jack Tyler (19 tackles) and Tariq Edwards (11) have swarmed to the ball. Again, the Hokies will need that team mentality on tackling, since ECU will stretch the field from sideline-to-sideline, trying to get play-makers out in space.
Edge: Virginia Tech
Tech’s coverage teams were better against Western Carolina, although it was an FCS team. It’s hard to tell if the problems from the opener are truly fixed. Punt returner Kyshoen Jarrett is a big risk-reward guy. He had a 43-yard return against Alabama. He also had a punt deflect off his leg for a turnover against Western Carolina (even if he was interfered with, he shouldn’t have been that close to it). The kick return game has yet to get going, although with Knowles, it has potential. Kicker Cody Journell has hit both of his field goals this year, and A.J. Hughes is averaging 44.8 yards per punt.
Trent Tignor is averaging 44.0 yards per punt and kicker Warren Harvey, who went 15-for-20 on field goals last year, has made two of his three kicks this year. But ECU’s big advantage is in the return game. Hardy, a preseason first-team All-C-USA pick at punt return, is averaging 17.5 yards per return. Lance Ray is averaging 42.3 yards per kick return, which is fifth best nationally, aided by an 85-yard return against FAU that somehow didn’t result in a touchdown. Lance had a touchdown return last season, however, so he’s a threat to take one to the house.
Edge: East Carolina
This will be the third time Frank Beamer and Ruffin McNeill will face off on opposite sidelines. Beamer’s won both the previous games. One (2011) was close. Another (2010) was closer than the score indicated. Foster has generally had success going up against East Carolina’s offense. The Pirates only had 112 total yards in the 2011 game and didn’t fare a ton better in previous matchups (even ECU’s 2008 win wasn’t a game it rolled up a ton of yards). Pirates offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has been with McNeill for all four years that he’s been in Greenville, and last year directed a group that averaged 31.5 points per game. Scot Loeffler is still trying to find Virginia Tech’s offensive identity, although you could say the same ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith, who returned to the Pirates to try to improve a defense that gave up 430.7 yards per game last year.
Edge: Virginia Tech
History tells us this won’t be a shootout. The last two games between these teams in Greenville have had final scores of 17-10 (2011) and 16-3 (2009). Although ECU’s offense has been doing pretty well so far this year, I don’t think it’s played against a defense anywhere close to Virginia Tech’s this year. The Pirates put up eye-popping numbers in the defense-optional Conference USA. That same attack produced only 6 points in a loss to North Carolina last year and 10 against South Carolina.
I see something similar playing out Saturday. I don’t think Virginia Tech’s offense comes out and lights thing up. It’s just not close to being a group that’s hitting on all cylinders. But the defense has looked really sharp so far. And while that was the case in last year’s opener before that group “fell off the face of the planet” against Pittsburgh, as Foster said, there’s reason to believe that won’t happen for this year’s group. This year’s secondary is more used to its roles. Same with the linebackers. And the defensive line is deeper and more experienced than it was last season. The Pirates will try to push the pace to tire the Hokies out, but I think Foster’s defense keeps ECU in check and the offense does enough (especially with two key linebackers out for ECU) for Tech to improve to 2-1. It’s never a blowout in Greenville, so I won’t pick one here.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, East Carolina 16