McNeill feeling positive after opener

Published 6:49 pm Monday, September 5, 2011

GREENVILLE — East Carolina will go from facing one of the best teams the SEC has to offer to clashing with an elite ACC program this weekend when the Pirates host No. 13 Virginia Tech (1-0) in their home opener at 3:30 p.m.
On Saturday, ECU (1-0, C-USA) began its season with a 56-37 loss to No. 12 South Carolina. The Pirates new defense 3-4 showed flashes of potential as it limited a loaded Gamecocks team to 14 first-half points. East Carolina held 24-14 lead after two quarters thanks to forcing four USC turnovers.
In the second half, it was the Pirates turn to turn it over as they committed three fumbles en route to being out-scored 42-13 in the final two quarters.
Facing an offense that features all-American candidates WR Alshon Jeffrey and RB Marcus Lattimore, along with potential all-SEC QB Stephen Garcia, ECU’s debut on defense could have went south real quick. However, it looked competitive and had its share of moments.
Junior inside linebacker Daniel Drake led the team in tackles with 14, while freshman ILB Jeremy Grove added 12.
ECU got pressure early as Derrell Johnson earned the team’s lone sack, but that pressure didn’t always seem to be there in the second half. As a team, ECU got four quarterback hurries. South Carolina had five hurries, but no sacks. The Pirates limited USC’s passing game to 131 yards, but allowed them to gain 220 on the ground.
“Defensively, I thought we showed outstanding ability to overcome, not just some criticism, but a national barrage of criticism to a group of young people and coaches,” McNeill said. “They played a team that will test and stress every defense they face … they can stretch you vertically, horizontally and they got a Heisman (candidate) at the running back position in Marcus. I thought our defense did a good job, the score was not indicative of how the defense played.”
Another unit that would get a “P” if Saturday was a pass or fail test was the East Carolina offensive line. The unit returned only one starter from last year’s team in the same position in sophomore RT Grant Harmer, and shutout one of the most gifted defensive lines in the country in the sack department.
“You’re talking about an offensive line that is the third-youngest in the country going against a defensive line that going into the game has six (potential) draft choices on that team,” McNeill said. “They got us a couple of times, which you would expect with four first-time starters on that line, but I was really pleased with those guys.”
The coach wasn’t so pleased with the play of his special teams as it allowed Ace Sanders to bring back a punt 68 yards for a score.
“I was disappointed with our coverage teams to say the least,” McNeill said. “We’ll get that fixed. We started that last night at our practice. We want to make sure we directional kick as much as possible and try to pin the guy.”
This week, the Pirates bid to upset a BCS school will be played at home against a team that they are very familiar with in Virginia Tech, who is coming off of a 66-13 victory over Appalachian State.
East Carolina, which holds a 5-11 career record against Tech, will be playing the school for the fifth straight season, and once again the Hokies bring a talented offense to the table.
Despite losing star running backs Ryan Williams and Daren Evans to the NFL, Virginia Tech still has an extremely dangerous runner in junior David Wilson, who scored two times to help his team top ECU 49-27 in their last meeting.
Tech also had to replace an NFLer at quarterback as Tyrod Taylor is now with the Ravens, which opens the door for talented, rifled-armed sophomore Logan Thomas.
“They lost Tyrod but they replaced him with Logan, he’s a big 6-6, 242-pound guy in the mold and build of a Cam Newton,” McNeill said. “He can run; he’s not a big loping guy. He’s a guy who can run and throw the football.”