Pirates take a timeout

Published 7:43 pm Monday, September 12, 2011

East Carolina’s Michael Dobson (35) dives over Virginia Tech’s J.R. Collins (42) for a touchdown during the first half in Greenville Saturday. (AP Photo/Karl DeBlaker)

GREENVILLE — Perspective can be a funny thing, and depending on yours, East Carolina’s first two games of the year are either extremely encouraging or a cause for concern.
After Saturday’s 17-10 loss to No. 11 Virginia Tech, Pirates second-year coach Ruffin McNeill was not exactly thrilled that his team heads into an early-schedule bye week having to stew on how close it came to knocking off an elite college program for the second Saturday in a row.
“We’re looking forward to the next game, I really wish the off week didn’t come this quick,” McNeill said. “I like to have them a little bit later if possible, but I wish we had a game quicker than we do right now.”
Most coaches don’t like an early bye week, however, after playing two physical teams, having an extra week to prepare for the Conference USA opener against UAB might not be the worst thing in the world.
East Carolina (0-2, Conference USA) held a 24-14-halftime lead over No. 12 South Carolina in its season opener, but a disastrous third quarter in which the team committed three straight turnovers sank any chance the Pirates had of an upset.
Last Saturday, the school held a slim 7-3 lead over the Hokies, but could not seal the deal as it was held to 112 yards of total offense, its lowest output since it mustered 160 yards against West Virginia in 2007.
Despite being picked by no one to even win their own conference, the 17.5-point underdogs entered the fourth quarter tied at 10 with Virginia Tech. The score would stay that way before a John Oglesby TD run midway through quarter broke the stalemate.
An impartial observer would say that’s not so bad of an outing. However, after the game, McNeill wanted nobody’s pity.
“The last two weeks we faced not just two good football teams, but great football teams. We faced two teams that can win their division, win their conference and have a chance to contend for a national championship and I felt we really should have won both football games,” McNeill said. “And that’s with all due respect to both football teams, but we’re not in the moral business and we’re not in the excuse-making business; not as long as I’m here. We’re not into moral victories.”
McNeill said all the right things, and he’s right, as a coach and as a team, a moral victory means nothing. However, those who don’t have to suit up everyday for practice, there are no restrictions against indulging in some of the positive aspects of the Pirates’ play.
Last season the Pirates placed last in the FBS in total defense and were particularly awful against the run as they let up 226 rushing yards per game to rank 117th out of 120 FBS teams.
That effort facilitated the switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4. Fans held their breath and wondered if one less hand down in the dirt can make that much off a difference. Well, so far it has.
ECU opened up the 2011 season having to face two of the nation’s premiere running backs in USC’s Marcus Lattimore, last season’s national freshman of the year, and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson, a back buried on the depth chart behind two future NFLers Ryan Williams and Darren Evans. With having to face two running backs like that in Week 1 and Week 2, the 3-4’s debut could have been brutal.
Lattimore tallied 112 yards on 23 carries and scored three times, while Wilson was a bit better with 138 yards on 26 attempts, but was kept out of the end zone. While nobody would confuse the defensive effort with that of the Purple People Eaters, it could have been much worse. Those guys get those kinds of numbers, if not better, against every team they face, otherwise they wouldn’t be considered NFL prospects.
ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said the move to the 3-4 was made because it fit the team’s personnel better, allows him more creative ways to blitz and is viewed as a more flexible defense.
After two games, ECU has only one sack and eight quarterback hurries, which is not overly impressive. However, the defense did take the passing game away from Virginia Tech and its trio of senior receivers. Hokies’ quarterback Logan Thomas connected on only eight passes for 91 yards.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the 3-4 is its flexibility. Virginia Tech pulled out all the stops on Saturday and struggled to find answers. The Hokies ran plays out of the shotgun and under center, they ran option plays and deep passing plays before they finally settled on just trying to plow up the field with their running game. The Pirates’ defense made a good team work for every point it got, and while McNeill doesn’t want to hear anything about a moral victory, the unit’s play has to at the very least be encouraging.
For those that don’t view everything through purple and gold colored lenses, here are some issues to keep an eye on in the upcoming weeks:
It’s not too often that ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s unit comes under fire, especially after it ranked 16th in the nation last season and was the backbone of the team. However, after its five turnover effort against USC and its 112 yards of total offense against the Hokies, that unit is not exactly off to the best start.
The Pirates ran for 110 yards versus the Gamecocks and -15 against Virginia Tech, giving them a 95 rushing yards in two games. Yes, there will never be balance in the Air Raid offense, but there must be some diversity. What defense would respect a run game that averages less than 50 yards per contest?  With no threat of running the football, teams can tee-off against the passing game. When that happens, you see star wideouts like Lance Lewis held to three catches for 17 yards because he’s either he’s double-teamed or quarterback Dominique Davis does not have time to throw it to him.
On Saturday, the Hokies did a bit of both.
“They double teamed him. They had a guy underneath and a guy over the top most of the time,” McNeill said after the loss to Tech.
On top of blanketing Lewis, the Hokies did a great job getting penetration against the ECU offensive line as they tallied nine tackles for a loss, five sacks and two quarterback hurries.
Davis looked confused at times by Tech’s defensive audibles and so did the young offensive line that protects him.
Davis hit on 20 of his 38 pass attempts, and none his completions went longer than 20 yards. The Pirates offensive line, which is the third-youngest in the nation, did a good job against South Carolina but seamed to be overwhelmed and out-witted by Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s group.
“It was a typical Bud Foster defense, (Hokies head coach) Frank Beamer doesn’t have a great team, he has a great program and they’ve played great there for years,” McNeill said. “They did a great job up front. I think the youth of our offensive line – we have four sophomores and four new starters on that unit – I thought that came into play today.”
The good news for East Carolina is that the losses were non-conference games and that they have two weeks to prepare UAB. While there are no moral victories, hanging with the elite from the SEC and ACC should at least give the Pirates confidence heading into conference play.