by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 9/7/00
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An Early Road Test Sets the Tone for the Rest of the Hokies' Season
In 1996, as Virginia Tech demolished a pretty good ECU team 35-14 in Lane Stadium, I found myself thinking that the Hokies had separated themselves from the Pirates and were leaving them behind.
The similarities between the Hokies and the Pirates have been a popular theme this week, with one common thread running through the articles I've read: the programs used to be the same, but they diverged when Tech got into the Big East and ECU didn't.
That is true, of course, and 1996 was probably the first year where that difference truly manifested itself. The Hokies simply mowed over the Pirates, rolling up 591 yards of offense and chewing up 37 minutes of clock. And all this was done without the services of Cornell Brown and six other Hokie players who were suspended early in the week for their part in the infamous Blacksburg Brawl of 1996. The Hokies were simply a level above the Pirates in 1996.
Two years later, a veteran Hokie team once again wiped out a young ECU team, this time 38-3. ECU had many inexperienced players, whereas Tech was loaded with experience, particularly on defense. The game was a little closer early on than the 38-3 score would have indicated, but still, there was little doubt that the Hokies were going to win.
In tonight's game, the shoe of experience is on the other foot. This time, ECU is a veteran team throughout, particularly on offense, while overall, the Hokies are younger (with the exception of Tech's offense). As one message board poster pointed out earlier in the week, this game will give a true barometer as to how close the Hokies are to reaching the point of reloading, and not rebuilding.
If Tech is truly a top 10 team that is in reloading mode, then they will defeat the Pirates handily. That's what top-tier teams that are "reloading" do. They defeat experienced second-tier teams on the road (although with the parity in college football today, that line is becoming finer and finer). If Tech struggles or even loses this game, it doesn't mean the Hokies aren't a strong top 10 team. It just means that dreams of "reloading and not rebuilding" are still a little premature.
One thing is clear: this one won't be boring. Both teams bring talented veteran offenses into a prime-time matchup where the players will be juiced and will be ready to show their stuff to a national audience. Outside of November 4th's Miami game, this will probably be the most exciting Tech game you'll see all year, if both teams hold up their end of the bargain.
The ECU Experience Factor
Pirate fans are excited this year because they're very deep on offense and along the defensive line. Let's take a look at the offensive and defensive units for ECU.
East Carolina returns 20 of its top 22 players on offense, including 8 or 9 starters, depending upon whom you listen to. These guys could take the young Hokie defense on quite a ride tonight, and at the very least, they'll produce gobs of film for the Tech defensive players to pore over in the next 9 days, before their next game.
Of course, it's very popular to talk about David Garrard, ECU's big (6-3, 235 pounds), strong junior quarterback. And he deserves it. As a freshman against the Hokies in 1998, he was 9-17 for 153 yards, and remarkably, no interceptions. He wasn't able to move the ECU offense consistently in that game, but you could see his potential, and the ECU fans were rightfully high on him.
But I think the real strength of ECU's offense, at least with regards to the Hokie defense, lies in their offensive line. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the most important part of a football team is the offensive line. A good O-line can control and demoralize the opponent.
Going by Athlon's preseason college football magazine, ECU has a junior- and senior-laden offensive line that has earned 13 varsity letters among its six starters (five OL and the tight end). Only left tackle Shaun Rose is a first-year starter there.
I know, I know, now I sound like one of those robots who talks about nothing but "returning starters" and makes his preseason prognostications based upon that factor only, without considering other factors. But after watching two experience-laden Tech defenses dominate opponents in 1995 and 1998/99, and after watching Tech's talented but young defense struggle a little against Akron, I've come to think over the years that experience within a given system is a huge factor in how well a college football team plays.
And no one will deny that a group of offensive linemen who have been playing together 2 or 3 years is a real weapon. And ECU's got it.
So, given Garrard, and given their offensive line, and given their other returning skill players on offense (split end Marcellus Harris and fullback Jamie Wilson), it's quite possible that the ECU offense could light the Tech defense up for the same 410 yards that Akron compiled, and for more points than Akron's 23 (six of which were on special teams play).
The wild card here is how much Tech's defense can improve in a short week. As discussed in another article, the Tech players haven't had much time to digest the Akron game tape, and I doubt that any Tech players had a chance to put in some individual time in the film room with the short week.
One good piece of news is that the Tech coaches blamed the poor tackling that the Hokies experienced primarily in the first half against Akron on a lack of full-speed practice. The Hokies are now used to game-speed conditions and will probably tackle better against ECU, and that's a big key. For example, 35 of Akron's rushing yards came on a single play where Tech defensive end Jim Davis missed a tackle in the backfield and the running back turned it upfield.
So how is that Tech defense going to do? Again, watch the defensive ends here, because they're a huge key. Tech will need improved play from the defensive ends in order to try to stifle Garrard and company a little bit.
The Pirates are deep on the defensive line, too. Athlon lists them as having 5 DL's (2 DE's, 2 DT's and 1 NG), and four of those guys are returning starters. Not to mention that the backups include 2 seniors and 2 juniors with nine varsity letters among them -- and those are just the backups.
That won't really matter on any given play or drive, because Tech's offensive line is also deep and talented, and man-for-man, is probably superior to ECU's defensive line.
Where it will matter is as the game wears on. If ECU rotates their defensive linemen, as I've heard they do, they should not wear down as the game goes on. So don't count on the Hokies to necessarily be able to mow over the ECU defensive line as the night goes on. It may happen, but don't take it to the bank.
Watch the chess match here between Tech's coaches and ECU's defensive coordinator. Watch for substitutions from Tech and ECU along the offensive and defensive lines, as both sides substitute fresh players and try to keep the first-line players sharp for the push late in the game.
Outside linebacker Pernell Griffin, #47 for ECU, is the only returning starter at LB and is an all-conference selection and (according to Lindy's) and All-American candidate.
In the secondary, there is much to worry about for the Pirates. If Lindy's is correct, the Pirates start all sophomores in their secondary, only one of which is a returning starter, strong safety Anthony Adams. If the Hokie offensive line can keep the Pirate DL off of Michael Vick, then Vick and his receivers might lay a world of hurt on these guys.
On special teams, ECU lost an All-American punter from last year, and placekicker Kevin Miller, who was 11-for-15 on field goals last year, will handle the punting duties.
D-coordinator Tim Rose
Tim Rose, known for his attacking, blitzing defenses, was the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati in 1995 when the Bearcats came into Lane Stadium and shut down a Tech offense that featured a strong O-line and experienced skill players. He was also the defensive coordinator for Boston College in 1997 and 1998, when the Eagles did a good job of slowing down Tech's offense.
Last year he became the defensive coordinator at ECU, and the improvements were dramatic. The Pirates went from 61st in the nation in scoring defense in 1998 to 13th last year; from 65th to 38th in total defense; from 95th to 41st in rushing defense; and from 67th to 10th in pass efficiency defense.
Any Hokie fans who were around in 1995 know that Tim Rose is to be feared. But then again, this is the best offense Tech has ever fielded, right down to the quarterback. But still, ECU will be a challenge for the Tech offense.
We could be looking at a serious shootout here. Again, the wild card is the Tech defense and how much they'll be able to improve from the Akron game to this one.
Another wild card is special teams play. After snoozing on kick blocks in 1999, the Hokies went after it against Akron, causing the Zips all kinds of trouble in getting kicks off. I look for Frank Beamer to send the kitchen sink in an effort to make something happen against the Pirates, on the road in a hostile environment. Look for the ECU punter in particular to be under attack.
And how will Tech's punter and kicker, who performed very well at home, do on the road? Warley and Peaslee were excellent against the Zips. Have they got what it takes to play well in Greenville?
This game will tell us a lot about whether or not this Tech team, in particular the defense and special teams, is ready for prime time, or whether they're still a year away from where they want to be. This game is also a crucial test of Vick's leadership, because the Hokie offense will need to put pressure on the ECU defense immediately, and continue to apply it all game long.
Virginia Tech 42, ECU 34.
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