For the third straight week, East Carolina will be challenged physically by a Power Five conference football team.
The Pirates travel to Virginia Tech for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday and first-year ECU coach Scottie Montgomery has been trying to find a fine line between necessary preparation and adequate rest.
“That’s always a concern,” Montgomery said of the traditionally-physical nature of the Hokies following a trip into SEC country to play South Carolina. “That’s the honest answer. Two weeks ago [N.C. State] was really physical. Last week was really physical and our guys, they’re putting out at the highest level of physicality that we can continue to do.
“But we’re very blessed that they came into this season physically ready to be coached. Our strength and conditioning staff has done a great job. For the most part, we’ve been healthy. I’ve adjusted what we do from a practice standpoint to make sure that we’re fresh but we still have to be physical in practice.
“We knew this going in. I did all the research in the world on going into situations like this where you’ve got three big-time opponents. . . . At Duke in 2013, we had University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then we had the ACC championship with a great Florida State team that went on to win the national championship and then we had Texas A&M — we had a little bit of time in there because of the bowl but it was still three really physical games right boom, boom, boom.
“We learned a lot during that time when we just had back-to-back big-time games. We did feel the physical pressure of Florida State after we played a real physical North Carolina team so we learned from that. We had to adjust our practice a little bit to make sure our guys had the best opportunity to go out and win the football game.”
Hokies produce in ACC win
Virginia Tech blasted Boston College 49-0 last week in Blacksburg to start the Justin Fuente coaching era 1-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It was the most points scored by the Hokies in an ACC game since 2010 and the program’s first shutout since the 2012 season.
Brad Cornelson, who came with Fuente from Memphis, is offensive coordinator.
Bud Foster was retained as defensive coordinator.
Montgomery was offensive coordinator last season at Duke, which nipped Virginia Tech 45-43 in four overtimes at Lane Stadium. The Hokies have become more versatile offensively since Fuente took over for the legendary Frank Beamer.
“He’s given them more volume,” Montgomery said. “I think they’re a lot cleaner. They have a lot more detail than they’ve had. The ability to run the quarterback, whether it be zone read, power read, counter — they’ve added that. Also, they’ve done a much better job of throwing the football down the field. They’re using Bucky [Hodges] and Isaiah [Ford] on the edges to throw the ball down the field. They’re also doing some things from a run game standpoint with their back. They’ve grown as much offensively from last year to this year as any team we’ll face.”
The forecast is calling for sunny conditions on game day but the Pirates have had to deal with showers in practice this week.
“We’ve had a lot of rain,” Montgomery said. “It’s been really wet. It was wet Tuesday. We went out in it. … We have some wet ball drills. It’s been good. Our kids were so hungry to get back to practice. Our defense welcomed the rain and our offense really wanted to see if they could go out and execute. We had a good day or work”
South Carolina set the tone last week with an 80-yard kickoff return by A.J. Turner to start the game. The Pirates were assessed a 9-yard penalty (half the distance to the goal) for a horse collar tackle by Chris Love and the Gamecocks scored on the next play on a 9-yard keeper by Brandon McIlwain just 17 seconds into the nonconference contest.
Was the return a result of a breakdown in coverage or did USC make a play?
“It really wasn’t even a breakdown in coverage, the placement of the football was what was bad about that,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got to get a better kick in that situation. That ball got so far right. We wanted to put that ball on the hash, a little bit closer to the hash versus it being way down in there to the right. That affected us getting out of our lanes a little bit because we work so hard on lane integrity and gap integrity, even in the kickoff.
“The penalty on top of that kickoff kind of did set the tone a little bit, but I’m OK with that penalty because it was a penalty to save a touchdown. We just didn’t give our defense a chance to hit the field in a good place. Usually when you start a game like that, you have to weather a storm and we weathered it. We just didn’t have enough finishing power to get it done.”
New responsibilities for Coach Mo
Montgomery has a fresh set of duties on the game day sideline as a head coach.
“The overall responsibility is a lot different,” Montgomery said. “I’m strategically trying to get our defense, offense, special teams working cohesively. That’s the biggest difference.”
He is more involved overall in his focus than when he was offensive coordinator for the Blue Devils.
“When you’re calling a game, you remove yourself from every part of the game,” Montgomery said. “You’re usually sitting down, writing and it’s more of the details of making sure the situations and tendencies match. There’s a lot of that. On the sideline, you’re trying to give your coordinators both what you want to see done but you want to merge all that — defensively, offensively, special teams — so there’s the big picture of it, and you’ve got the clock, the element of time.
“I’ve been trained for a long time in the element of time and trying to make everything work together but once you actually have to do it all, it makes it a little bit different. But thank goodness for the training that I’ve received to this point from Mike Tomlin [Pittsburgh Steelers coach] and David Cutcliffe [Duke coach].”
Review on interception
Turnovers were costly in a 20-15 loss at South Carolina last week. ECU relinquished possession three times inside the 7-yard line of the Gamecocks, including a second-quarter play ruled an interception by the American Athletic Conference officiating crew where the ball hit the turf, escaping the grasp of defender Jamarcus King.
The ball was clearly on the ground in the replay shown on the big screen at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“Since it was called as an interception, they did not find enough video evidence to overturn the call,” Montgomery said.
Reaction to loss
Montgomery said the Pirates did not dwell on their misfortunes after outgaining the Gamecocks 519-312 last week. The hosts could afford to be more conservative offensively after taking a 17-0 lead in the first 7:02.
“We licked our wounds on the bus ride back,” Montgomery said. “By the time we got back home, everybody understood what was the new task at hand but also when you have a game like this and you play so well between the 20s and your defense bows their neck in the second half and you only give up three points after the first quarter, you’re able to point to exactly what were the issues in the game and get those corrected.
“Those games are the ones you can grow from the most. Some games where you just lose from a physical standpoint, people were more physical than you or they made a play in the open field — those things are harder to correct than the things that we had to get done Sunday and Tuesday of practice.”
Keys to competing this week
Learning from the loss last week will be important if ECU is to defeat the Hokies for the third straight time in the series.
“We’ve got to maintain the line of scrimmage, first of all,” Montgomery said. “On offense, we’ve got to keep our quarterback upright. He’s also got to take care of the football. One ball, we wish he’d never thrown, the one-on-one route over there on the back side where he tried to hold the safety and then go back over there with his eyes and made the throw. That was just a great job covering [Chris Lammons’ interception].
“The other one [King pick], he had a run-pass option right there. They loaded the box on us and if he just throws the ball to the back pylon, he makes another play. He makes that throw 100 out of 101 times. Unfortunately, the one time happened at a critical time in the game.
“Just the little things — two hands on the ball in the pocket for him. We were able to clean up some of those things Tuesday in practice so that’s one big key for us — taking care of the football and maintaining the line of scrimmage.
“Defensively, is to come out and continue to communicate the way that we communicate. There’s a few things that we had to take a look at. We’ve got to get better with the quarterback player and the pitch player. I thought South Carolina did a good job of jumping the back late. When you jump the back late, their responsibilities shift quickly. I think we’ve got a good plan to be able to maintain or stop and defend that. We’ve just got to communicate on defense. When we get a chance to make a play on defense in jump ball situations, whether it be with No. 7 [Hodges] or No. 1 [Ford], we’ve got to win some of those matchups.”