Hokies are 60-minute men in 64-17 comeback victory
GREENVILLE — As a matchup with an ACC opponent opened Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, it looked as though East Carolina might put a feather in the cap of the American Athletic Conference. A crowd of 43,776 was experiencing some deja vu dating back to the days when the Pirates were rolling off seven straight wins over ACC foes.
That string culminated last season in the second game with a 33-30 win over N.C. State in Scottie Montgomery’s first season as head coach.
ECU put its best foot forward, but as the nonconference contest between the 16th-ranked Hokies and the winless Pirates progressed, Virginia Tech’s coaching, experience, poise and talent overcame a 17-7 deficit for a resounding 64-17 win.
Visions of the good old days didn’t last long.
Virginia Tech (3-0) scored 57 unanswered points as Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster tightened the screws after the early surge.
“Coach Foster did a good job of adjusting to us not having a running quarterback,” Montgomery said. “They pressured our quarterback and as far as a running game, we didn’t have one. The passing game would be so much more effective with a running game.”
Thomas Sirk, who ran for the deciding 2-point conversion in a four-overtime win at Virginia Tech in 2015, did not play as a precaution after spending the week in concussion protocol.
Gardner Minshew completed 11 of 30 for 241 yards with two touchdowns and one interception with Sirk on the sideline.
“Coach Foster shifted before the snap,” Montgomery said. “They changed their scheme from four down to three down and adjusted their coverage to keep the ball in our quarterback’s hands longer.”
Although the score was in roughly the same proportion as a 54-17 Hokies win in Blacksburg in 2016, this one was different because Virginia Tech led 38-0 at the half last year.
“I thought we played on defense like we knew what we were doing,” Montgomery said. “We didn’t win a lot in one-on-one situations.”
ECU showed some resilience against the Mountaineers after trailing 49-3 at intermission, outscoring their Big 12 hosts 17-7 after the break. This week, the Pirates’ points came earlier.
ECU was able to build a first-quarter 17-7 lead before the Hokies came back to go ahead 23-17 at halftime.
“We knew we were going to come out strong, but we just didn’t finish,” said Pirates inside linebacker Jordan Williams, who was tied for second on the team with involvement on 10 tackles.
Strong safety Bobby Fulp was in on 11 stops and Korrin Wiggins, a graduate transfer from Clemson, was in on 10 tackles.
ECU got its first lead of 2017 when Minshew completed a 75-yard drive with a 9-yard toss to Dayvon Grayson on the seventh play of the drive with 12:53 left in the first quarter. The big gainer on the series was a 41-yard gainer to tight end Stephen Baggett over the middle to the Virginia Tech 18. A holding penalty on the Hokies moved the ball to the 9 for the initial score.
Virginia Tech answered with a tying score on a 1-yard run by Steven Peoples with 8:44 left in the first quarter. Josh Jackson had a 34-yard completion to James Clark early in the 12-play, 84-yard drive. The Hokies ran the ball the last six plays of the possession, covering 23 yards.
Minshew, who connected with Trevon Brown for a school record 95-yard touchdown pass last week at WVU, found him again for a 76-yard score and a 14-7 lead on ECU’s second possession.
The Hokies punted from their 49 on 4th-and-2 before the Pirates drove to the Virginia Tech 17 for a 35-yard field goal by Jake Verity that gave ECU a 17-7 advantage with 2:34 left in the first quarter.
The Pirates outgained the visitors 204-158 in the opening period but were not able to sustain that level of effectiveness against a Hokies defense directed by Foster. ECU managed a net of four yards in the second quarter.
“We had our opportunities and we missed some of them later in the game,” Minshew said. ” … We were very excited. The crowd was behind us early and that felt great. We were hitting. Then we had a couple of three and outs there. All the wind came out of our sails. … They did a very good job of taking away some of the chunk plays we were getting.”
Virginia Tech finished with a 675-281 lead in total yardage.
“They play a lot of man coverage,” said Brown, who led the Pirates with four catches for 107 yards. “They’ve got some great athletes.”
Jackson completed 24 of 31 passes for 372 yards and five touchdowns as the Hokies went turnover free.
“He was much more accurate than we had seen on the perimeter,” Montgomery said of the Virginia Tech freshman. “A lot of things he did were great. He had no fear of holding the ball because of his ability as a runner.”
Jackson had scoring passes of 31, 70, 49 and 9 yards in the third quarter as the Hokies extended their lead to 57-17.
Cam Phillips had 14 catches for 189 yards with three scores.
The Hokies also ran effectively as 10 ball carriers accumulated 287 yards. Travon McMillian led the way with 72 yards on 11 rushes.
Famous for special teams play under former coach Frank Beamer, Hokies kicker Joey Slye hit three field goals to claim the Virginia Tech school record with 69.
Slye consistently put kickoffs through the end zone and punter Oscar Bradburn averaged 46.0 yards on two boots.
ECU (0-3) netted just 40 yards on the ground. The Pirates ran on 31 snaps and passed on 30.
The revised AAC schedule has the Pirates opening league play at Connecticut on Sunday at noon. ECU was originally scheduled to have an open date next week.
Instead, the Pirates will have an open date on Oct. 28 and will travel to Houston on Nov. 4, when the UConn game was originally scheduled.
ECU will host Brigham Young on Oct. 21.
Second-year Hokies coach Justin Fuente made his second trip to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as a head coach. He was on the short end of a 41-7 score with Memphis in 2012.
Memphis struck a blow for the AAC with a 48-45 win over UCLA on Saturday.
Virginia’s 38-18 win over visiting UConn on Saturday dropped the Huskies to 1-1. The Cavaliers benefited from a record-breaking passing performance by ECU transfer quarterback Kurt Benkert.