East Carolina’s 0-3 start has come against three nationally-ranked teams, a factor that has the Pirates ranked No. 15 in the country for strength of schedule thus far in 2017. That’s according to computer stats guru Jeff Sagarin of USA Today.
James Madison continued its top position in the Football Championship Subdivision coaches’ poll with a 75-14 win over Norfolk State last week. West Virginia, which defeated ECU 56-20 on Sept. 9, is up to No. 26 in the AP and Coaches polls. Virginia Tech is No. 13 in both polls after catapulting past the Pirates for a 64-17 win last week in Greenville.
For anyone that thinks the Dukes are a second-level team, JMU won 27-17 at North Dakota State in the playoffs last season after the Bison had won 23-21 at Iowa earlier in the year. The Dukes had nine starters back on defense and superb quarterback Bryan Schor returning to lead the offense.
The Pirates started 2-1 last season in Scottie Montgomery’s first year as coach but the schedule was not as tough as this year.
ECU projects to be in a more-competitive situation on Sunday when the Pirates visit Connecticut for a noon kickoff (ESPNU) in a make-up game.
ECU’s preseason goals of a bowl trip and contending for an American Athletic Conference championship are still attainable, but the Pirates will be at a serious disadvantage in both regards if they can’t get past the Huskies in the AAC opener for both clubs.
A 41-3 victory over UConn at ECU’s homecoming last season will no doubt serve as motivation for payback on Sunday for the hosts.
“[ECU] embarrassed us last year. I forgot what the score was, but I know it was by a lot,” redshirt senior linebacker Junior Joseph of UConn told his campus newspaper. “That’s something that we wanna take to them and get back what they did to us last year.”
The Pirates’ game with the Huskies was originally scheduled for Nov. 4, but was moved to Sunday so that the Huskies could make up a game with South Florida.
ECU was supposed to have an open date this weekend but the Pirates instead will have a bye on Oct. 28. ECU’s game at Houston has been reset for Nov. 4.
The changes were announced last week, which put the wheels in motion for the Pirates in terms of a compacted period of preparation.
“It put a lot of people to work last week,” Montgomery said. “Usually by Wednesday, you’re already done with the following week. We learned it late so everything that you had to get done for Sunday had to be done on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Our young people had to go to work immediately and get everything flipped. Then you still have to wait on the game (Virginia Tech) that’s being played and put all that together as far as the breakdown of film, also all the research that goes in, also personnel that goes in, the write-ups, whether it be for the coordinators, the position coaches.
“You have a lot of write-ups, a lot of things that you have to get done and then it comes to me so there’s a lot of stuff that has to be done between that time. Our guys were able to get it done.
“That’s the first part of it. The next part of it is that I have to reach out to parents and a lot of other people to let them know that now is not the open date because a lot of parents want to bring their kids home during the open date or want to come see them here on the open date. You have to let them know as quickly as you find out, this is what’s going on. Sometimes you have to go through some other stuff academically to be able to leave school on Friday but now you don’t have to do that because it’s a Sunday so that’s one of the easiest ones.
“Now, you get into the schedule of how you practice. We tried to keep our schedule as normal as we possibly could. We get an extra day of work. It won’t be too much on our kids’ legs to add an extra day. We’ll still get a day of rest and then we’ll go get on a plane Saturday and play, of course, on Sunday.”
Terrell Smith swings into action
Director of football operations Terrell Smith had to work quickly to address ECU’s travel and lodging needs.
“Yeah, he’s a magician,” Montgomery said. “I try to stay as far away from it as I can. This time I wasn’t able to. The things that would make people crazy, he just deals with it and he keeps moving. He works with people and he still has to negotiate. He had to do it all in basically like a one-day period. J.J. McLamb (associate athletic director/internal operations) and everybody that goes into trying to get it done. The conference really helped us out a lot as well. As much as we agreed to play the game, they jumped through as many loops as they possibly could to make sure it was easy for us to do it.
“Everybody that understands that we’re doing this not just for a football game but for guys who are getting a chance to play one or two more games in their career. We’re trying to get it all fixed. Everybody, not only in our conference, our coaches in our conference, but also people in cities we were coming to were very helpful.”
Advantages in rescheduling
There has been some debate about possible advantages to ECU in terms of the schedule change
“We want to get back on the field as soon as we can after the losses that we’ve had,” Montgomery said. “With one day added of work and preparation is good for us. Late in the season, when you’ve got three or four games left, sometimes that’s when your team is really starting to hit that wall, that physical wall. You can really use that open date there. … There are some advantages for us to just get back on the field and play right now.”
UConn under Edsall
The Huskies mirrored ECU in 2016, going 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the AAC.
That led to a coaching change with Randy Edsall coming back to the program he guided for 12 seasons earlier in his career.
“The first thing I can tell is that he’s definitely going to play the people that play the hardest,” Montgomery said. “It’s tough sometimes when you come into a situation and you’re trying to figure out exactly the fit for it but he’s not waiting on guys. You can tell there’s a big-time push toward effort with him.
“Defensively, the biggest thing they’re doing with coach [Billy] Crocker (defensive coordinator who was formerly at Villanova) there, they just play the 3-3 stack really, really well. He’s always been good at it. Last year, he led the FCS in total defense. . . . You can just tell they’re getting to the football and they’re playing so hard. They’ve got a great scheme to go wit it.
“Offensively, their multiplicity. I mean they’re doing much more than they did last year. They’re much more open. They’re much more spread. They can do it from 11 (one tight end) and 12 (two tight ends) personnel. It’s a little bit more dynamic offense because of the way they get the ball to the perimeter, a lot of motion sweeps and jet sweeps. They try to affect the safety rotations down. I think they’ve done a really good job on offense and they’re going to get better and better.
“On defense, his record speaks for itself.”
Duke graduate transfer Thomas Sirk appears set to return in a starting role for ECU after missing last week’s game with Virginia Tech.
Sirk’s absence apparently reduced the run dimension at quarterback for the Pirates and Montgomery said Hokies defensive coordinator Brian Foster was able to make some effective adjustments as a result.
This year’s quarterback situation was the antithesis of 2015 for Foster when James Summers came in and defied Virginia Tech’s game plan by running for 169 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-28 Pirates win.
Sirk was held out last week as a precaution after he underwent concussion protocol following the West Virginia game.
“Thomas is back now,” Montgomery said. “Knock on wood. He’s doing really great. He had a great day of practice Tuesday, probably his best day of practice that he’s had since he’s been back. He looked fresh. His arm looked good. He’s running around now at high speed. He had the kind of practice that we needed him to have. . . . He’s completely healthy. He’s back in the contact mode.”
The Pirates had a full contact practice on Wednesday as well with the extra day of preparation for the Huskies.
“We had a live session, good against good,” Montgomery said.
Takeaways from Virginia Tech
Montgomery had some time to gain perspective on the Virginia Tech game after reviewing tape. ECU led 17-7 at the end of the first quarter.
“We started hard,” Montgomery said. ” I thought our defense got to the ball better than they did. I think we ran out of steam on defense. On offense, I thought it was more of what Virginia Tech did to us. We’ve got to get better in our interior and the protection game and our run game. I thought they were really talented in their interior positions. When I went back and looked at the tape, it was probably as talented a two together (West Virginia and Virginia Tech) that I’ve seen since I’ve been here. So we’ve got to grow and we’ve got continue to get better.
“John Spellacy (ECU center) was in a tough situation a lot of the times, being a true freshman. No excuse whatsoever. He’s going to get better. I’ll promise you that. I love where he is right now in his development as a player. The other thing is we can put a little more girth on the inside to help us so we moved D’Ante [Smith] down to his natural position. Now that Messiah [Rice] is off of suspension, he’ll go back to left tackle. There are a few things that we’ve learned and taken away.
“We’ve got to be more aggressive at corner, a lot more aggressive. I think playing more people will give us the ability to play a little bit more aggressive. We’ve got confidence in our guys being able to be a lot more aggressive. Even when we made the adjustment to be more aggressive at halftime, we had a couple of people on the field that still didn’t go out and be as aggressive as we would have liked them to be. Unfortunately, losing Corey (Seargent) at that point in time and trying to get guys in the game and not having access to Colby Gore, it hurt us. But I think the way practice started this week with Travis Phillips and Chris Love, they’ve been a lot more aggressive than we’ve seen in the past. We’re going to continue to push and work to be better there.”
The status of Gore and Seargent is a factor that could significantly impact ECU’s rotation at the corners.
“Right now, we’re in the midst of not knowing,” Montgomery said Wednesday. “It’s a little bit of the unknown. We hope that we’ll have at least one of them. If we do that will be a lot better than not having either one of them. We’re in a situation where it’s 50-50 with both of them. I’m hoping they’ll come through it.”
With an extra day to get ready for this week’s game, Montgomery talked about points of emphasis in practice.
“The main thing is the details,” said the Pirates coach. “People say it should be the details every week. Now we’re getting into a lot more physical play in practice and our guys have done that on their own, just the way the practices have been going. Because of that, the energy and emotion that goes into that, you’ve still go to keep your details. I thought when we got a little tired and a little fatigued in the third and fourth quarter, defensively, we lost some eye control. We weren’t as good with our eyes as we needed to be so now that we’re getting into more physical practice I think the details, the small things when we’re fatigued, make sure our alignment is correct — not so much knowing exactly what your job is but being exactly aligned where you’re supposed to be.
“Every single day, we want them to understand that practice makes permanent. It doesn’t make perfect. Whatever you put on tape is what you’re going to get on Sunday this week. We try to make them understand that every single rep has to be detailed. Whether we’ve run 15 gassers in the beginning or we’re right at the end about to run more gassers, we’ve got to be detailed.
Montgomery sized up keys to a win on Sunday.
“First thing we have to do is we have to contain all the motions and shifts,” he said. “We’ve just got to play gap sound on the perimeter. On the interior, the guy that scares you the most on some of their runs is the quarterback as well. He can pull off some different looks and get the ball back to the interior. It’s going to be critical for our linebackers if you’re supposed to stay home, you’ve got to stay home in the A gap because they’re going to try to get the ball there with all the movement to the perimeter.
“Offensively, I just want us to come out and see us execute the run game, the pass game, the run-action pass game all together and I think this is a week that we can start to get a lot better if we’ll come out and we’ll execute. It’s just about execution. We had too many mental errors at different places in the games. Some people call mental errors not knowing what to do. Mental errors for us is not knowing where you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to be doing as well as you can possibly do it. That’s a mental error and we had those last week. We’ve gotten better in practice. . . . They want to be attentive to detail. They know we can get better.”