It’s been said that losses have value if you learn from them. There were a few salvageable items from last week’s 54-17 loss at Virginia Tech that dropped East Carolina to 2-2 going into its American Athletic Conference opener with Central Florida (2-2) at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville at noon Saturday.
“The biggest thing that we have to understand coming out of that game is that low man wins,” said Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery. “I thought that Virginia Tech all over the field played lower than us. They got under our pads a lot in those one-on-one situations in the interior and our special teams. They beat us at the point of attack physically, sometimes three to four inches lower than us.”
It was the first game this season that the Pirates were losers in terms of pad leverage. Adjustments will be made on special teams going forward, too.
“I thought the first three games we played we were the most physical team by far in all those games,” Montgomery said. “I thought our kids struck lower. We ran into a team that had great collective habits with Virginia Tech. There are some things personnel wise that we’re going to have to do. We’re not as deep as we need to be as a team. I think a lot of people knew that coming in but we’re going to have to put it all out there this week. We’ll play our starters in a lot of situations on special teams. Sometimes that can be nerve-wracking as a head ball coach but we’ve got to put our best personnel out there and whatever happens, happens.”
The Hokies got early momentum with an 87-yard punt return for a touchdown by Greg Stroman after a 62-yard boomer by Pirates punter Worth Gregory.
“We had a two- or three-man shift in our punt coverage,” Montgomery said. “We felt like early in that situation, a couple of our guys got held and moved to the ground and we didn’t get off the ground. We didn’t treat the ground like a hot stove, which created lanes. The punt was probably his best punt of the year. Not saying he outkicked his coverage but there were some vertical lanes that were created and Virginia Tech has a really, really talented punt returner — and he made us pay.”
There were more special teams snafus, including a blocked field goal when ECU could have gotten within 14-3.
“The situation on our field goal when we got our field goal blocked, a lot of it had to do with not only them being underneath us,” Montgomery said. “What they did, they put their two strongest people in front of our two strongest people, our right tackle and our left tackle from our offense. We put those guys in the interior. They were six inches lower than us, completely lifted us up and pushed through. Our operation time was about 1.26 [seconds]. Usually, if you’re anywhere under 1.33, 1.34, that ball should have enough time to get up and out and we did not.”
The Pirates pulled the redshirt off true freshman kicker Jake Verity in the second half in Blacksburg.
“Bringing in Jake Verity really kind of helped us,” Montgomery said. “He gets the ball a little more vertical quicker than David [Plowman] did but all in all that block went directly to the protection of it. It was unfortunate that our two people that we trust the most and that are our strongest guys in the offensive front, they got under our pads and just basically bull-rushed us back into the kick. The kick was blocked by somebody (Tim Settle) who barely had to leave his feet. He basically just powered through the point and put his hand up.”
“1.26 was our average operation time of the day but all of them were too close. The flip side of it was that their operation time was around 1.33 and we didn’t get anywhere near it because their pad level was great. We thought we had good matchups trying to get something blocked and they got the ball up. It wasn’t the operation time from our snapper to our holder, it had more to do with our protection and then the ball not jumping up off the kicker’s foot.”
ECU nose tackle Demetri McGill was helped off the field at Virginia Tech.
“Demetri will be down this week,” Montgomery said. “It’s sad to say that because you’re talking about a guy who has had a physical battle over the last three weeks. He’s had 320 pounds, sometimes 640 pounds on him at a time and he just banged and banged and banged until he couldn’t go anymore. His ankle gave out on him there in one of those crucial situations.
“We’ll get him back healthy. The adjustment will be we’ll have some young guys come in, some local young guys. We don’t like to talk about them too much but we’ll use Fred [Presley] and the rest of our crew and kind of move them around without telling too much about what we’re going to do to adjust.
“The way we overcome Demetri being out right now is a multitude of people but a communication system that everybody knows exactly what they’re going to do. We’ll make sure we simplify it for them this week and let them play fast.”
Better weather Tuesday
The most physical day of the practice week for the Pirates is generally Tuesday. ECU had to deal with rain on its heavy day before going to Virginia Tech but the conditions were better on Tuesday this week.
“We got a full day of work in and we were able to work with some physicality,” Montgomery said. “We had a good day. . . . Sometimes you want to be in the rain. Unfortunately, last week it was a driving, hard rain for practice so we did miss some time but we also tried to adjust what we did do. I thought it helped us being in the rain from a ball security standpoint on offense but Tuesday was a beautiful day. We had little sprinkles early. It went away and we had a great day of work.
“It was a good to have a full day of physical practice, probably our most physical practice of the year. We wanted to make it that physical because I hate turning on the tape and seeing a team outhit us and that’s what happened. We’ll be physical this weekend.”
Knights have new coach, new systems
UCF brought Scott Frost aboard as head coach after a winless season in 2015. New schemes have been installed featuring some youthful personnel.
“Defensively, they have the ability to go from a four-down front or a three-down front,” Montgomery said. ” . . . They can pressure you. They have a great player, Shaquill Griffin, outside linebacker. I love the way he plays. He’s a really, really exciting guy to watch. He leads the team I believe right now in sacks (four). He plays his heart out every single play. In the back end, T.J. [Mutcherson], their safety is a big-time player. He gets them located. He’s also been pushed into their pressure. They’re going to try to pressure us.
“One guy I’m really impressed with in their front is a true freshman, [Trysten] Hill, defensive lineman, No. 95. I think they’ve started him every game this year and that’s really hard to do. They’ve brought him in. He’s worked really hard. He’s had to beat out people so that tells you that he’s a competitor. They’re going to p ut some pressure on us. We think this week we’ve got some size. In comparison to last week, the guys we were going against were a lot bigger but these guys play hard. That’s the difference. Both teams play hard but these guys, they play with a chip. I love the way they play. I think some of our size can consume some of their pressure. Hopefully, we’ll get some of those one-on-one matchups with our playmakers outside.”
“On offense, what you’re going to see is a bunch of tempo. . . . They have McKenzie [Milton] starting at quarterback now. True freshman. He’s learning the offense more and more every single week. This will be his second start, I believe, because of an injury at the quarterback position that they had a little bit earlier. They’re going to play with tempo. The biggest thing we’re doing at practice right now — we’re running two groups of offenses at our defense so before they can get lined up, there’s another offense at the line. That’s some of the adjustments that we’re doing and trying to make sure we can clean up some of our issues of tempo. You’re going to see a good team being able to run the football and then he’s really good for run-action passes. . . . They do a good job of having a run-pass option in just about every play.”
The Pirates start league play this afternoon, which means this game has implications for the remainder of the regular season in terms of the conference race as well as bowl eligibility.
Being back home is beneficial after playing two Power Five programs on the road.
“Very important,” Montgomery said. ” . . . We don’t like the fact we lost Demetri but we’re also happy that we were able to get through that tough of a gauntlet and only lose basically one to two guys. We were concerned because of the pressure those guys can put on you from a defensive line standpoint, the talent that they have from a defensive line standpoint that we could get our quarterbacks through, that we could get our backs through, that we could get our receivers (through).
“On the defensive side, how big the backs that we’ve been tackling and how big some of the quarterbacks were. We were really concerned about getting through that gauntlet with so much physicality from our back end and our safeties. We were able to do that. . . . We’re not hitting the reset button because we realize we did a whole lot of good things in the first two to three games. Then we realize we didn’t do good things in the last game.
“What we’re going to do is we’re not going to move on from this. We’re going to move on from the feeling of losing but we’re going to stay in the corrections of what we need to get from losing and then also try to glorify or put a shining light on the things we did well. So we’re not hitting the reset button but we’re glad to be coming back to Dowdy-Ficklen and playing in front of our fans.
“We need to come home. I think I might kiss the ground when we get back out there on Dowdy-Ficklen just because it’s really hard to play on the road in some of those intense environments against big-time talented football teams. That’s what we have the advantage of this week.”
The keys to victory include improvement in the turnover margin.
“They’re very, very simple,” Montgomery said. “Low man wins. I mean we have to play low. Right after that we have to take care of the football. The No. 3 things this week is we have to dominate the line of scrimmage if we’re going to win this game. If we come out and let them dominate the line of scrimmage, then they win. We know that we have talent on the outside. They have a lot of speed in the backfield and on the edge so the interior is where the game is going to be won.
“No. 1, low man wins. No. 2, we’ve got to take care of the football and we’ve got to take away the football from them and, No. 3, our interiors have to dominate.”