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Game No. 3: Virginia Tech 49, ECU 27


Game Slants
Saturday, September 18, 2010

By Denny O'Brien

Tech exposes kinks in Pirates' armor

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

BLACKSBURG, VA — There is somewhat of a silver lining in East Carolina's loss to previously winless Virginia Tech on Saturday. And it had nothing to do with a moral victory or the gratification that the Pirates again showed that they could play with the Hokies.

In the aftermath of a 49-27 loss that was closer than the margin, head coach Ruffin McNeill won't have to study the game film too hard to identify the areas off concern. Defense and poor tackling finally surfaced as crippling shortcomings, while penalties emerged as the momentum-changing nudge Virginia Tech desperately needed to get over the hump.

Those no doubt will be the primary areas of attention when the Pirates return to practice next week. A failure to properly address those details could prove fatal during a three-game stretch that includes the Pirates' three major rivals.

“For us, that's unusual,” McNeill said about the penalties. “We've been pretty good penalty-wise. That's on me. I've got to pay a little more attention to it and I will.

“I thought the penalties set us back. We had some momentum going and that was not good timing on those penalties. We'll watch film and check and see if it's technique and make the corrections there and get better. I thought the guys were really fighting and making plays and we had momentum. Those penalties hurt us.”

Especially during the Pirates' opening possession of the second half after forcing a fumble. A pass interference call on the Hokies gave ECU a first down on the Virginia Tech 13 and a clear path to a ten-point cushion.

But three penalties eventually gave the Pirates an insurmountable 2nd and 40 scenario that required a 16-yard scramble by quarterback Dominique Davis just to get the Pirates back within the range of kicker Michael Barbour.

That's not the type of execution that generally propels you to victory against a big-time, desperate opponent. Neither is the long string of failed arm tackles that was the rule of the day.

With running back Ryan Williams down, the Hokies leaned heavily on the backup duo of Darren Evans and David Wilson, who combined for nearly 200 yards. They darted through canyon-sized holes and carried their share of Pirates for much of the way.

“Ryan (Williams) is a really good running back,” McNeill said. “Evans is a 1,000-yard rusher, too. We're in a growth stage. It's not an excuse — it's a reality.

“I don't think we played well and I don't think we tackled well. Sometimes youth shows up, but we've played three games now. We've got to quit going that direction.”

Translation: the defense needs to alter its course. If ECU is going to compete for its 3rd-straight Conference USA title, it'll need a defense that can get off the field.

Because if it wasn't already, it should now be clear that East Carolina has an offense capable of scoring on anyone and anytime it gets its hands on the ball. The Pirates proved that emphatically during a first half in which they scored 24 points and piled up 278 yards of total offense on a Bud Foster-coached defense.

It's also certain that the Pirates have a playmaker at the trigger who presents danger to opponents with his accurate right arm and nimble feet. As much as any quarterback in ECU history — and it has been a good one for QB's — Davis has the unique ability to make something happen when the play breaks down.

His 17-yard strike to Dwayne Harris on 4th and 3 late in the second quarter provided one of numerous examples to date.

To be fair, the defense wasn't solely to blame for the Hokies' second half ambush of ECU. The offense, which managed only 83 total yards and had two costly turnovers after intermission, had its share of ownership in the defeat.

But given its previous performances, you have to figure the final 30 minutes were the exception for the ECU offense. The defense is a different story.

Be it inexperience or the philosophical shift, things just aren't working right now for the ECU defense. The Pirates have abandoned their previous emphasis on zone in favor of man coverage and an increased dose of blitzing.

In the process the Pirates have appeared less physical and less sound fundamentally. The defense that rarely yielded big plays now surrenders yardage in large chunks.

While you had to expect some degree of a defensive decline — How could you not with the loss of nine starters? — it was hard to envision the Pirates backsliding this much. Through three games opponents are averaging 480 yards and 42 points.

That's difficult for any offense to overcome. Clearly, McNeill and his defensive staff have plenty of work ahead.

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09/19/2010 04:30:41 AM

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