The East Carolina football team will face its first of three opponents from the Atlantic Coast Conference this season when it hosts the Virginia Tech Hokies (1-1).
Though, unlike its other two ACC matchups against N.C. State and North Carolina, Saturday’s game is the only one that will be played before a near-sell-out crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. A place the Pirates have split their last eight meetings (4-4) with ACC programs.
ECU (2-0) confirmed Wednesday that there were less than 2,000 tickets remaining, which should make an already hostile environment for visiting teams even more intimidating when the ball is kicked off at Noon on Saturday.
“I wish we had all 12 (games) at home. I love playing at home,” said ECU Head Coach Ruffin McNeill. “When you come out and feel the electricity from our fans, it’s definitely an advantage to our team.”
Earlier this week, ECU learned the unfortunate news that both of its starting inside linebackers, Jeremy Grove (right chest) and Kyle Tudor (right shoulder), would miss the game due to injuries sustained against the Florida Atlantic Owls.
Their replacements, sophomore Zeek Bigger and junior Brandon Williams, stepped in during the first half of last Thursday’s 31-13 win and excelled. Both players compiled a team-best nine tackles, which has eased their nerves going into their first collegiate starts against a notoriously physical Hokie running attack.
“It was pretty good to get my feet wet so I can know what I’m coming into my next game,” said Bigger when asked about his confidence level. “I would not be surprised (if) they run the ball pretty hard, just like FAU tried to pound us a little bit too.”
“I expect them to play just as good as Jeremy (Grove) or Kyle Tudor,” defensive coordinator Rick Smith said about Bigger and Williams, “I’m not worried a bit and I know they will perform as well or better.”
Bigger, a 6-foot-2 inch, 228 pounder from Gastonia, N.C., made his mark as one of the team’s stand-out special teams players. In fact, his play on the third side of the ball led him to being named a captain for last Thursday night’s game.
Now having to likely play on both special teams and man the middle of the defense at inside linebacker, Bigger understands some adjustments have to be made.
“It’s a lot different. Being out there on the field with the defense and knowing that I have to lead the defense at times,” said Bigger. “My big brothers, Kyle and Jeremy, they are looking for me to do things because they’re out … and hold the defense up.”
The key for Bigger and the rest of the defense is pretty obvious – to contain Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas. Thomas is surprisingly mobile with his 6-foot-6 inch, 255-pound build, which has forced defensive coordinators across the country to implement specific game plans on him.
“Containing the quarterback and stopping the run,” said Smith on the keys to stopping the Virginia Tech offense, “We got to stop the run, we got win our first down and get them in passing situations and if we can get them in passing situations, then we have the advantage.”
Outside Thomas, the Hokies have a substantial amount of uncertainty on the offensive side of the ball. Redshirt freshman Trey Edmunds will likely be the feature back Saturday following his 135-yard performance against No. 1 Alabama in the season opener. Also in the backfield rotation are J.C. Coleman and Chris Mangus.
There is a great amount of concern at wide receiver for the Hokies. No longer do they have go-to targets like years past like Eddie Royal, Jarrett Boykin, or Danny Coale. Instead, this year’s unit features a surplus of inexperience, led by redshirt freshman Joshua Stanford.
Despite its possible deficiencies on offense, Virgina Tech wins games because of its defense. Returning nine starters from last year’s disappointing 7-6 team, the Hokies might feature one of the best front-sevens in America, led by preseason All-ACC linebacker Jack Tyler.
Though, its achilles heel might just be at cornerback, where Virginia Tech is expected to start freshman Kendall Fuller. Given ECU’s high-octane spread offense, an important matchup will be between Fuller (No. 11) and whichever Pirate receiver he’s lined up against.
Prediction: East Carolina: 27, Virginia Tech: 20
Since the game is at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and I don’t see the Hokies distancing themselves from ECU with its questionable offense, I’ll take the Pirates to capture its first ACC win since 2010.