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East Carolina's up-tempo spread offense should test a Virginia Tech defense that has shown early promise.
In this photo provided by East Carolina University, East Carolina wide receiver Justin Hardy celebrates a second-quarter touchdown catch against Florida Atlantic during an NCAA college football game Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Greenville, N.C. (AP Photo/East Carolina University, Rob Goldberg Jr.)
In this photo provided by East Carolina University, East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden scrambles for yardage against Florida Atlantic during the second half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Greenville, N.C. (AP Photo/East Carolina University, Patrick Woodard)
Friday, September 13, 2013
When Bud Foster’s crew largely held Georgia Tech’s option offense in check last season, many were quick to anoint that defense as the next great one at Tech.
As the Hokies found out after getting run off the field against Pittsburgh in Week 3, early season performances can often be fool’s gold.
“We fell off the face of the planet,” Foster said. “I don’t know if we thought we arrived and we’d just go out and do it again. But I see a different leadership, I see a different mentality [this year].”
Today’s game against East Carolina in Greenville, N.C., could be a litmus test for the Hokies (1-1), who have shown promise on defense in their first two games but face a vastly different test against the up-tempo, pass-happy spread employed by the Pirates.
Tech held No. 1 Alabama to 206 yards in the opener and an overmatched Western Carolina to 162 last week. Going back to last season, that’s four straight games in which the Hokies have held their opponent to 217 yards or less.
But that’s been mostly against pro-style offenses, which Tech has historically done well against. East Carolina (2-0), whose offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley cut his teeth at Texas Tech, spreads the field and throws at will, trying to get athletes in space to make plays.
It’s a preview of sorts for what the Hokies will face in the next month. Both Marshall and North Carolina run versions of the spread with different tweaks.
“It definitely is a measuring stick for us,” Tech linebacker Jack Tyler said, “because we know the next couple weeks here, we are going to be going against some of these up-tempo, kind of in-your-face style offenses.”
The Pirates’ spread is unique compared to those other ones, though. They throw a lot, essentially using their short passing game as a running game. Quarterback Shane Carden has completed nearly 80 percent of his passes, often targeting receiver Justin Hardy, who had a 16-catch, 191-yard performance against Old Dominion.
But ECU hasn’t had a play go longer than 24 yards this year, so it has the patience to move the ball methodically.
That puts a premium on tackling, especially given how many quick screens the Pirates will try to the perimeter. The Hokies, who struggled with tackling early last year, have been much better since reinstituting a tackling circuit in practice on Tuesdays, stressing fundamentals. This year’s group has swarmed to the ball.
“We can’t assume anything [until] the ballcarrier’s been tackled, unless the whistle has blown,” Foster said.
Stopping the run, even against a pass-first offense like ECU, remains a priority. Pirates running back Vintavious Cooper ran for 1,000 yards last year. ECU was 3-1 in games when he topped the 100-yard mark.
Foster knows it. His game plan in the Hokies’ 17-10 win in Greenville in 2011 was to eliminate the run and make the Pirates one-dimensional. It worked. With sacks included, ECU finished with negative 15 rushing yards. The Pirates finished with only 112 yards in that game, their lowest total in McNeill’s tenure.
“We can’t allow them to have any success running the football,” Foster said.
That might be a lofty goal, but Foster has high expectations for his defense. It’s why he’s been tough on this particular group of Hokies in practice.
“He’s being hard on us, but at the same time, he knows that because we are a senior-laden group,” Tyler said. “We can take his coaching in stride and that we can do things that a younger defense couldn’t do just because we have more experience and leadership out there.”
Motivation isn’t hard to come by. The Hokies know they’ll get ECU’s best shot.
“Quite frankly, this is probably their Super Bowl,” Tyler said. “I mean, this is a big game for them. I’m sure they have Virginia Tech circled.”
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