Virginia Tech opened as a 7.5-point favorite against visiting East Carolina on Saturday, a line the betting public quickly elevated to 11. Excuse every Hokie with a shred of institutional memory for collapsing into the fetal position and wailing, “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”
ECU is, safe to say, an opponent many Tech faithful dread. It’s not personal, an aversion to purple or fear of cartoon Pirates. Indeed, ECU’s proximity to Hampton Roads, about 135 miles from Newport News, makes the Pirates travel-friendly road opponents for Hokies in our region.
But on the field, ECU has become a nemesis, a quality program that aspires to Power Five membership and performs well against those conferences, particularly the ACC.
Since a home loss to Virginia Tech in 2013, the Pirates are 6-0 versus the ACC, defeating the Hokies, North Carolina and North Carolina State twice each. They were underdogs in five of those victories, double-digit pups in 2014 and ’15 victories over Tech.
But while the Tar Heels and Wolfpack have scheduled the Pirates to appease North Carolina politicians, the Hokies have done so voluntarily. This is the ninth ECU-Tech game in the last 10 years, and the programs are contracted to play eight times in nine seasons from 2017-25.
That would make 17 games in 19 years, excessive by any measure, no matter the series’ convenience and competitiveness. If not already, the games would become stale for Tech fans, who, like those of most Power Five schools, want variety in their non-conference fare.
Former Hokies athletic director Jim Weaver scheduled the initial ECU series for regional considerations. He agreed to an extension in 2012 when the ACC scrapped plans to expand its league schedule from eight to nine games, leaving ADs to scramble for additional non-conference dates.
The ACC returned to an eight-game model after Notre Dame agreed to play, on average, five games each season against rotating league opponents. And while that ACC scheduling decision sparked renewal of the Tech-ECU series, an approaching change may curtail it.
In exchange for ESPN creating the ACC Network, due to launch in 2019, the conference is obligated to either expand the league schedule to nine games, or require each team to play two non-conference contests each season against Power Five opponents.
Regardless of which option the ACC adopts, athletic directors will have to adjust future non-conference schedules, and here’s guessing that few Hokie hearts would break if Tech curbs the ECU series.
That sentiment would prevail even if the Hokies owned the Pirates, which clearly they do not.
The serious heartburn began in 2008’s opener, when ECU’s T.J. Lee returned a blocked punt 27 yards for the winning touchdown with less than two minutes remaining. But the largest surprise was in 2014.
Fresh off a road upset of Ohio State and favored by 10 points at home, No. 17 Tech fell behind 21-0 to Shane Carden and the Pirates in the first quarter en route to a 28-21 setback. ECU was a 10-point pup versus the visiting Hokies again last season and won in the mud 35-28.
And understand these were not vintage ECU squads. The 2014 bunch went 8-5, the 2015 team 5-7 – the latter decline costing Coach Ruffin McNeill his job, a firing that baffled legions.
No matter that McNeill, now associate head coach at Virginia, is an ECU graduate. No matter that he guided the Pirates to four bowls in six seasons and a 10-3 mark in 2013. Athletic director Jeff Compher wanted more, ambition that was further evident this month as he lobbied publicly and aggressively for ECU to be included if the terminally dysfunctional Big 12 expands — the conference politely declined the overtures.
This marks the Pirates’ third season in the American Athletic Conference after 17 in Conference USA. Championships have eluded them, but Steve Logan (five), Skip Holtz (four) and McNeill took them to a combined 13 bowls from 1994-2015.
And under first-year head coach Scottie Montgomery, previously Duke’s offensive coordinator, ECU (2-1) is capable of not only returning to postseason but also winning Saturday.
Yes, after opening the season with victories over Western Carolina and N.C. State, the Pirates lost 20-15 last week to a South Carolina team that SEC media picked to finish last in the league’s East Division. But ECU outgained the Gamecocks 519 yards to 312, owned the ball for 38:25 and had 34 first downs to USC’s 13.
“I can assure you East Carolina has the full respect of all our players,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said.
The Pirates’ poison Saturday: four turnovers, three in the red zone. South Carolina intercepted Philip Nelson at the 1 and in the end zone, and forced an Anthony Scott fumble at the 5.
“I don’t know if I’ve even watched (a game) where that happened,” Montgomery said at his weekly gabfest with North Carolina reporters. “It hurts, but it lets you know that despite all of that going on, our team was tough enough and physical enough and just a good enough football team to win it. Unfortunately, we did not do that. I hope that’s the last time I ever witness a game like that, unless it’s for the other team. …
“(If) you get any points out of those trips in the red zone and don’t turn the ball over, it’s a completely different game.”
Nelson is completing 79.1 percent of his passes — as under McNeill, ECU’s offense is rooted in routine, horizontal throws that challenge defenders to tackle in space — and Zay Jones leads the Bowl Subdivision with 13 receptions per game. Jones is second nationally at 147.7 receiving yards per game, and his 22 catches (for 190 yards) against South Carolina were one shy of the FBS record shared by UNLV’s Randy Gatewood (1994 versus Idaho) and Eastern Michigan’s Tyler Jones (2008 against Central Michigan).
Montgomery applauded ECU’s defense, singling out senior tackle Demetri McGill of Virginia Beach’s Ocean Lakes High, for recovering from a 17-0 first-quarter hole. But as usual, the Pirates’ centerpiece is the offense, and Jones, a four-year starter from Austin, Texas, is the linchpin — he has 280 career receptions and caught a 26-yard touchdown pass against Tech last year.
“He can play all four of the receiver positions and play them well,” Montgomery said. “He knows the intricate details of each one of those positions. We’re very excited to have him on our team. We wish we had him longer, but he’ll be playing football for a long time.”
We know this is Jones’ final college season. Less certain is the shelf life of the Tech-ECU series.
Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.