Sat 9/12/09 3:30 PM
Liberty W 33-20
Appy St W 29-24
Series: WVU 17-3
First Meeting: 1970
Last Meeting: 2008
East Carolina – Levin Neal (Ankle) Doubtful
WVU Offense vs. ECU defense
The Pirates smothered West Virginia's spread look last year and, benefiting from an early turnover and an offense that continually converted key situations, allowed just three points and held the Mountaineers to 251 yards on 54 plays. That's become a pattern of late, as coordinator Greg Hudson's 4-3 look – instituted in 2005 – has at least limited WVU and kept it from its gaudy 300-plus yard rushing performances that seemed an annual occurrence in the mid-2000s. Eight starters return, including the majority of a front seven expected to be the most talented the Mountaineers play in the first month of this season. Defensive end C.J. Wilson, a Bronco Nagurski and Lombardi Award nominee and 2009 Conference USA Preseason Player of the Year, anchors a foursome showcasing solid experience and size. The senior is quick off the edge and kept contain of the West Virginia backfield last season, forcing it inside where the rest of the line and the linebackers clogged holes and limited cutback lanes. He will be a major key in this game, and if the Mountaineer line can't provide better a bit more vertical space for a backfield that danced a bit too much in the opener, it could be difficult going within the running game.
Nose guard Linval Joseph (6-6, 322 lbs.) lacks the weight if Liberty counterpart Asa Chapman, but his skill level and experience are better and he'll have added help from reserves. The Gainesville, Fla. native started every game last season from Oct. 11 onward; his first career start came in 2007 versus WVU. End Scotty Robinson and tackle Jay Ross are run stoppers first, and shouldn't pose huge threats to pressuring the pocket. The Pirates, as per the norm with most 4-3 sets, primarily rush the passer with the linebackers, and Robinson is still trying to recapture his 2007 form, when he was among the most promising young defenders in the league. Middle linebacker Nick Johnson (6-1, 217 lbs.) is coming off shoulder surgery, though that hasn't severely limited his physical, aggressive style. Johnson got his first career start against West Virginia, finishing with a team-best 2.5 tackles for loss in the 2006 game. Outside ‘backers Chris Mattocks and Jeremy Chaimbliss give ECU three starting seniors in the corps, rated among the best in C-USA.
The most exploitable section of the defense is the secondary. Free safety Van Eskridge (6-0, 195 lbs.) is the lone proven player on a unit that has become susceptible to big plays from solid passing teams. Corners Dekota Marshall and Travis Simmons aren't lockdown players, and shouldn't be able to shut down WVU's passing game. Strong safety Levin Neal, backed by a redshirt freshman, will play almost the entire game. He is an emergency plug for the Pirates after transferring from ECU rival N.C. State. The senior has yet to play against a FBS team – let alone one from a BCS conference – within Hudson's scheme. This will be the primary area to attack, though certainly West Virginia will test its running game early. East Carolina should not be able to stuff the spread as it did last year, both because of a year of experience within the Mountaineers' altered offense and because of the increased complexity and reliability of the pass game.
Look for a solid mix-and-match early as WVU head coach Bill Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen search for holes and advantageous match-ups. Unlike in 2005, the Mountaineers will try to exploit what the Pirates "give" them, and there should be more ability to do that in the passing game than in past years. The question remains as to if Noel Devine and the backfield can better use movement to gain vertical yardage and if quarterback Jarrett Brown is able to continue his slippery pocket movement against quicker, more skilled competition. The senior's eyes seemed to always be downfield in the opener, however, and that's positive sign for this contest. The Pirates might slow the run, but West Virginia should be able to mount some success throwing.
|By The Numbers|
|West Virginia||East Carolina|
|Scoring Offense 33 ppg||Scoring Defense 24 ppg|
|Rushing Offense 195 ypg||Rushing Defense 102 ypg|
|Passing Offense 243 ypg||Passing Defense 144 ypg|
WVU Defense vs. ECU Offense
The Mountaineers didn't get off the field as effectively as the coaching staff would have liked in the first game. And though that's not a significant worry, combining that with allowing 30 points to their last FBS foe and a complete breakdown against almost the same offense in last year's series game is. Pirates' quarterback Patrick Pinkney looked excellent against a sluggish WVU defense last season, slicing the odd stack with timely runs and solid downfield passing. The senior – granted a sixth season of eligibility after missing the entire 2005 season with a shoulder injury – keys a spread set that suffered a rash of injuries in the early-to-middle portions of the season, leading to a few non-conference and conference losses. All five starting linemen return along with fullback Kevin Gidrey and a trio of wide receivers.
Gidrey isn't a gamebreaker, and indeed is primarily used in short yardage and goalline situations. Tailback Dominique Lindsey shows solid size and speed, but hasn't played in a game in more than one year after a knee injury late in fall camp sidelined him for the entire 2008 season. Fellow starter Brandon Jackson, listed as the same 5-10, 202 pounds as Lindsey, rapidly advanced up the depth chart during drills while Lindsey and reserve running back Jonathan Williams were out. Jackson, a transfer from Kentucky, had offers from a bevy of FBS schools in the Pacific Northwest after being named Scout.com's fourth-best tailback in Oregon. Originally from Greensboro, N.C., Jackson inked with UK, then came to head coach Skip Holtz's ECU program and is now primed to add depth and a splash elusiveness and strength in a talented but unproven position.
Wideouts Jamar Bryant and Dwayne Harris aren't huge targets at 6-2 and 6-0, respectively. But both run well and can get off the line and into their routes quickly. Bryant will be tested by West Virginia in his first game action since being suspended Oct. 8, 2008. The senior is the depth threat for Pinkney, who won't hesitate to throw the long ball. Harris is more of a speedy slot type, though he too is seeing his first major action since suffering a foot injury halfway through last year. He was all over the field against the Mountaineers last year, grabbing eight receptions for 68 yards. It isn't that Harris beats teams with single catches, it's that he gets timely, and seemingly routine, grabs that turn second-and-longs into third-and-manageables and third downs into a fresh set of four. The West Virginia defense must be aware of him and where he lines up. Third receiver Alex Taylor (6-4, 217 lbs.) usually slides to whatever slot the coaches deem best when ECU goes with a three-receiver look. Unusually versatile, Taylor can catch the long pass, get across the face of a defense for catch-and-runs and sit down in the spaces between linebackers and the secondary to give Pinkney a sizeable target. He, too, missed some snaps in the latter half of last year with a foot sprain. That's back to 100 percent, however, and if there's a jump ball, it will most likely be thrown to Taylor.
The issue with this offense-defense match-up isn't one of skill on one side and lack thereof on the other, as it had been in the early portions of this decade. Holtz has talent in Greenville, and he had it early last year before a rash of setbacks. The question is how well the unit can operate together after not seeing game action as a whole in 11 months and if the Pirates can operate well in Morgantown. East Carolina's offense has been average at Mountaineer Field (Pirates are 0-12 all-time at WVU), usually relying upon its defense to remain in games. ECU hasn't score more than 24 points in a series game since 2000, and has reached that mark just twice ever in true road games – both obviously coming in defeats. It has failed to average 17 points in the last five series games, and though this is a better unit, one would have a difficult time imagining it topping three to four scores, with at least one a likely field goal, in this contest.
|By The Numbers|
|West Virginia||East Carolina|
|Scoring Defense 20 ppg||Scoring Offense 29 ppg|
|Rushing Defense 98 ypg||Rushing Offense 189 ypg|
|Passing Defense 210 ypg||Passing Offense 131 ypg|
Advantage: East Carolina
WVU Special Teams vs. East Carolina Special Teams
Some aspects were answered, some areas have greater questions. West Virginia looked good in the placekicking portion, as Tyler Bitancurt made all four of his attempts. Punter Scott Kozlowski kicked one from the 40-yard line into the end zone for a poor net average, but showed some leg and hang time. The kickoffs weren't nearly deep enough, and the first half coverage was poor, with the second hald being respectable. A similar performance won't likely get a passing grade against ECU. Kozlowski is going to have to pin the Pirates better, Bitancurt need not be perfect, but solid, and WVU must improve upon coverage. That reads like a simple chore, and portions of it are. Blowing up wedges and blocking techniques isn't difficult, but doing it in a manner that doesn't take oneself out of position is. At times the kicks didn't perfectly match the coverage, though that might not happen all year because of a lack of leg strength. The key is to find the blend of players and strategies that fit best and execute them – which is stating the obvious. West Virginia's abilities or lack thereof should begin to reveal themselves more this week against better talent.
ECU's punting game isn't an issue with Matt Dodge averaging 43.9 yards per punt last year even with more than a quarter of his punts ending up inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Place kicker Ben Hartman has a big leg, but missed nine of 22 tries last season. He hit both attempts in the opening 29-24 win over Appalachian State, though none was longer than 26 yards. WVU will get a chance with its return game; Dodge handled six kickoffs last week and got just one touchback. Lindsey and Harris are the kick returners, with Harris tracking up 81 yards on four tries. The Pirates averaged 20 yards on five returns and 30 on their lone punt return. This doesn't look like an area that could make or break the game barring turnovers or continued poor field position allowed by the Mountaineers. The edge, though, has to go to East Carolina for now.
|By The Numbers|
|West Virginia||East Carolina|
|Net Punting 37.5 yards||Net Punting 35.4 yards per punt|
|KO Returns 18.6 yards per return||KO Returns 20.6 yards per return|
|Punt Returns 5.5 yards per return||Punt Returns 30.0 yards per return|
Advantage: East Carolina
PICKS TO CLICK
On Offense: Jarrett Brown, Selvish Capers.
East Carolina returns with as much talent as last season, with considerably more experience. Questions remain, however, as to how well the team will play when facing a solid foe in a road environment. Unlike last year, the Pirates haven't played a difficult road game and they won't be at Dowdy-Ficklen against the Mountaineers. At a neutral site, this is an even toss-up with West Virginia's offense being more prepped for the passing game and in its second year with a coaching staff. Even with two of three categories going to ECU and the third coming up even, the intangibles could prove too much for the Pirates. This result would be much more difficult to attain on the road. Until East Carolina shows much success at Mountaineer Field, however, the home team's a favorite.
WVU - 27 East Carolina - 20