Lincoln Riley swears it’s not a chess match and perhaps the Pirates’ fifth-year offensive coordinator is right. The matchup between the East Carolina offense and famed Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster has been more like checkers.
In their past three games ECU has made its move early only to be jumped by the Virginia Tech defense in the second half, leaving the Hokies looking like kings by the time the clock expires.
During the Ruffin McNeill-Riley era, the Pirates have gone 0-3 vs. Virginia Tech, scoring only three points after halftime in each contest.
“It’s not as much (of a chess match) as you guys think,” Riley said. “Virginia Tech is a lot like us, they don’t try to fool you. We do very few things that fool you. Our thing is to try and out-execute you and be better at what we do than you are and that’s how Bud and those guys run their defense.”
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Whether you call it chess, checkers or tug-of-war, the Pirates’ second-half slump is a trend that cannot be overlooked.
At age 31, Riley is one of the top young offensive minds in the game. Over the past four years the Pirates have averaged 33.6 points per game. Last season the unit hit new heights as it posted 40.2 points per contest to rank eighth in the nation. However, ECU managed only 10 points during its past two games against Virginia Tech, both of which were at home, and fell 15-10, 17-10, respectively.
Beginning in 2011, ECU was been held to 10 or fewer points only three other times.
In 2010, the Pirates ripped off 24 points in the first half, but they managed only a field goal over the next two quarters in their 49-27 defeat.
Quarterback Shane Carden, the 2013 Conference USA Most Valuable Player who set a school season record for passing yards (4,139), was stymied in his only start vs. Virginia Tech last season. Carden was picked off three times, twice in the second half, as he completed 19 of his 31 pass attempts for 158 yards and one touchdown.
“I was probably just overthinking things too much,” Carden said. “At times I think you get these big defensive coordinators that do some good things and you might over-game plan too much and over think it. You just have to play your offense.”
Virginia Tech sacked Carden seven times, with the last resulting in a clinching safety. ECU was held to -1 rushing yards in the second half. The Pirates finished the contest converting only three of their 11 third-down attempts for 204 yards of offense.
The Hokies run a base 4-2-5 man defense, nothing new for the Pirates. However, what makes Virginia Tech so tough is its tradition of strong corners. It’s a trend that has continued this season, thanks to star sophomores Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson. Last season the duo combined for 11 interceptions, as Facyson picked off Carden twice, and Fuller was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The combination of shutdown corners with an aggressive, agile front seven makes the Virginia Tech game film look more like a scary movie.
“You can rerun their film from the past few years and see the same thing,” Riley said. “They’re aggressive and they have no fear in the secondary. They have good athletes all around. They’re not huge up front but they’re very active and they’re very well-coached. They have aggressive blitz packages and they have some guys that can win in one-on-one pass rush.”
Despite all of that, ECU has played neck-and-neck with Virginia Tech the past two games. In 2011, running back Michael Dobson failed to pull in a potential tying touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, and last season outside linebacker Montese Overton nearly had an interception for a touchdown but could not hang on to a Logan Thomas pass.
They key for the Pirates (1-1) come Saturday’s clash with the No. 17 Hokies (2-0) is to make the most of their big-play opportunities.
“I think if we play well I feel good about us against anyone in the country, and our kids feel that way,” Riley said. Virginia Tech “does a good job of making you pay for your mistakes. You have to play clean football and go out there and make some plays and I think our guys are ready to do that.”