Scottie Montgomery understood East Carolina football’s history upon being named head coach in 2016. And he hasn’t backed away from “playing up” against Power 5 schools with their recruiting resource advantages.
“We play Power 5 opponents a lot,” he said earlier this year of his team that is among the Group of 5 as an American Athletic Conference member. “I like it.”
ECU (1-1) added to its Power 5 bone yard on Saturday with a 41-19 victory over North Carolina, an Atlantic Coast Conference neighbor. A second straight Power 5/ACC opponent is on deck for Game 3 as the Pirates face No. 13-ranked Virginia Tech (2-0) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Blacksburg, Va., weather permitting.
Defeating UNC (0-2) was a desperately needed ego boost after the Pirates had opened the season with a punch to the gut, losing 28-23 to North Carolina A&T (3-0), a program ranked No. 6 in the Football Championship Subdivision.
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Although confidence is nothing new for the Pirates, it may be more firmly rooted now than the optimism the 2016 Pirates took to Virginia Tech with a 2-1 record. That ECU team had opened with a rout of Western Carolina, 52-7; an upset ACC neighbor N.C. State, 33-30; and threw a scare at the Southeastern Conference’s South Carolina before falling, 20-15.
But ECU suffered from a false sense of security while playing Virginia Tech as a third straight Power 5 opponent, losing 54-17. Special teams were a disaster. The Hokies scored a touchdown on an 87-yard punt return and set up three more TDs with a blocked field goal, blocked punt and sack of the punter.
Montgomery, whose background is in the ACC as a former Duke offensive coordinator and wide receiver, determined the reality that fell on him like an anvil was attrition based. ECU played remaining AAC games with as few as 80 players. The Pirates finished 2016 with a 3-9 record and 1-7 AAC mark.
He has been addressing roster numbers and a deeper depth chart since then.
“The biggest difference now is I have 100 guys and play 45 on special teams,” Montgomery said. “When we played N.C. State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech, those games were so physical we continued to lose players during the season because we played so few bodies.”
In 2017, back-to-back Power 5 losses in the season’s second and third weeks to West Virginia (56-20) of the Big Eight and Virginia Tech (64-17) led to another 3-9 overall record and a 2-6 AAC mark.
This week ECU’s roster lists 97 players, with Montgomery pointing to winning recruiting battles and targeting athletes with speed and length. Building and maintaining strength was the next issue. ECU’s Pirate Club increased funding for the football team’s training table to fuel off-season weight gains.
“We came out of the game relatively healthy, even though that was a big-time physical battle with UNC,” he said at Monday’s media session. “I think that physically, we’ll be ready to go.”
Montgomery added they won’t know junior starting cornerback Colby Gore’s status until further evaluations later in the week. Gore was taken from the field following a helmet-to-helmet hit on a block that resulted in the ejection of North Carolina’s Antonio Williams.
Virginia Tech is a thicker Power 5 measuring stick than North Carolina, but no matter the final score the real results won’t be known until the Pirates finish AAC play the remainder of the season.
Virginia Tech officials are monitoring the path of Hurricane Florence that is expected to hit the South Carolina and North Carolina coasts as early as Wednesday.
Virginia Tech associate athletic director Pete Moris said by email the school is monitoring the situation and will announce any necessary changes.