Luke DeCock

DeCock: Pirates used to make ACC teams pay for playing like this

East Carolina's Adonis Armstrong (3) intercepts a pass intended for Virginia Tech's Demitri Knowles (80) in the second quarter on Saturday, September 14, 2013 at Dowdy-Ficklen stadium in Greenville, N.C.
East Carolina's Adonis Armstrong (3) intercepts a pass intended for Virginia Tech's Demitri Knowles (80) in the second quarter on Saturday, September 14, 2013 at Dowdy-Ficklen stadium in Greenville, N.C.

The names and faces change and coaches come and go and old Dowdy-Ficklen gets bigger and louder, but some things never change for the ACC teams that come here looking for an easy nonconference win.

Virginia Tech escaped this purple-clad viper pit Saturday only through the grace of an East Carolina team unwilling to accept the parade of gifts, second chances and freebies the Hokies sent the Pirates’ way.

That’s changed: Give East Carolina that many chances and the Pirates used to send opponents home suitably chastened.

For East Carolina to be the program it wants to be – and was for a long time – this was a game it had to win, against a Virginia Tech team ticketed for mediocrity, a stout defense the last pillar of Beamer Ball still standing. To get this close and not finish the job, falling 15-10, should be considered unacceptable given East Carolina’s giant-killing tradition.

“We have a lot of pride. We believe in ourselves. We expected to win the game today,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “So they’re a little bit down. That’s to be expected of a team of this caliber, that has aspirations of accomplishing something this year.”

Some of the damage was self-inflicted. The Pirates needed only 91 seconds to score the game’s first touchdown. The Hokies adjusted, dialed up the aggression and spent the rest of the afternoon in quarterback Shane Carden’s face. East Carolina was admittedly unprepared for the unexpected pressure.

That had the unintended consequence of making Vintavious Cooper, the Pirates’ talented and explosive senior running back, an afterthought. He had an 11-yard run and 24-yard catch on that smooth opening drive but only two rushes and two catches in the second half. East Carolina isn’t going to beat anyone from the ACC with Cooper’s role minimized.

It suggests a certain level of tactical inflexibility on offense. McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley run the Texas Tech playbook, period. That means no direct snaps or other shenanigans to maximize the strengths of Cooper, a junior-college quarterback and 1,000-yard rusher last year, and too often leads to pass-pass-pass, tunnel-vision play-calling in the second half.

Cooper is the kind of weapon that can make the difference in a game decided by this fine of a margin. The Pirates weren’t far off.

“We just knew if we could get this thing going, we’d be all right,” Carden said.

The Pirates aren’t alone when it comes to inflexibility. Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas’ draft stock is declining in value faster than a tranche of subprime California mortgages as he’s continually asked to make throws outside of his comfort zone.

Thomas is capable of consistently hitting receivers around and between the hash marks, no more than 15 yards downfield. Everything else is a coin flip. For every nice throw, like a perfectly weighted 30-yard touchdown to Demitri Knowles, there’s a ball thrown into another zip code. He’s more consistently accurate, at least, than kicker Cody Journell, whose afternoon could have been worse only if he had whiffed.

“Maybe we will get more attractive as the year goes on,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “We are not pretty yet.”

Since the upset of the Hokies in Charlotte to open the 2008 season, the Pirates’ fifth ACC win in a three-year span, East Carolina is 1-11 against the ACC. East Carolina gets two more shots this season, at North Carolina in two weeks and at N.C. State in November.

The Pirates won’t get a better chance than Saturday, at home, against an opponent all too willing to let them hang around.