#4 West Virginia @ East Carolina
Date: Saturday, September 23, 2006
Location: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Bagwell Field (43,000); Greenville, NC
Time: 4:30 pm
Records: East Carolina (1-2 Overall, 1-1 CUSA); West Virginia (3-0 Overall, 0-0 Big East)
Rankings: East Carolina- none West Virginia- 4th in the AP and USA Today Coaches' Poll
All-Time Series Record: West Virginia leads 15-2
Last Meeting: West Virginia 20 East Carolina 15- September 24, 2005 in Morgantown, WV
Offensively, Dominique Lindsay won't be in the lineup for a second consecutive week after suffering a knee injury at UAB. Also, running back Chris Johnson is suffering from turf toe, but he should be able to play. True freshman Norman Whitley is done for the season, as he had to have shoulder surgery.
West Virginia enters the game relatively healthy, as the only players they could possibly be without are starting strong safety Ridwan Malik and back-up defensive end Doug Slovanic. Each of them was questionable before Tuesday's practice.
East Carolina - West Virginia General Overview
West Virginia has dominated the series with East Carolina, winning 15 of the 17 meetings. East Carolina's only wins came in 1995 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and in 1999 at then Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte.
No one expected the Pirates to compete last year when they traveled to Morgantown, but they nearly upset the Mountaineers. WVU was able to hang on to win, 20-15.
The East Carolina defense played well against a potent WVU offense, holding the Mountaineers to slightly over 300 yards of offense, which included only 127 on the ground on 46 carries. However, this good performance came against a line-up that didn't feature Steve Slaton or a more mature Pat White like the Pirates will face this year.
This year will be déjà vu from an expectations standpoint, as the fourth-ranked Mountaineers will enter Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium around a three-touchdown favorite over the home standing Pirates.
West Virginia enters the game with a record of 3-0 and has not really been challenged in the first three games. They are very impressive statistically. They have dominated their opponents, outscoring them by an average of 46-12. Their last victim was Ralph Friedgen's Maryland Terrapins. They de-shelled the Terps, 45-24, and the game was not that close.
East Carolina is coming off its first win of the season. After falling behind Memphis by a score of 20-7, the Pirates responded with 28 unanswered points. It was by far the best all-around half of football the Pirates have played this year, and should give them plenty of needed confidence as they head into this game.
East Carolina Offense vs. West Virginia Defense
Several analysts have stated that the weakness of this West Virginia team is its secondary and pass defense. You wouldn't know it by looking at their statistics. They are holding their opponents to around a 50% completion percentage and 162 yards per game. Marshall, Eastern Washington and Maryland have not presented the challenge with their passing attacks that the East Carolina offense will bring.
WVU operates out of a 3-3-5 stack defensive alignment. This scheme is one that is built around athleticism and speed, particularly at the linebacker position. The Mountaineer secondary is extremely athletic and can run very well. They like to keep things simple coverage wise, which doesn't provide many looks for James Pinkney and the Pirate receivers to prepare for; however, what they do play, they play very well. This simplicity allows their talented athletes to run around and make plays.
East Carolina's offense continued to make strides last week as they posted their best performance of the year by racking up 413 yards of total offense. The most encouraging thing about the Memphis game was the consistency with which ECU was able to run the football. After only rushing for 74 yards at Navy and slightly under a 100 at UAB, the Pirates posted 177 rushing yards on 39 attempts versus the Tigers.
The Pirates' passing attack was effective once again, although James Pinkney did throw a couple of interceptions. Aundrae Allison, who did not record a reception at UAB, was in his usual form. Allison made nine receptions for 124 yards, which included a crucial 33-yard touchdown reception that gave ECU a 28-20 lead with 3:34 remaining. Pinkney finished the day 18 of 26 for 236 yards and a touchdown.
East Carolina will be able to move the ball against the Mountaineers, but how well will depend on how well the Pirates' hogs play up front. If they can improve upon their solid performance against Memphis and ECU can limit its mistakes, don't be surprised to see the Pirates score three to four touchdowns on WVU.
West Virginia Offense vs. East Carolina Defense
Advantage: West Virginia
TRIPLE THREAT. The Mountaineers' offense has just that with quarterback Pat White and running backs Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt. Pat White, who is a Michael Vick clone at quarterback, can hurt you with running ability and his arm. He ran for nearly 1,000 yards last year as a freshman. Fellow sophomore sensation, running back Steve Slaton, gives the Mountaineers the combination of speed and power. If WVU really wants to overpower you, they will go to Owen Schmitt, who complements Slaton nicely.
West Virginia's offense is a zone-rushing attack out of the spread formation. This system affords Steve Slaton and Pat White more opportunities to use their natural abilities.
Slaton has already rushed for slightly over 500 yards in three games, while Pat White and Owen Schmitt have totaled 155 and 110 yards, respectively.
The offensive line is big and physical while using excellent footwork. Skip Holtz stated that it is one of the best he has seen on film in a long time.
The passing game has been efficient, but due to the success WVU has had running the football, there really hasn't been a need to throw excessively. Pat White has completed 20 of 27 attempts for 259 yards and three touchdowns. His favorite targets have been Brandon Myles and Darius Renaud, who have eight receptions each. Owen Schmitt also has five receptions for 67 yards out of the backfield.
What has all of this meant? It has meant that WVU has averaged 46.3 points and 486.3 yards per game.
Defensively, the Pirates are very banged up along their front. They will be playing without defensive tackle Brandon Setzer and defensive linemen Wendell Chavis, Dontre' Brown, and Shauntae Hunt are all questionable. There are also inexperience and depth issues at linebacker, especially given that Quentin Cotton suffered an ankle injury in Tuesday's practice.
Since allowing 403 rushing yards against Navy's uncommon flexbone attack, the East Carolina defense has improved against the run. In the last two games, they have held UAB to 124 yards on 42 attempts and Memphis to only 95 yards on 30 carries.
This improvement must continue if the Pirates are going to be able to slow down one of the most potent rushing games in all of college football.
East Carolina will not be able to stop West Virginia; therefore, they must be able to prevent big plays, something they have done a great job of this season. Opponents have only had one run for over 20 yards. The Pirates have also not allowed a play, run or pass, over 40 yards this season.
The lone 20-yard plus rushing play the Pirates allowed was to Navy's big, bruising fullback Adam Ballard. ECU struggled to stop Ballard, so look for WVU to try and exploit the Pirates' on the interior with their bruiser Owen Schmitt (6-3, 250).
If, and this is certainly a HUGE IF against a quality attack like WVU, the Pirates can find some way to slow down White, Slaton and Schmitt on the ground, then I like East Carolina's chances with an experienced secondary against the passing of Pat White.
East Carolina has a slight edge in the kicking game. Punter and kickoff specialist Ryan Dougherty when combined with Lou Groza Award candidate Robert Lee form one of the best tandems in the nation. Dougherty is averaging 40.3 yards per punt, while Lee has hit 3-5 field goals and all seven point after touchdown attempts. Lee's season long was a 48-yarder at Navy.
West Virginia's kicking game has been solid as well. Seldom-used punter Scot Kozlowski, who has only punted eight times in three games, is averaging 39.5 per boot. Pat McAfee has made 2-3 field goals, with a long of 29. His miss was from over 40.
The Mountaineers hold the edge in the return game. Wide receiver Darius Raynaud has returned three kickoffs for 143 yards, which included a 96-yarder for a touchdown versus Maryland. Vaughn Rivers and Antonio Lewis have also been effective at returning kickoffs. Lewis handles the punt return duties and has a long return of 14 yards.
Chris Johnson has returned the majority of the kickoffs for the Pirates. He has five returns for 122 yards, including a long of 40.
Aundrae Allison is handling the punt return duties. He has the elusiveness to be a good punt returner, but has often made poor decisions. Last week against Memphis, a punt hit, rolled and rather than getting away from it, Allison continued to get closer and closer, risking a turnover. It wasn't the first time this has happened. If this isn't corrected, don't be surprised if it comes back to haunt the Pirates before the season is over.
West Virginia has a legitimate chance to contend for the national championship this season. This, combined with the fact that East Carolina nearly upset WVU in Morgantown last season, tells me that under no circumstances will the Mountaineers experience a letdown. A loss to the Pirates would certainly all but end any national title aspirations.
The fourth-ranked Mountaineers are the highest ranked team to ever play in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The Pirate faithful, combined with anywhere from probably five to seven thousand West Virginia fans making the trip to Greenville, will ensure that the crowd is standing room only. Throw in the fact that the game is going to be televised nationally on ESPN2 and you can be sure that the electricity will be so thick that you'd have to cut it with a knife.
The Mountaineers are playing for a perfect season and national championship, while the Pirates are playing for what would arguably be the biggest win in their program's history and the national respect that they have lost over the past half-decade.
No one other than the East Carolina players and some Pirate fans think ECU has the slightest chance to beat the fourth-ranked Mountaineers. The Pirates enter the game 21-point underdogs.
Don't be at all surprised if ECU covers that spread. The Mountaineer defense has not been challenged the way it will be on Saturday. The Pirates could very well score 21-31 points on WVU.
However, in the end, particularly with a battered and bruised defensive front, I don't see East Carolina being able to get enough stops against one of the nation's best offenses. I foresee WVU rushing for around 250 to 300 yards.
My head says, West Virginia 38 - East Carolina 24.
My purple heart says, "The Pirates get a few costly Mountaineer turnovers, score 28-31 points, and win 31-28."