Pirates are preparing for Hokies’ best shot

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GREENVILLE, N.C. | Under normal circumstances, playing Virginia Tech is usually difficult enough to concern Skip Holtz.

But the East Carolina coach expects even more urgency from the 22nd-ranked - and increasingly desperate - Hokies when the teams meet Thursday night.

The Hokies are clinging to a national ranking after two straight losses, trying to avoid their first three-game losing streak since 2003 and visiting a team that knocked them off last year.

Naturally, the Pirates expect their full attention.

“This football team will bounce back,” Holtz said.

He just hopes to delay that comeback for another week and deliver East Carolina another program-validating victory over one of college football’s elites. There are plenty of reasons why this might qualify as a tricky situation for the Hokies (5-3), who are taking a break from the ACC schedule to make a rare visit to Greenville.

Their confidence might be shaken after consecutive losses to No. 10 Georgia Tech and North Carolina. And last year’s 27-22 victory by the Pirates (5-3) - won by a blocked punt returned for a score in the closing minutes - has made them believe they can beat Virginia Tech again.

“We had a tough loss, but I think what we are playing for is pride in each other and pride in the football team, and we just have to go out and try to get a win,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said.

That will be much easier if the Hokies can hit a few big plays against an East Carolina defense that is susceptible to them. Ten of Virginia Tech’s touchdowns have come on plays covering at least 30 yards. The Pirates have allowed at least one scoring pass of at least 40 yards in five of their seven games against Bowl Subdivision teams. In their past three games, they have allowed TD tosses of 43, 80 and 96 yards.

“We cannot give up the home run ball,” Holtz said. “I’d like to play one game where we don’t give up a 30-, 40-yard play for a touchdown. … We can’t win a track meet. We’re going to have to win a baseball score. We’re going to have to win a low-scoring game because we’re not going to be able - no one is able - to turn and just take that ball and move it up the field on them.”

North Carolina showed last week that it’s possible to find cracks in the traditionally tough Virginia Tech defense. The Tar Heels responded to their only deficit by going 78 yards in 16 plays and kicking a game-tying field goal with less than three minutes left. A critical fumble by freshman Ryan Williams moments later gave North Carolina the ball back with plenty of time to kick a winning field goal on the final play.

“You have to move forward, and we have such a tough opponent coming up,” Beamer said. “It doesn’t take long for you to figure out you had better forget about North Carolina and start thinking about East Carolina because this crowd can play.”

This marks the Pirates’ first home game against a ranked team since they knocked off then-No. 8 West Virginia last September, the last in a run of three straight victories against Top 25 opponents. The Hokies come to town for the first time since the Michael Vick-led group claimed a 45-28 rout in 2000.

“It’s going to be a great environment,” Holtz said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for our football program.”

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