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GAMEDAY: Pirates face tall order

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East Carolina defensive back Bobby Fulp tries to energize the home crowd during a game last season.

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, September 9, 2017

There has never been an easy trip to Morgantown, W.Va., in the history of East Carolina football, and today will be no different.

The 0-1 Pirates might still be reeling from their opening-night shocker last week, a 34-14 drubbing at the hands of James Madison, but at noon today in Milan Puskar Stadium, the opponent is far more formidable. ECU is 0-13 all-time at WVU, and today’s Mountaineers are also stinging from a 31-24 loss last Sunday night to Virginia Tech — ECU’s next opponent — in a hard-hitting showcase at FedEx Field in Washington, D.C.

Second-year ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery was tasked this week with refocusing a team that showed a serious lack of that against JMU, the defending Football Championship Subdivision winner that ran the Pirates ragged for 410 rush yards. The Dukes also silenced ECU’s rush efforts and snared three interceptions.

So complete was the beating from JMU that the score was actually 34-7 until a TD with less than a minute to play.

“Our first-time starters at all spots struggled,” Montgomery said of a lineup that was filled with newcomers. “I’ve got to do a better job, me personally, of managing their emotions before and during the game.

“On defense, I thought we played hard the first and second quarters to try to find a pace and rhythm, and that’s exactly what those guys did ... to be able to give us a chance to win that football game,” Montgomery, now 3-10 at ECU, said. “Offensively, unfortunately, we didn’t anything to give them a boost of energy.”

Montgomery went on to say that in the second half, some of ECU’s defenders were trying to do too much to get the team back in the game. But he called it a “collective team loss” and promised changes this week, beginning but not ending at quarterback.

Graduate transfer passer Thomas Sirk took over for junior starter Gardner Minshew in the second half and was summarily named the starter for today’s game. The one-time Duke Blue Devils starter reflected his team’s overall performance against JMU with 210 pass yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

It appears the Pirate backfield will also see a shakeup today. After junior Derrell Scott (12 carries, 46 rush yards, TD) failed to find much room against the Dukes and grad transfer Tyshon Dye (no carries) barely saw the field, it will be a mix of Dye and true freshman Darius Pinnix (3-7-1) today against the Mountaineers, according to ECU offensive coordinator Tony Petersen.

Mirroring the rest of the team, none of ECU’s wideouts had big games to start the season. Senior Jimmy Williams, who jawed with teammates and coaches on the sideline versus the Dukes, managed three receptions for 41 yards. Fellow senior Davon Grayson (7-86) and sophomore Deondre Farrier (7-68) led the way, with small contributions coming from senior Quay Johnson (3-28) and junior Trevon Brown (4-43) on his return from injury.

The Mountaineers bring a defense onto the field today that has already gone toe-to-toe with a physical Hokies offense. In the thick of it in that game was the nickel defensive backfield, led by sophomore cornerback Hakeem Bailey (eight tackles, seven solos, two TFLs), senior safety Kyzir White (seven tackles), senior corner Mike Daniels Jr. (six tackles, two pass breakups) and junior safety Toyous Avery (six tackles).

An active linebacker corps was fronted by senior middle man Al-Rahseed Benton (eight tackles, TFL, two QB hurries) and redshirt freshman weakside man Dylan Tonkery (four tackles, 1.5 TFLs), while junior end Adam Shuler II (seven tackles) was active at the line of scrimmage.

ECU’s new 4-2-5 defensive scheme played a mostly disjointed game last week, seeing strong showings from some individuals but never coming together enough to avoid three long rush touchdowns and more than 600 yards of total offense by JMU.

It was a particularly long day, and likely a long week of practice to follow, for senior linebackers Ray Tillman (eight tackles) and Jordan Williams (team-high 14 tackles).

Behind them, the-five man secondary had good and bad moments led by transfer safety Tim Irvin (eight tackles, tackle for loss) and senior safety Bobby Fulp (four tackles, INT).

The front four was pushed around at times despite a promising outing by senior Greenville native Kiante Anderson (six tackles, team-high 2.5 TFLs, sack, forced fumble) from the end position.

Today, the problems are bigger.

The WVU attack funnels through junior former Florida quarterback and Davidson native Will Grier, who opened the season by throwing for 371 yards and three TDs in the shootout against the Hokies and running for another 52. The passer was 31-of-53 with one interception.

Grier helped create a balanced attack that also saw senior receiver Gary Jennings Jr. explode for 189 yards and a touchdown on 13 catches, junior David Sills V grab nine passes for 94 yards and two scores and senior lead running back Justin Crawford cash in 106 yards on 13 rushes.

The all-time series has been dominated by West Virginia, 18-3, though that third loss for the Mountaineers proved something of a landmark moment for the Pirates.

Led by then-head coach Skip Holtz, ECU took on the Mountaineers in the second week of the season at home in 2008, one week removed from stunning the Hokies on a blocked punt TD in Charlotte.

The Pirates topped their opener by posting a wire-to-wire win against WVU that set off some wild celebrations in Greenville.

Leading 10-3 late in the first half, Patrick Pinkney sent a touchdown pass to a leaping Alex Taylor for another score. Jonathan Williams’ second TD of the game midway through the third quarter sealed it, as ECU’s defense pitched a shutout in the fourth.

The last time the teams played was one year later in Morgantown, a 35-20 ECU loss in which the Pirates held four separate leads but were shut out the entire second half.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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