The Chalkboard: WVU – East Carolina

The teaching between games one and two of a season can be very fruitful – and that’s our goal for this edition of The Chalkboard as well. Dive into our looks at the match-ups between the Mountaineers and the Pirates.

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East Carolina will provide a similar defensive look to that of Virginia Tech – if not one that performs as well. The Pirates switched to a 4-2-5 base alignment this year that looks like what the Hokies run. It’s not an exact copy, and ECU is a bit more multiple in its looks, but this won’t be a total departure for WVU from what it saw in week one. Defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson has overseen the change, which certainly had mixed results in the James Madison loss. That newness factor, plus West Virginia’s familiarity with it, could be an advantage for the Mountaineers.

Such a paradigm shift rarely bears huge success early on. There are so many changes in assignments that provide both mental and physical challenges that it’s unfair to expect great results right out of the gate. ECU definitely has a lot to teach from after giving up 614 yards to the Dukes, and they will probably improve some in keeping assignments getting to the right spots. That’s just half the battle, though. At that point, it comes down to execution, and the talent of players involved.

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East Carolina is 3-18 all-time against the Mountaineers, and has never won in Morgantown. The closest it came was in 1996, when a failed two-point conversion late in the game left it on the short end of a 10-9 score.

Both teams are trying to avoid an 0-2 start. The last time ECU lost two straight out of the gate was 2011, while you have to go back to 1979 to find that occurrence for West Virginia.

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A cursory glance at the Pirates’ first game does reveal many problems, but there are also some hidden stats that show they are at least capable of more. One of the biggest is that they squandered three red zone scoring chances, coming away with zero points. They did score their two touchdowns from the zone, but a 40% scoring mark on possessions inside the 20 won’t win any games.

That will be a point of emphasis for the Pirate coaching staff, but they will be facing a West Virginia defense that has been outstanding in keeping foes out of the end zone when they get close. WVU held Virginia Tech scoreless on two of their six red zone trips, and forced a a field goal on another. Keep that rate up, and the Mountaineers will be in every game this season.

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Will Grier’s father, Chad, was on the 1990 ECU team. He earned a letter that season as a backup quarterback to Jeff Blake, completing 11 of 19 passes for 95 yards. He didn’t see WVU as an opponent, however, as the Mountaineers played the Pirates in 1988, but then took a three-season break before getting them back on the schedule in 1992.

Will, though, has played against the Pirates – in Greenville, no less. He helped engineer a 31-24 Florida win in 2015, throwing for 151 yards on 10-17 passing with a pair of touchdowns against one interception.

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West Virginia’s passing game showed much promise in the opener, with one item standing out – quick slants. For several reasons, these routes haven’t been the best for WVU over the past few years, but it now looks like it could be a weapon.

West Virginia wide receiver Gary Jennings (12) speeds away for a touchdown

Part of the reason is the presence of Grier – he has the height to see over the line and possesses a good slide step to open throwing lanes. The return of David Sills also helps, as he provides another bigger target who runs those routes well. Overall, the receiving corps should be built to take advantage of this part of the route tree – both Gary Jennings and Ka’Raun White are physical and can screen defenders from the ball.

While the potential for quick hitters to get first downs, or perhaps break a big play with a catch and run are enticing, the slant can also help open up other opportunities near the goal line, and perhaps help with West Virginia’s own red zone problems from past years. Defenses that are forced to help cut down throwing lanes by dropping a linebacker, or at least holding him for a step or two, make more room for a run, and corners or safeties who jump inside routes can open up options for back corner throws or timing routes.

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East Carolina head coach Scottie Montgomery is very aggressive in fourth down situations, so don’t assume that a WVU defensive stop a yard or two short of the sticks means a punt is forthcoming. The Pirates attempted 35 fourth-down conversions last year (making 21), and were 2-5 last week against JMU.

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ECU starting defensive lineman Tyree Owens is a WVU transfer. He redshirted during his only season with the program in 2014 before leaving for a two-season stint in junior college. He signed with the Pirates last December, and had three tackles last week against James Madison.