Welcome to Week Two of Weapons and Weaknesses, the Wednesday column where we look at WVU’s upcoming opponent. Up this week is a team West Virginia has played off and on over the years, the East Carolina University (ECU) Pirates. WVU and ECU last met in 2009, when WVU won in Morgantown 35-20. ECU had a rough year in 2016, going 3-9 on the season in head coach Scottie Montgomery’s first year with the program. ECU comes into this contest 0-1 like WVU, having lost 34-14 in Week 1 to FCS powerhouse James Madison.
While, as discussed below, ECU’s defense had some serious issues against James Madison, inside linebacker Jordan Williams had a strong performance with 14 total tackles (six of them solo tackles). In 2016 he had 77 total tackles, 35 of which were solo tackles, and 10 of which were for a loss. As a senior and a defensive leader, he is as likely to notice any sluggishness in the Mountaineer offense that can be turned into an opportunity.
Low Expectations/Lack of Motivation
Okay, this one isn’t so much a weapon ECU has, but rather something they can use to their advantage. WVU looked ahead to the Virginia Tech game for weeks, and the Mountaineers lost in terribly disappointing fashion. It’s no guarantee that WVU will come into the next game deflated, but it is certainly a possibility. While ECU could have the same issues after a Week 1 loss, if they come in hungry to make a statement, they will certainly pounce on any WVU sluggishness from a Week 1 hangover.
Additionally, after facing an AP Top 25 opponent and seeing that ECU lost to an FCS opponent, there will likely be some on WVU’s roster who don’t take this week of practice as seriously as they should. While you’ll have to look elsewhere for any real insight on FCS football, James Madison won the FCS National Championship in 2016, so ECU’s loss to them isn’t just to “some FCS team.” While any resulting lack of focus may not translate to anything tangible for ECU to capitalize on, WVU made some coverage mistakes Sunday. It is not hard to believe that some of the younger players on the defense could make similar mistakes this Saturday, particularly if they are unfocused.
East Carolina gave up 422 yards rushing against James Madison in Week 1. 265 of those yards came from one player, Cardon Johnson. While I certainly hope –and believe– Will Grier and the passing attack look as strong next week as they did in the second half against Virginia Tech, knowing that ECU’s defense is soft against the run should provide WVU with an opportunity to pick up some relatively easy yards if Grier’s arm starts to look shaky or if the receiving corps is dropping passes. Regardless of whether WVU ever needs to rely on the run due to issues in the passing game, this should provide an opportunity for Martell Pettaway to stretch his legs after only getting two carries for 19 yards against Virginia Tech.
ECU’s passing attack did not look particularly strong in Week 1 against James Madison. Starter Gardner Minshew put on a poor performance early, completing only 7 of his 18 pass attempts for 82 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. Duke graduate transfer Thomas Sirk played somewhat better after replacing Minshew, completing 21 of his 35 pass attempts for 210 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. Sirk is going to start this week, but there’s little to suggest that he is on solid ground in this role. If someone like Dravon Askew-Henry can get his hands on an errant pass early, it could cut into ECU’s confidence in Sirk and result in more experimenting at the quarterback position; this will only be beneficial to WVU’s defense. I’m of the mind –and I know I’m not alone in this– that an offense needs to know who its leader is going to be. Any shuffling at this position, caused by big defensive plays, could result in further opportunities from a disjointed offense.
Well, that’s it for this week’s Weapons and Weaknesses. For actual predictions (and to hear my frustrations about the Virginia Tech game), check back here Friday for our Roundtable discussion. Until then LETS GO!!!! . . . (I’m assuming you’ll yell MOUNTAINEERS!!! as you read this).