A week after their 49-0 thrashing of Boston College, the Hokies welcome East Carolina to Blacksburg for an important non-conference showdown. The Pirates, winners of 6 straight against ACC foes, look to rebound from a 20-15 loss to South Carolina, one that could have ended far differently if not for four East Carolina turnovers.
To get an update on the Pirates ahead of this weekend's matchup, I spoke to Nathan Summers of Greenville's The Daily Reflector.
JC: East Carolina ruffled some feathers last offseason with the sudden dismissal of head coach Ruffin McNeill. How surprised were you by the decision, and what were your thoughts on the Scottie Montgomery hire?
NS: Like most people, I was very surprised to see McNeill let go after the landmark winning seasons the three previous years. It had a considerable impact on the players, but the Montgomery effect was immediate. His no-nonsense, professional style has rubbed off and players have admitted it has impacted them positively.
JC: While Virginia Tech holds the advantage in this non-conference series as a whole, the Pirates have bested the Hokies each of the past two years. From an outsider's perspective, it feels like the East Carolina fanbase (and potentially the program itself) views this matchup as somewhat of a rivalry game. Would you agree with that sentiment? Where do you think this game ranks annually in terms of significance for East Carolina?
NS: Because of ECU's six-game winning streak against the ACC heading into this game, that makes it especially big for fans. In terms of the long-term perception, it seems ECU fans view it as a rivalry because it's a game against a Power Five opponent, but also because of the number of meetings (21 as of Saturday), the seven ECU wins in the series and the fact the teams have played eight times since 2007. It still pales in comparison to the in-state games against N.C. State and UNC in terms of passion.
JC: After a disappointing 2015 season, the Pirates seem to be back on the right track this fall with an early victory over NC State and a narrow defeat to South Carolina. What were your expectations for this Pirates team heading into the year, and how have they changed after three weeks?
NS: I think the expectations have not changed much. I looked at this year's team as very capable of playing in a bowl game and that seems very likely, with perhaps potential to be one of the contenders in the American Athletic Conference's East Division. Better execution at the goal line would have likely seen a 3-0 team coming to Blacksburg this weekend.
JC: Dual-threat quarterback James Summers gave Bud Foster's defense fits a season ago with his mobility, but former Minnesota signal-caller Philip Nelson has since taken over the starting job in Greenville. How do the two quarterbacks differ, and what's been your assessment of Nelson thus far?
NS: Summers has been even better this season under first-year offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. He has been given a unique role, taking on small parts as a QB, running back and receiver each week. His two touchdown runs against the Wolfpack were the difference in the game, and many of the team's read-option plays rely on his versatility. Nelson has been mostly as advertised, a strong thrower with good presence who has embraced a major leadership role on the team.
JC: Zay Jones recorded a mind-boggling 22 receptions last week against the Gamecocks, just one grab shy of matching the single-game FBS record. What makes Jones so dangerous?
NS: Jones' athleticism is unmatched on the team, and his will to win might be as well. He refused to say much of anything about his performance following last Saturday's game, only that it wasn't enough in the team's loss to the Gamecocks. The new coaching staff has moved him from his traditional inside slot role to the outside Z position, and Jones has not skipped a beat, serving as a constant sideline threat on downfield throws while still being very much involved on slants.
JC: How has the defense changed in Greenville since the arrival of new coordinator Kenwick Thompson? Do you expect improvement from a unit that struggled at times in 2015?
NS: This defense blitzes a good deal more than those of the last few years, though the Pirates still have just one sack to show for it through three games. The secondary is young but talented with sophomore Corey Seargent and freshman Colby Gore manning the main cornerback roles. Up front, outside linebackers Yiannis Bowden and Dayon Pratt play more like defensive ends on most plays with a nickel secondary behind them.
JC: Time to put you on the spot: who wins Saturday, and why?
NS: Virginia Tech in a close one, due mainly to the Hokies' running game and home crowd.