"They will play for the Conference USA championship, mark it down," WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "This is a good football team, and one that will win a lot of games. They will bring those safeties down and they have done a good job tackling. They have new guys back there, but they tackle well and play great against the run. And their linebackers are as good as anybody we will play all year. They have the best group of athletes we have played all year. The way they played us the last couple years, it will probably be in the same vein."
The Pirates (1-2) have bottled West Virginia well in the last two meetings, 27-10 and 20-15 East Carolina losses. This season, ECU has allowed an average of just 86 rushing yards per game, though foes are racking up 275 yards through the air. That lack of balance should help East Carolina this weekend, as the Mountaineers have traditionally been more run-oriented, especially against ECU. West Virginia holds the top two spots on the list of all-time ECU rush yards allowed in a single game (536, 2002; 478, 2004), but both of those came before head coach Skip Holtz took over in 2005. Since then, tailback Steve Slaton has been held to 80 yards or less in both outings.
The main East Carolina defense threat is linebacker Quentin Cotton. The 6-2, 234-pound junior is a two-year letterman from High Point, N.C. Cotton, a linebacker, leads the multiple look stop corps with 25 tackles, 16 of which are solo. He has 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack to go with one interception. He is arguably the fastest linebacker the Mountaineers will have faced this season, especially in the 20-yard box around the line of scrimmage. He also runs well sideline-to-sideline, which will test WVU's zone read blocking setup.
"Watching him on film, he is all over the field making plays," Rodriguez said. "He is active and, in my opinion, one of the best linebackers in Conference USA. They have done a good job. They have executed well and not given up the big play. Everybody expects us to win every game by 20 to 30 points. I don't know where that starts, but we have a reputation now and we'll get East Carolina's best shot.
"Offensively, we have to execute better than we have, and better than we have against them in the past. Defensively, we have to eliminate the big play and tackle well because they have fast guys. You have to put pressure on the quarterback, because you can't give him a lot of time. He is a guy that will take off and run more than any quarterbacks we have played this year. They can make you look silly as they run some of the same things we do as far as quarterback runs and the triple options and things. It requires more guys being in-tune to what their assignments are. They do so many things it requires more people to be assignment sound."
West Virginia's ability to get off the field on third down, as it has done well for six of the last eight quarters it has played, and move the football on offense loom large because of East Carolina's ability not to beat itself. The Pirates have just two turnovers on the season and are averaging 343.7 yards of offense. The one area of concern for Holtz has been ECU's 61 yards in penalties per game; WVU has averaged just 39 in comparison.
"Because they have a quarterback that can get out and scramble, we have to be more disciplined this week," Rodriguez said of Pirates' signal caller Patrick Pinkney, who is averaging 277.7 yards of total offense per game and has completed 65 of 99 passes (66 percent) with five scores. "What they do scheme-wise and the ability of their quarterback to make plays means we will use more of our offense in practice this week."
Defensive lineman Keilen Dykes is still suffering the lingering effects of his foot sprain. He is expected to play, but will be limited in Tuesday's drills, then will do a bit more on Wednesday and Thursday before again scaling back. Wideout Darius Reynaud is also limited for this week's drills with a shoulder sprain. He will play. Linebacker Archie Sims and receiver Nate Sowers are doubtful with hamstring pulls. Otherwise, WVU is healthy – a bonus as it has played three games in 13 days. It took Friday and Saturday off following the 31-14 win at Maryland, then practiced Sunday before a day off Monday. It will now drill everyday until its walk through Friday.
"There was a little bounce in their step," Rodriguez said. "Having two days off has helped. But a lot of them will stay sore the whole year. I think it lets the young guys, the freshmen not used to this routine, to catch their breath and catch-up on some schoolwork. This routine is more structured and time consuming than what they are used to."
Rodriguez said he thought the defense gained some confidence after its stellar performance at Maryland. The Terps had just seven meaningful points and none after its second drive. UM fumbled on its first drive and the defense recovered for one of its three forced turnovers. That early exchange allowed the Mountaineers to take a 7-0 lead.
"I think they have played well in parts of all the games," Rodriguez said. "But I think after last game you can see them getting confident. It's contagious. One guy makes a play and they get excited and another guy makes a play. All the sudden, it looks like what we see in practice. We have a lot of guys who can play. For whatever reason, everybody wants to hammer on them. They take it personal. I don't think they should. People get on the Internet and blog and whatever, but they don't know a lot about what is going on. All I care about is that our defense is playing with great effort, is trying to do what we want them to and that we win games."
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West Virginia will have honorary captains for each home game here on. The first trio will be Jerry Holmes, Rich Braham and Undra Johnson. Rodriguez borrowed the idea from other teams. WVU will have either two or three former players serve as honorary captain per game. Holmes (1978-79) was a two-year letterman at defensive back. The Hampton, Va. native finished with 175 career tackles. Holmes' professional career spanned 12 seasons as a cornerback and included stops with the NFL's Green Bay Packers (1990-91), Detroit Lions (1988-89) and New York Jets (1980-83, 86-87), as well as the USFL's New Jersey Generals (1985) and Pittsburgh Maulers (1984). His NFL totals included 25 interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Holmes is in his third season as defensive coordinator at Hampton. Braham (1990-93) anchored the offensive line for the undefeated team in 1993. A walk-on from University High, Braham turned into an All-American and played for a more than a decade in the NFL before injuries finally forced him to retire from the Cincinnati Bengals. Johnson (1985-88) was one of a trio of key backfield members for the 1988 national title-game team. He netted 2,211 yards over four years and scored 21 touchdowns, including one on his longest career rush of 55 yards. That came on a draw play just before the half time '88 against Penn State, giving WVU a 41-7 lead at the break.
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"But there's 11 guys and just one ball," he said. "Pat (White) will touch it on every play. Steve Slaton will get it. It really depends upon how teams play us. If it's one way, the backs will get more touches. If it's another, the receivers will get more. But we can rest Steve some more."
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Place kicker Pat McAfee continues to try to work on his woes. Thus far, he has missed a point after and a chip shot field goal, as well as hitting a punt six yards and pulling several kickoffs out of bounds.
"I am not a kicking guru, so it's tough for me to tell if there is a technical problem," Rodriguez said. "I tell him to just kick it deep. Pat is a talented guy. He has hit a couple great kickoffs. Then he had a couple he miss hit. He is going to have a game where everybody knows this guy is really talented. I am hoping it will be this week. I am not into psychobabble. Kickers, that's a tough position. You sit around the whole game and then your number is called. I have complete confidence in him. We are lucky to have him. He is outstanding."