ECU (1-2) has out-executed what some experts perceive as the ultimate execution team in the series' latter two games, 20-15 and 27-10 WVU wins in 2005 and ‘06, respectively. And though the No. 5 Mountaineers (3-0) won both and have lost just twice in 18 games against the Pirates, most players are expecting a close game again if East Carolina can tackle well in space and make individual defense plays on the ball.
"They play physical," said fullback Owen Schmitt, whose hurdle of a Pirate defender on a catch-and-run last season has become among the most cherished snapshots from 2006. "That's a good edge, to play tough. Not everyone comes off the ball hard. That is to their advantage. And they have shut us down the last two years. They play solid. They do their assignments and don't mess up. That's why they are so tough to stop."
Or to get going against. Consider: In the first three games, West Virginia has averaged more than 500 yards of offense each game, spearheaded by a rushing attack that's piling up more than 343 yards. ECU, meanwhile, has stuffed foes better than it has at any time under third-year head coach Skip Holtz, holding teams to 86 yards per game, just six more than WVU's defense and good for 25th in the nation and tops in C-USA. That's a much different scenario than when the Mountaineers ran for 536 and 478 yards in 2002 and ‘04, respectively, still the top two ground gains ever allowed in one outing by the Pirates. In the 2004 game, WVU scored 42 points in the first half, still the last team to do so against East Carolina, and Kay-Jay Harris set the all-time single game running record with 337 yards, more than half of West Virginia's 621, the third-most ever allowed by ECU.
One of the reasons East Carolina has been more successful of late, and avoided further record book smashing by WVU, is because it runs a spread offense, and so it used to seeing the formations and base play sets run by West Virginia. That, combined with better athletes tackling well, has worked in the pass-happy Conference USA. But when the Pirates play bigger - and more physical - competition, it has yet to translate to wins. ECU has lot 13 of its last 14 non-conference regular season games. In all, WVU is 32-6-1 against current C-USA teams.
"I personally think they are better than any of the three teams we have played so far," said Schmitt of the first third of a schedule that also includes Western Michigan, winless Marshall and Maryland. "We are placing importance on them. And they held us to (160 yards). It is a pride thing with us. We have to have a good week. They are so close as a team. At Virginia Tech it was an interception they brought back for a touchdown. North Carolina was a field goal that (ECU) won by. And the last game was last-minute. They are a very tough team. You can see each year they keep getting better and better."
The main talent is linebacker Quentin Cotton, a 6-2, 234-pounder responsible for upkeep on the weak side. The two-year lettermen leads ECU with 23 tackles, including a whopping 4.5 for loss, a ratio of one in every five coming in the backfield. He also has one sack and an interception, which was returned 15 yards. WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez said he was "all over the field" and certainly one of the best ‘backers in Conference USA. The junior and Butkus Award Watch List member will need to defend multiple zone reads and hope the Pirates' solid front four can keep West Virginia's linemen from regularly getting into the second level, as ECU did last season. Fellow linebacker Pierre Bell and safety Van Eskridge, the second- and third-leading tacklers, respectively, are the one-two punch that should be able to help Cotton both in run support and receiver coverage. Bell, the strongside linebacker, has showcased a physical style while Eskridge is a sophomore who shows much promise, but is just a listed 6-0 and 198 pounds, meaning he likely is smaller than that.
"Their defense stopped us better than anyone else last season," said freshman running back Noel Devine, who will be used both as a change of pace and a compliment to starter Steve Slaton. "(But) I don't think a lot of teams know a lot about me and that makes it easier. They think I am a small back and can‘t do much."
Devie, who rushed for 136 yards on five carries against Maryland to splash onto the national scene, might be able to hit holes slightly faster than Slaton, who has resorted to showing more of his physical style of late -- a tactic which might work better against a fast ECU defense. Whatever reads Slaton makes, Devine will be a much-needed aspect of the offense, and can spell the Heisman candidiate so the junior has reserves for better explosion later in the game. Add in a healthy Patrick White at quarterback and receivers Dorrell Jalloh and Darius Reynaud, who broke open the game last season in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with a touchdown catch-and-run off a bubble screen, and West Virginia might simply have too many viable weapons and options and too much depth this season; similar prognostications were made last year as well, however.
"Not everyone would look at (running for 300 yards) as a big deal, but for us personally it would be because they have had such great success in the past shutting us down," Schmitt said. "That's obviously one of our goals as an offense. We just have to execute. Last time they executed better than us. That's why they held us."
If the Mountaineers can play well along the offense front and do better than just neutralize the line of scrimmage, they can rush for 250-plus. If not, and the offense bogs down behind a lack of execution and poor reads by White, Slaton, Schmitt and Devine, East Carolina could be primed for another close game.
"I think all the athletes showed you can't just key on me," Slaton said. "You have to key on the whole offense."