Skip Holtz and the East Carolina Pirates pulled a big upset in week one. With the win over Virginia Tech now in the rearview mirror, ECU is hoping to slay an even bigger giant this weekend when West Virginia visits Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Save for the short-lived John Thompson era in Greenville, the Pirates have long been a thorn in the side of West Virginia over the years. While the series record shows a 17-2 advantage in favor of the Mountaineers, seldom do wins over the Pirates come easily.
One exception to that rule came last season in Morgantown, when WVU outplayed the Pirates in every facet of the game en route to a 48-7 laugher. According to Holtz, last year's blowout should erase any overconfidence his team might have on the hells of Saturday's win over the Hokies.
"When you look at them, they had 600 yards against us last year to our 160," Holtz recalled during his weekly press luncheon. "They outgained us by 440 yards. They were 70 percent third downs to our 20. They punted once; we punted seven times. They rushed for 400 yards as a team. They completed 88 percent of their passes. I don't think we'll have to go far past putting the film in of the West Virginia team we're about to play to have our team's attention."
In Holtz's first two games against West Virginia, the Pirates came oh-so-close to pulling one of their patented upsets. At Milan Puskar Stadium in 2005, Antonio Lewis's punt return proved to be the difference in a 20-15 victory. In Greenville two years ago, a big play from Darius Reynaud preserved another narrow West Virginia victory.
Under Holtz, the Pirates have been successful against West Virginia because of a disciplined defensive approach under coordinator Greg Hudson, with an emphasis on tackling well in space against speedy Mountaineer playmakers. This approach will again be a big key for ECU, though Holtz readily admits that simulating the game-breaking speed of Pat White and Noel Devine in practice is simply not possible.
"I don't know how you simulate Pat (White) unless we're going to take our best athletes and put them on the scout team and play quarterback. But that won't happen because we're playing our best athletes," Holtz said. "That makes it very hard. We're going to have to put multiple guys back there at quarterback to give us some different looks. We may take some wide receivers and let them play quarterback during the run period so we can see the type of speed that we're going to be getting. That's what makes it so hard.
"Not only are they good, but how do you simulate them and get ready for their speed? We don't have anybody who runs like Noel Devine and a couple of their wide receivers," he continued. "It's very difficult to simulate that. You get out on the field on Saturday and take an angle, only to find that he's right past you. Those are some of the challenges we're going to have this week."
Although White's ability presents a number of challenges to his team this week, Holtz is otherwise quite the admirer of West Virginia's Heisman hopeful not only because of his physical tools, but because of intangibles such as toughness and leadership.
"When they played Georgia three years ago in the Sugar Bowl, I remember sitting watching and saying ‘Wow," Holtz recalled. "He's the real deal. Watching him in the Fiesta Bowl last year against Oklahoma, he's just a great competitor. I think he's very difficult to stop. There have been very few games they have lost that he has finished.
"I've seen him, on this field, get hit on our sideline and wondering if he was going to get back up," continued the former Connecticut head coach. "But he's the first one up and he's tossing the ball to the defender with an attitude like I'll be back in a minute. It's almost deflating because he is such a great competitor, and he's so physically and mentally tough to go along with all his physical skills. That's why they've won and without speaking for them, they've had unprecedented success over a five-year period or three-year period with what he has done for that program. That's why they can line up against a lot of these BCS teams and do what they do."
Making the challenge even larger this year is that White has shown marked improvement in his throwing ability under the tutelage of first-year quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. White was 25-33 for 208 yards and five touchdowns in the season-opener against Villanova.
"When you look when he did in the opening game and how many times he threw the ball, but you know he can run too," Holtz said. "The thing that I think makes him so great is not just that he has such talent running and throwing the ball. He's one of the very few quarterbacks who can be a 1,000/1,000 (rushing yards and passing yards) type of guy. But what makes him so great is the competitive spirit inside of him and how tough he is."
While slowing down White, will not automatically result in ECU's third all-time victory against the Mountaineers, doing so would go a long way towards accomplishing that goal. The Pirates have come close in recent years, and a win in 2008 would serve as even further notice that ECU is back as a formidable foe.
"I've said this a million times, but it's not learning how to win that concerns me as much as learning how to handle winning," Holtz said. "We're going to have the ultimate challenge of that right now and being challenged to go play an even better game. We have to stay humble and hungry with where we are right now and have a great week of practice. It's going to take a better effort than what we had last week in order to come out here and be competitive against a team like West Virginia."