Both West Virginia and East Carolina entered Saturday evening's nationally-televised showdown hoping to make statements about their programs. And for each at game's end, a message rang loud and clear.
For East Carolina, the moniker of "mid-major giant killer" can now be replaced by "legitimate top 20 team", and/or perhaps "best team outside of the BCS."
And for West Virginia? The messages all end in question marks.
More specifically, one week after a 48-21 thrashing of I-AA foe Villanova, would the Mountaineer defense improve on a pedestrian effort? Would the new West Virginia offense continue to excel both by land and by air? Under a new coaching staff, in a stiff road test, would the old gold and blue rise to the occasion, sidestep the all-too-familiar trap game and continue on a path to possible perfection?
To all three of these questions, the answers were a resounding "NO!" ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkney passed for 236 yards and Pirate running back Jonathan Williams bullied his way to a pair of touchdowns en route to a 24-3 blowout over No. 8 West Virginia in front of a boisterous crowd of 43,610 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The same problems which plagued the Mountaineer defense one week ago against the Wildcats were again alive and not-so-well against the upstart Pirates. ECU racked up 386 total yards against the Mountaineers, and dominated the time of possession with a hefty advantage of more than 11 minutes. One week after Villanova converted eight of 14 third-down attempts against the youthful WVU defenders, the Pirates were eight for 16.
Less measureable but equally notorious instances such as blown coverages and missed tackles were again prevalent for the defense, which was once again playing without senior middle linebacker Reed Williams.
West Virginia's winning formula of out-hitting, out-tackling, out-hitting and out-hustling was present, but more so for the purple-clad hosts.
East Carolina ran 71 plays to West Virginia's 54. In short, it was a dominating effort by the soon-to-be-ranked Pirates.
The Pirates started the scoring parade early, marching 80 yards in 11 plays to take a 7-0 lead on a five-yard run by Williams. A bad omen of things to come occurred on a third-down and nine from West Virginia's 42, when Pinkney found a wide open Jamar Bryant for a 35-yard hookup deep into Mountaineer territory. The Pirates would convert four more plays of at least 10 yards on third down throughout the game.
While the Mountaineer defense fared no better than it did one week ago, the West Virginia offense was drastically worse than its effort against the Wildcats. For the first time since a 2001 loss to Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers did not score a touchdown. West Virginia's only points of the game came on a 26-yard second-quarter field goal by Pat McAfee.
"That was a phenomenal job by our defense," said fourth-year East Carolina coach Skip Holtz. "West Virginia is a team that scores a lot of points with their speed. I am just so pleased with the job that Greg Hudson has done. All of our defensive coaches had a great game plan that was simple. We were not going to win this game with a scheme, but we easily could have lost it from being confused by their complex offense."
At least for this week, West Virginia's offense was perhaps a little bit too complex for its own good. One week after throwing a career-high five touchdown passes, senior quarterback Patrick White was 11-18 for 72 yards. While the Mountaineers did run some deep routes similar to the successful patterns seen by Alric Arnett and Jock Sanders one week ago in Morgantown, seldom did White have enough time to see those routes through. The Daphne, Ala. native was sacked three times, and while he did manage to rush for 97 yards, many of his runs came as he scrambled away from the relentless East Carolina pass rush.
The turnover bug also bit the Mountaineers. At the conclusion of a five-yard run on West Virginia's first possession, White looked to have stepped out of bounds. As he did, however, he attempted to extend the ball across the first down marker, and in the process, the pigskin left his hand and sat still on the natural surface of Bagwell Field. No whistle blew, and East Carolina's Jay Ross picked up the ball. The officials ruled it a fumble. West Virginia did not challenge the ruling on the field.
"The first fumble we had was a result of us attempting to stretch for the first down," WVU head coach Bill Stewart said. "It just got knocked away from us. I thought the ball was down before the fumble, but it doesn't matter in the long run. After that, we could not get into a rhythm. Our mental mistakes helped beat West Virginia today."
Later, after a missed field goal by the Pirates left the door of opportunity slightly ajar for the sputtering Mountaineers, slot receiver Jock Sanders fumbled at the end of a nine-yard catch and run. Though senior offensive tackle Ryan Stanchek would emerge from the ensuing pileup with the ball in his hand, ECU had already been awarded possession.
Three plays later, Pinkney found receiver Alex Taylor on a 13-yard fade pattern to give the Pirates a 17-3 lead.
Turnovers, however, were not the only errors which doomed West Virginia. As fortuitous as the Pirates were on their third-down opportunites, the same could not be said for the Mountaineers, who finished feeble three of 12 on third down. Much of that, according to Stewart, was due to the efforts of Hudson and the East Carolina defense.
"They did a good job of shutting us down on third down," said the first-year head coach, now 2-1 for his Mountaineer career. "The stats do not lie. We converted 25 percent of our chances while East Carolina converted 50 percent."
One of the lone bright spots for the West Virginia offense was sophomore tailback Noel Devine. The diminutive Devine carried the ball just 12 times, but totaled 94 yards on the evening. His 34-yard run in the second-quarter moved the Mountaineers into the ECU red zone, but a sack for a loss of seven-yards on the next play ended any threat of a WVU touchdown. It was West Virginia's only trip to the red zone on the afternoon.
"East Carolina played a great game and played very hard," Stewart said. "We will go back to the drawing board and get ready for next week. We have to watch the film and prepare for (a September 18 game at Colorado)."
In the coming days and weeks, much will be made of West Virginia's mistakes and lack of execution on both sides of the ball. While those certainly were big reasons for the lopsided defeat, the Pirates also seized each and every opportunity which came their way.
"I don't think you can put it into words," said Holtz, who recently signed a long-term contract extension which will theoretically keep him at the helm of the rising ECU program through 2013. "I am so proud of these players and the way they have come out and competed the last few weeks. We played two elite programs and I am just proud of the way our team has grown.
"They are playing with desire, passion and togetherness," Holtz continued. "Every facet of our team from the offense to the special teams was fantastic tonight."
The same could clearly not be said for West Virginia, which must now search for answers to a list of ever-growing questions and concerns.