New defensive coordinator, same old story for foundering Pirates

After getting off to a promising start, ECU surrenders 57 unanswered points on the way to a 64-17 thumping at the hands of Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech's Cam Phillips catches one of his three touchdown passes Saturday as ECU's Corey Seargent. (5) tries in vain to stop him (James Guillory / USA TODAY Sports)

GREENVILLE — It’s going to take more than a new coordinator to fix East Carolina’s broken defense.

That is, assuming it’s fixable at all.

After a promising start in which they gave up field goals instead of touchdowns, the defenseless Pirates fell right back into a familiar rut Saturday by leaving receivers wide open, giving up big plays and allowing a member of the opposition to have a career day.

Sixteenth-ranked Virginia Tech scored 57 unanswered points on its way to a 64-17 beatdown at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

When it was all done, the numbers in new defensive coordinator Robert Prunty’s debut were hauntingly familiar to those of the season’s first two games under his deposed predecessor Kenwick Thompson.

The Pirates surrendered 675 yards, a season high and the third-most in school history, allowed a freshman quarterback to throw for 372 yards and five touchdowns while getting giving up scores on 10 of the Hokies’ final 11 possessions in losing for the 12th time in their last 13 games dating back to last season.

It was another yet another dismal performance in a rapidly disintegrating season that coach Scottie Montgomery summed up with just one single word.


“The hurtful thing about it is that schematically we put some guys in position to be able to make plays,” the second-year coach said. “They were there to make plays and didn’t make some of those plays.”

As ugly as things got as the game wore on and the stands began to empty, the day actually got off to a promising start for the Pirates.

With Gardner Minshew starting at quarterback in place of a still-concussed Thomas Sirk, ECU roared down the field on the game’s opening possession and scored on a 9-yard pass to Davon Grayson. Then, after Tech answered back with a touchdown of its own, another receiver that missed all last season got his chance to shine as Trevon Brown hauled in a dart from Minshew and beat everyone to the end zone from 76 yards out.

Brown’s second long touchdown catch in as many weeks — he had a school-record 95-yarder at West Virginia — combined with a Jake Verity field goal on the next possession gave the Pirates a 17-7 lead after one period.

Then the bottom dropped out.

ECU (0-3) gained 213 yards and scored three times on its first 19 plays. On the 42 snaps that followed over the next three quarters they managed just 68 yards and never got closer to putting more points on the board than a 47-yard field goal attempt that was tipped at the line by a Virginia Tech player.

“We stopped executing and dug ourselves a hole,” said Minshew, who went 11 of 30 for 241 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. “We were right there. It’s our own fault. We kind of got out of it and took ourselves out of the game basically.”

Montgomery attributed his team’s lack of offensive success over the final 45 minutes to the adjustments made by Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster and said the inability to sustain drives and put more points on the board was just as much to blame for the lopsided score as his much-maligned defense.

And he’s right.

But that defense …

Despite the changes made over the past week and promises that his players would have a better idea of what they were doing under Prunty than they did with Thompson, a Tech team (3-0) that was limited to 81 yards by Delaware last week was able to pound out 287 on the ground Saturday. And there seemed to be an open Hokie on every passing attempt — none more so than Cam Phillips, who caught a career-high 14 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns.

“We just didn’t turn and look for the ball enough for me,” Montgomery said. “I thought we panicked. (Defensive backs) coach Brandon Lynch does a really good job in practice of getting their eyes to the ball. But when you’re coach is not out there you’ve got to make a play and do your job.”

That hasn’t happened a lot so far this season.

“A few missed tackles and a few missed assignments,” linebacker Jordan Williams said when asked to sum up his team’s problems. “That’s what’s going to happen, big plays. They’re going to expose you.”

Williams said the problems that continue to plague the Pirates are fixable, but that will have to happen in a hurry. Thanks to a change in the American Athletic Conference schedule brought about by Hurricane Irma, next week’s expected bye week has been replaced by a conference opener at UConn — an opponent that may represent ECU’s best chance at a win.

“I know our players will respond,” Montgomery said. “Tonight we were closer to them, but at the end of the day it’s still the same outcome.”