MORGANTOWN — When WVU coach Dana Holgorsen speaks of the Mountaineers’ noon home opening visitor, he gets nostalgic.
“It’s a funny deal,” Holgorsen said. “Coach [Scottie] Montgomery has been there going on his second year. But my experience with ECU goes back to Skip Holtz when I was at Houston. We had some wars back when West Virginia was playing and having wars with East Carolina. They’ve been known to take out Power 5 schools left and right.”
The Pirates even took out North Carolina State last season, moving to 2-0 at that point. For the most part, though, ECU’s “wars” of late have ended in a ceasefire. The Pirates went 1-9 after its 2016 fast start and began this season with a 34-14 loss to FCS opponent James Madison.
“They’re in some transition now,” Holgorsen said this week.
The WVU coach attempted to point out a few ECU players, but mostly ended with “a lot of guys running around.”
“I’m trying to figure out what they’re doing on defense,” Holgorsen said.
He didn’t have any trouble, however, complimenting Montgomery, who was an NFL wide receiver that went on to coach at Duke (twice) as well as for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“He’s a really good offensive mind,” Holgorsen said. “They brought in the quarterback from Duke [Thomas Sirk] that took over in the second half last week. I think they’ve figured out their identity.
“They’ve started throwing the ball all over the place. They had 35 passing attempts in a half. That’s quite a bit. But that’s what their receivers are used to; that’s what their O-line is used to. They just had a hard time running the ball.”
As well as stopping the run. JMU rolled up 422 rushing yards and finished with 614 total yards.
“They lost quite a bit from last year’s team,” Holgorsen offered before continuing.
“Losing to James Madison, I discard that,” he said. “I mean, James Madison could beat about anyone in the country right now. Won the [FCS] national championship last year and hasn’t lost in a long time.”
Sirk, by the way, was named the new starter for ECU, replacing Gardner Minshew, after completing 21 of 35 passes for 210 yards and two interceptions.
“Sirk gave them a little bit of a spark against JMU,” said WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “On one play, [ECU] had a touchdown, but when the kid came down the corner just took the ball from him. I thought [Sirk] gave them a spark. He throws it well. And you can tell he already understands their scheme.”
ECU is expected to throw a bunch against WVU after losing its leading rusher, James Summers, to graduation. Its top returning rusher, Anthony Scott, was ruled ineligible before preseason practice. Derrell Scott, a Tennessee transfer, had 45 yards against JMU.
Montgomery is heavily relying on transfers, especially on defense. Safeties Tim Irvin, the nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Michael, and Korrin Wiggins are on the team after moving from Auburn and Clemson, respectively.
WVU’s offense, however, should have a fine day after rolling up 592 yards in a loss to Virginia Tech.
Montgomery sees high quality athletes all over the Mountaineer roster.
“Unbelievably talented team,” said the ECU coach. “Defensively, their 3-3 stack presents some problems. Offensively, Will Grier and his ability to keep plays alive and make plays down the field… I thought he did a really good job of extending plays [against Virginia Tech]. He presents problems and then they have an array of weapons on the outside.”
Montgomery said he knows Grier, whose father Chad once played quarterback at East Carolina.
Holgorsen, on the other hand, would like to avoid introducing his quarterback to any more Pirates. Against Tech, Grier was the second leading rusher with 52 yards on 11 carries.
“We need to get the ball in other people’s hands more,” Holgorsen said. “Virginia Tech was hard to run against. We forced a bunch. We adjusted and Justin [Crawford] popped a couple… We don’t want Will to carry the ball as much as he did.”
Crawford, who had 106 yards on 13 carries against Virginia Tech, is expected to have a big day.
“Excited to be at home,” Holgorsen said. “Gold Rush. I assume we’re going to get a good crowd. It should be a good day.”
The game will be televised on FS2.