The PA announcer at East Carolina's Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium proclaimed the crowd to be 50,414, the program's 11th sellout since 2010. And even though a few thousand had taken shelter in their cars and tailgate tents to avoid the rain and wind by the second half, the stadium was still loud, proud, and packed with purple and gold.
You wouldn't know from looking that ECU had just been pounded at Navy, 45-21, to fall to 1-2 or that ECU's starting QB had been lost to a season-ending injury before the first game. Home to one of the most successful non-power programs over the last few years, Greenville is always a dangerous place to play, even if the Pirates are wounded.
And yet, Virginia Tech was here anyway.
Two quick Pirate turnovers inside their own territory led to the Hokies grabbing a 14-0 lead, and it looked like this series could have a rare blowout. Backup ECU QB Blake Kemp found a rhythm, attacking a Virginia Tech secondary missing star cornerback Kendall Fuller. The Pirates switched to former WR James Summers under center, to provide a more electric look. Summers ran for 169 yards and two scores as ECU scored 28 consecutive points.
The Hokies attempted a comeback, but Brenden Motley was unable to drive in the rain, and a Hail Mary fell to the turf. ECU sprung the upset, 35-28, as the crowd roared and the Pirates hoisted their black helmets in celebration.
ECU has now won five consecutive games against the ACC.
This isn't a new scene for Virginia Tech. The Pirates grabbed a big lead and hung on for an upset in Blacksburg last season, 28-21, and this game has been decided by a score for four consecutive years. For Virginia Tech fans who are tired of the Pirates, a reprieve isn't coming any time soon. The two are scheduled to play every season but one until 2026.
Conference realignment has left a wake of scheduling quirks, and few teams have felt them as profoundly as East Carolina. After floating around FBS as an independent, the Pirates joined Conference USA for 1997. C-USA added Army in 1998 and TCU in 2001, but both left in 2005, along with Cincinnati, Louisville and others who split for the Big East. As the ACC-raided Big East disintegrated into what would become the American, ECU joined in 2014.
ECU fans struggle to think of out-of-state rivals, simply because they haven't played their current opponents enough to really hate anybody yet. ECU has only played UConn once ever. But ECU has played Virginia Tech 20 times, more than it's played all but four other teams, only one of which (Memphis) is in the AAC.
Realignment has tweaked Virginia Tech's schedule as well. Tech left the Big East for the evolving ACC in 2004. Virginia and Miami remain on the schedule, but West Virginia's place on VT's list of rivals might've been replaced by Georgia Tech (the WVU-VT Black Diamond Trophy will be at stake in three games by 2022, at least).
But the ACC's eight-game schedule and fixed cross-division games mean Tech sees many conference rivals infrequently. The Hokies last played the Seminoles in 2012 and won't see them again until 2018. They will have played East Carolina six times during that span.
Virginia Tech leads the ECU series, 13-7. The two have never played in the same conference and aren't *that* close, roughly 300 miles apart. This regular game between a power team and a non-power team in different states is one of the most unique series in college football.
Typically, that kind of familiarity breeds contempt. Is this a real rivalry? If it is, ECU isn't embracing it. Or at least, not in public.
When asked if his program considers Virginia Tech a rival, ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill wouldn't take the bait.
"They're competitors. I've said this publicly: I would like our program to be like theirs. That's a program that wins, and I have that much respect for how Coach Beamer runs his program. And I've known Coach Beamer for a long time. I've known him since the OVC days. I really respect him. He's a Hall of Famer, and I'm a peon."
Multiple tailgating ECU fans said the same thing. They don't hate Virginia Tech; they want to be Virginia Tech. Both have managed to win in rural areas. They're unpretentious, passionate fanbases led by similar coaches. If Tech can overcome geography and become a consistent program, why not ECU?
Many Tech fans at the game said ECU could pass for Virginia Tech 25 years ago, before Michael Vick and the five BCS bowl trips.
"It's a rivalry, even if some people don't want to admit it," said Tech fan John Schneider, who writes for the SB Nation VT site Gobbler Country. "There's no ill feelings, and ECU is a great measuring stick game. They're no cupcake. You have to be ready to play them."
Joe Lanza, who runs the popular Virginia Tech site The Key Play, agrees: "I don't think our fans hate East Carolina fans. ECU isn't a team that I root against. I'll root for them to pull an upset if they're not playing Virginia Tech, just because their program is similar to Tech in a bunch of different ways."
Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer shares that respect. In his press conference last week, Beamer said, "They're a quality program. I think we're close enough to them that they bring people here, we take people there, so that part is good."
Cheaper than buying a new shirt! pic.twitter.com/Emg8ZxkIwQ— Matt Brown (@MattSBN) September 26, 2015
Both have heavy alumni bases in the Virginia Beach area. Divided tailgates and mixed ECU/VT families weren't uncommon on Saturday. Despite a few wins on the field in recent memory, ECU doesn't exactly pose an existential threat to Virginia Tech. Both share similar recruiting territories, but ECU beating Virginia Tech to a recruit is rare.
And these fans can bond over a mutual dislike of the teams ECU considers its true rivals: NC State and North Carolina. The Pirates are slated to face NC State three times over the next decade (including twice in Greenville), and the Tar Heels just once, in 2018. The in-state schools could be forgiven for being reluctant to play the Pirates. ECU has a two-game winning streak on both.
Of course, ECU has a two-game streak on Tech now, too. So why do the Hokies keep playing ECU?
"Scheduling, it's just not as easy as 'OK, let's go schedule so-and-so.' So-and-so's gotta want to play Virginia Tech," Beamer said. "So I think when you find two teams that, it's beneficial in some ways for us, beneficial in some ways for them, I think you try to get as many games as you can. I think that's what [former AD] Jim Weaver did. To me, it's got a lot of pluses.
"The minus for us is they're just a tough team to beat. The way they've been able to do things, the way they can throw the ball. The way they did it last year, the way they can this year. It makes them a dangerous team."
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"I think the majority of our fans are like, 'Why are we playing this game every year?'" Lanza said. "I like the game, but I don't want it to be an annual thing. It's fun to have a regional team that's pretty good that we can play out of conference, but from a strictly logic standpoint, I think we have to look at this and go, what does Virginia Tech get out of it?"
"VT gets a little bit of a recruiting bump. I think Tech wants to be able to recruit North Carolina, and by playing ECU every year, they'll be able to tell kids that, 'Hey, we'll be playing a game in your home state, at least every other year, and more than likely, every year, thanks to North Carolina, Wake Forest and NC State.'
"The bad point is, what do you have to gain? If you're VT, and you beat East Carolina, that's sort of expected. If you lose to ECU, like Tech has done recently, it's like, 'How the heck did they lose to East Carolina?'"
It's that kind of thinking that can make scheduling difficult for any non-power program that elevates itself above cupcake level. ECU has done an admirable job of assembling difficult future schedules. The team travels this year to begin a home-and-home with BYU and has a four-game series scheduled with South Carolina and a home-and-home with West Virginia. That plus in-state games gives the Pirates a strong regional slate, to go along with what is becoming a difficult American.
ECU will have plenty of chances in the future to further its argument that it's on its way to achieving Hokie-esque success. Maybe it'll have the Hokies to thank, who have made several trips to Greenville when they didn't really have to.
McNeil added after the game, "I appreciate the fact that Coach Beamer continues to play us."