The game ended a well-documented four-and-a-half months of anticipation for much of the Hokie Nation, as it marked arguably the biggest step in a return to normalcy for the Virginia Tech community since the campus tragedy of April 16. The buildup to kickoff included an emotional and touching ceremony to all the victims from that fateful day, but once Tech's Jared Develli booted the opening kickoff for a touchback, the Hokies were back in business.
"I'd have to say yes," Tech head coach Frank Beamer said in regards to whether Saturday's game felt different than any in years past. "I thought our fans and the Hokie Nation did their part, and we tried. Our players played hard, and though sometimes we didn't play really well, I thought it was a great atmosphere in there."
Wheeler gathered seven receptions for 81 yards - both career highs - and scored the insurance touchdown for the Hokies early in the fourth quarter on a 21-yard reception from quarterback Sean Glennon. The redshirt junior signal caller finished the day 22-of-33 for 245 yards after overcoming an interception on his first play of the game, and Wheeler seemed to be his security blanket when ECU's front seven applied pressure.
"Anybody can be the man in any game and have the opportunity to make catches," Wheeler said. "I wasn't expecting to come out with those stats. I was just trying to get out there and play hard, help the offensive line get good protection for our quarterback, and try to open up the field a little bit for our receivers. It was such an emotional state out there on the field. It's a great feeling to come out with a victory."
Harris scored on a 17-yard interception return in the third quarter to headline the Hokies' defensive effort. Three players recorded double-digit tackles for Tech, as Vince Hall captured 13, and Xavier Adibi and Brandon Flowers each contributed 10. Additionally, Kam Chancellor (six) and Cam Martin (five) combined for 11 stops as each made their first-career starts. Although Tech held ECU to just seven points, the Pirates did rack up 261 yards of total offense, and Adibi stressed that the defense is far from satisfied with its effort.
"We're not happy with the way we performed," he said. "They had a lot of yards on us, so we're going to watch film on Monday and get better."
The Hokies got on the board first with 4:26 remaining in the first quarter when senior placekicker Jud Dunlevy drilled his first collegiate field goal attempt through the uprights to give Tech a 3-0 lead. The 25-yard line drive capped off a six-minute drive that saw Glennon complete passes to four different receivers, including a 37-yard toss to senior Josh Hyman to the East Carolina 4-yard line.
The Pirates claimed the lead just 37 seconds into the second quarter, however, when ECU running back Chris Johnson plunged into the end zone from two yards out. The drive began with 2:37 left in the first, when Tech running back Branden Ore fumbled at the ECU 48-yard line. ECU cornerback Jerek Hewett covered it up, and nine plays later, Ben Hartman's PAT attempt was true to put ECU up 7-3.
The Pirates' defense held strong for the rest of the half, limiting Tech to just six yards rushing. ECU's defense held so strong in fact, that Tech called upon its own defense to account for the Hokies' first touchdown of the season.
After Tech downed a Brent Bowden punt on the ECU 2-yard line, Harris picked off Brett Clay's second-down pass at the 17 from his cornerback spot, and returned it all the way to the end-zone with a dive to the pylon that resulted in his second-career score.
"Whenever I get to touch the ball, I'm thinking end zone," Harris said. "And I'm pretty sure everyone our team is thinking the same way - that's our mentality. We're not trying to be average and we're not trying to be good - we're trying to be great. Whenever we have an opportunity like that, we're going to make the best of it."
Harris returned an interception 72 yards last year against Cincinnati, and is now the 25th player under head coach Frank Beamer to record at least two career touchdowns on defense or special teams. It was the 70th defensive touchdown under Beamer, and following Dunlevy's PAT, Tech took a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
The score remained the same throughout the third quarter and into the fourth until Glennon lofted the game-sealer to Wheeler in the corner of the end zone with 13:07 on the clock. It capped a seven-play, 48-yard drive in which Ore collected 14 yards rushing, and Dunlevy converted the PAT to remain perfect on the day.
ECU mustered a strong defensive effort behind linebacker Quentin Cotton, who tallied a career and game-high 14 tackles, including two for a loss and a forced fumble. Though Ore eventually accumulated 70 yards rushing on the day, the Pirates limited Tech's ground total to 33 thanks to four sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Beamer admitted he is concerned about the lack of production from the running game, but he seemed confident that it could be remedied.
"I give East Carolina credit - they did a good job," he said. "We certainly need to look at what we did and why it wasn't successful, but I think it's one of those times that you look at, learn from, and get better. I don't question anyone's effort - I don't think effort is going to be an issue. We just need to look at it and see where we go from here."
Other notables for Tech included split ends Justin Harper, who chipped in 64 receiving yards on a career-best five receptions, and Josh Morgan, who caught four passes for 40 yards. Also, with 63 yards on punt returns, flanker Eddie Royal became Tech's all-time leader in the category with 904 yards. He passed Andre Davis, who had 872 yards when he played from 1998-2001.
"I think everybody was eager to get this game in," Beamer concluded. "Thank goodness we were able to win it over a very good football team, but now it's time to learn from it and be better next week.
Tech will now prepare for a visit to Baton Rouge, La., where they will take on No. 2 LSU at 9:15 p.m. EST on Sept. 8.