Countdown to kickoff: UAB

ECU looks to advance to 8-2 for the first time since 1998 against UAB on senior day at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

East Carolina will recognize 20 seniors when it hosts Alabama-Birmingaham Saturday afternoon at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Among them, 14 starters that still have their sights set on doing something they have yet to do during their collegiate careers: win a Conference USA Championship.

In order to do that, the Pirates (7-2, 5-1 C-USA) cannot overlook a struggling Blazers squad (2-7, 1-4 C-USA). This is not anything new for them, though. In fact, ECU has been a double-digit favorite in each of its last four games – winning and covering in three of them.

That may be true, but don't forget ECU was in a similar situation for last year's game in Birmingham, Ala. Trailing by a point, 28-27, in the fourth quarter, the Pirates had to score back-to-back touchdowns to escape 42-35 against a team that won just three games in 2012 (3-9).

Granted, that game was in front of a sparsely-populated crowd on the road, while Saturday's "Senior Day" will be inside a comfortable venue where ECU has not lost a conference game since November 5, 2011. But earlier in that season and the last time the Blazers were in Greenville, the Pirates had to overcome a school-record seven turnovers to hold on, 28-23.

With that in mind, ECU coach Ruffin McNeill has not looked past UAB and has seen the preparation from his team stay constant.

"I think (the players) will remember. Every time we've played them, here or there, it's been a dogfight," McNeill told reporters. "We know we'll catch their best shot and we have to make sure we do what we have to do, and that's get better every day during the week."

UAB is in its second season under coach Garrick McGee and enter Saturday's action on a season-worst three-game losing streak. Most recently, it lost, 56-14, to Marshall in Huntington, W. Va. last weekend.

Despite their recent struggles, the Blazers return several weapons on the offensive side of the ball. They operate with dual quarterbacks: sophomore Austin Brown and senior Jonathan Perry.

Brown, who is a conventional drop-back passer, threw for 319 yards and three touchdowns last season against ECU. Through nine games of his sophomore campaign, Brown has tossed nine touchdowns to only three interceptions.

The team's more mobile signal-caller, Perry, adds another dimension to the Blazers' offense. He averages 6.1 yards per rush, but has still passed for seven touchdowns this season.

As for their go-to targets, UAB brings back running back Darrin Reaves and wide receiver JaMarcus Nelson. Reaves has rushed for eight touchdowns and 777 yards this season, along with hauling in a pair of touchdown grabs. Meanwhile, Nelson, a 5-foot-11 junior, is a receiver that can stretch the field and has caught a team-best six touchdowns.

"We have to be prepared for two different types of quarterbacks this Saturday," said McNeill. "Darrin Reaves was a first-team all-conference running back last year… I think one of the best receivers in the league is JaMarcus Nelson. He has a lot of speed and they've been going to him a lot more."

So why has UAB struggled so mightily in 2013? Look no further than its porous defense.

The Blazers have surrendered an average of about 40 points and 216 yards per game this surrender. After Florida Atlantic amassed nearly 600 yards against UAB on Oct. 5, Reggie Johnson was demoted from defensive coordinator. Assistant head coach and inside linebackers coach Jimmy Williams replaced him.

ECU has won the last six games of the head-to-head series for an 8-4 advantage against UAB. If the Pirates were to make it seven straight on Saturday, they would be 8-2 for the first time since 1998.

Kickoff time is set for 2 p.m. and the game will be carried on WITN-TV locally in Greenville and the Pirate IMG Sports Network.

Prediction: East Carolina: 41, UAB: 20

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