Four Downs: ECU-NCCU

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Josh Graham provides the top four storylines from ECU’s 52-7 win against North Carolina Central Saturday.

East Carolina rolled to a 52-7 victory in its season opener against North Carolina Central Saturday night. Here are my four thoughts on the game in a week one edition of four downs:

First Down: Defense steals the show

Most of the talking points surrounding the Pirates this offseason were centered on Shane Carden, Justin Hardy and ECU’s high octane, pass-happy offense. However, it was second-year defensive coordinator Rick Smith’s defense that stood out against NCCU Saturday night. The Eagles’ lone score of the night was a result of a miscue by ECU tailback Breon Allen, whose fumble in the first quarter was scooped up by C.J. Moore and returned for the game’s opening touchdown. But from that point on, the Pirates’ defense slammed the door shut on NCCU — with several bone-rattling hits along the way — and didn’t allow the visitors another score for the rest of the game. In fact, the Eagles could only muster 174 yards Saturday and did not advance any further than ECU’s 37 yard-line.

Junior linebacker Zeek Bigger, who had a game-high 11 tackles, spoke about the swagger the defense aspires to play, saying, “We’re the Pirates. We come out here and we play hard. And we’re going to hit you in the mouth — you want some, come get some — that’s how we do it. Every game, any day, any place that’s what we’re going to have and that’s what we’re going to bring.”

Second Down: First-team offense recovers from slow start

Rather than coming out of the gate as a well-oiled machine, the Pirates’ offense instead appeared rusty and got off to a disastrous start against NCCU. After passing on the first six plays of the night, Allen received the team’s first carry and put the ball on the ground (resulting in the aforementioned NCCU touchdown). It wasn’t until offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley called a trick play — a perfectly executed 41-yard touchdown pass from Hardy to Isaiah Jones — that ECU began to find any kind of a groove offensively. Soon later, Hardy became the school’s all-time leader in receptions (274) on his way to a seven catches and two first-half touchdowns. Meanwhile, Jones hauled in a career-high 10 catches for 150 yards. Although the offense didn’t quite reach its goal of running 100 plays Saturday, they still managed 582 yards on 74 plays.

“Running into a team that had a new defensive coordinator and that we didn’t have a lot of film of, we didn’t really know exactly what they were going to do,” Carden said. “I think once everyone else just started settled in, I think we did a good job.”

Third Down: Freshmen step in, make immediate contributions.

Several freshmen turned in great performances in their collegiate debuts at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Highlighting the group were true freshmen Anthony Scott and Trevon Brown, who each found the end zone against the Eagles. Scott rushed for 61 yards on seven carries — including a 38-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter — for an average of 8.7 yards per rush. Brown got behind the defense for his only a catch of the night: a 17-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Red-shirt freshman quarterback Kurt Benkert saw his first game action and had some success as well. Despite throwing one interception, Benkert was 6-for-8 on his passes for 50 yards and scored on a 9-yard quarterback keeper to close Saturday’s scoring.

“I believe in playing them. They came here for a reason and I’ve always believed that. It’s simple, when you’re ready to play, we’re going to put you in there and give you a chance and I think they’ve done a good job stepping up,” said Head Coach Ruffin McNeill.

Fourth Down: Looking ahead to South Carolina

Now that the Pirates have taken care of business against an opponent they were clearly superior to, their focus can finally shift to Steve Spurrier and the South Carolina Gamecocks next weekend in Columbia. The Gamecocks are two nights removed from being embarrassed at home against Texas A&M and will be looking to take out all of their frustration on the Pirates. The last time the two sides met, South Carolina rolled over ECU on its way to a decisive 48-10 victory at Williams-Brice Stadium.

“I’m very excited. I can’t wait to play them,” Bigger said. “It’s another game on our schedule. They’re standing in our way, so we feel like we’ve got to do something about that, so we will.”

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