Countdown to Kickoff: SMU

GREENVILLE, N.C. — No. 22 ECU (3-1) welcomes winless SMU (0-4) to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the Pirates' inaugural conference game as a member of the American Athletic Conference.

No. 22 East Carolina will begin a new era of football when it hosts Southern Methodist Saturday afternoon at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The schools’ fifth all-time meeting marks ECU's first ever American Athletic Conference game and closes a long and at-times frustrating process for the Pirates to get into the league.

Former ECU Director of Athletics Terry Holland had spent years lobbying to get into the Big East — which is now the one-year old American Conference — but, for a long period of time, it was to no avail.

It wasn’t until league commissioner Mike Aresco added ECU as a football-exclusive member in November 2012 that the Pirates would finally get their foot in the door. Then in March 2013, Rutgers and Louisville announced their moves to the Big 10 and Atlantic Coast Conference respectively, forcing Aresco to act. Shortly after, Holland’s phone rang again and it was an invitation for full membership to the conference.

Although the American is not the same league the Pirates worked so hard to be a part of — and doesn’t even own the same name — Saturday’s game still holds a considerable amount of importance for fifth-year coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff.

“It’s a historical moment for East Carolina University and our program,” McNeill said. “I know our fans will come out and support that. It’s a move that has been in the making for a lot of years.”

The Pirates’ (3-1) opponent Saturday is SMU (0-4), who has struggled mightily in the first month of the season. Two games into his seventh season with the Mustangs, Head Coach June Jones resigned, which forced defensive coordinator Tom Mason to step into the interim head coach position.

Statistically speaking, it’s hard to imagine things transpiring much worse for the Mustangs than they did in their first four games. SMU has been outscored 202-12 by opponents this season after getting shut out, 56-0, at home by in-state opponent TCU. However, ECU senior quarterback Shane Carden said the Mustangs’ defense is not as bad as the statistics might reflect.

“Honestly, their defense has been put in some bad situations,” Carden told Inside ECU Sports. “That’s what I noticed … that they were putting them on some short fields and they are a good group. I don’t think all the stats give them credit for the way they have been playing.”

It also doesn’t help that SMU has faced two of the nation’s top offenses in Texas A&M and Baylor, which both run high-octane, spread offenses that mirror ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s “Air-Raid” offense.

“We’ve got good tape and we’ve been able to see what they are going to do,” Riley said. “They shut down A&M the first two drives and had some momentum, but they’ve just had some things not go their way and have had a tough time turning it around.”

As for what the tape revealed, Carden said the key for success is to “just spread the ball around. There haven’t been a lot of turnovers. Most of the quarterbacks have been pretty good about not turning over the ball.”

SMU has played four quarterbacks this season, but ECU coaches have said they are preparing for junior Garrett Krstich to lead the Mustangs’ offense onto the field Saturday. Krstich has yet to throw a touchdown — SMU has just one touchdown collectively through four games — but leads the team in pass attempts (81) and yards (279). ECU second-year defensive coordinator Rick Smith said he is expecting transfer quarterback Matt Davis, who at one time was at Texas A&M backing up Johnny Manziel, to be a more multi-faceted option for the Mustangs and appear in special packages.

The most alarming number on SMU’s stat sheet is the 30 sacks surrendered by the offensive line, which will likely start a freshman and two sophomores. The Mustangs’ leading rusher is senior Kevin Pope with 101 yards on 30 rushes (3.4 yards per carry)

SMU has won the last two meetings with ECU, dating back to when both teams were members of Conference USA. The Pirates’ last victory in the series was in 2006 (Oct 21, 38-21 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium). Saturday also marks ECU’s first game as a ranked team in eight years when it rose as high as No. 14 in the national polls.

Sophomore wide receiver Jimmy Williams was the lone concern on ECU’s injury report in the 70-41 thumping of North Carolina two weeks ago. After an open date, Williams was listed as probable with a left-ankle injury and is expected to play.

Television: ESPNU (Adam Amin, John Congemi), Radio: Pirate IMG Sports Network (Jeff Charles, Kevin Monroe, Marty Feurer), Kickoff time: Noon.

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