Countdown to Kickoff: USF

GREENVILLE, N.C. — No. 19 ECU (4-1, 1-0 AAC) travels to Tampa, Fla. for its first ever American Athletic Conference road game at USF (2-3, 1-0 AAC).

The East Carolina football team will be seeking its first ever win against South Florida when the two schools meet for their first ever American Athletic Conference matchup Saturday night in Tampa.

The Bulls (2-3, 1-0 AAC) claimed two of their four wins against the Pirates while they were both members of Conference USA. The last edition of the series was USF's 24-7 victory in the 2006 Papa Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.

However, according to fifth-year ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill, the Pirates' struggles in the past has no bearing on how the team prepares this week.

“They don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the past because it’s irrelevant,” McNeill said. “We can’t control what happened in the past.”

The phrase that has echoed through the halls of the 19th ranked Pirates' (4-1, 1-0 AAC) team building this week is “controlling what you control” and drowning out everything else.

One uncontrollable factor is the site of the game. Raymond James Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Buccaneers, holds more than 65,000 seats, but is expected to be mostly empty when the ball kicks off at 7 p.m. Saturday night. Last season, the Pirates had problems playing in similar down environments — losing to Tulane and winning narrowly against Middle Tennessee State — but offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley isn’t concerned much about it playing too much of a role in Tampa.

“We’ve been there. The biggest thing right now as a group is controlling what we can control,” Riley said. “Whether that’s fans in the stands or how good people are saying we are on the outside, … we’ve got to really hunker down as a group.”

USF’s last outing was a physical 27-10 loss at then-No. 19 Wisconsin on September 27, marking its fifth consecutive defeat against ranked opponents. The Bulls’ last win against a Top 25 team was at Notre Dame in 2011. When McNeill was asked twice by reporters if he expected to get USF’s best shot this week, he twice responded saying, “That’s uncontrollable.”

USF’s most lethal offensive threat has undoubtedly been freshman running back Marlon Mack. The 6-foot, 195-pound Sarasota, Fla. native leads the AAC in rushing yards, averaging 107.2 yards per game.

In the moments leading up to his first collegiate game, Mack was told by his head coach, Wille Taggert, just before kickoff that he was starting and he did not disappoint. He rushed for an AAC-record 275 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns against Western Carolina.

Mack has compensated for the Bulls’ lack of an effective passing game in the first month of the season. In five games, sophomore quarterback Mike White has completed just 40 percent of his passes, throwing two touchdowns to three interceptions.

On the defensive side of the ball, USF is tied for fifth nationally with eight forced fumbles, but ranks 80th against the run.

Saturday’s game will be a homecoming of sorts for second-year ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith, who spent the three years prior to his second tour of duty with the Pirates at USF. However, Smith says he holds no grudges for being fired after the 2012 season.

“I want to win it for us, so that we can compete for a conference championship. Hell, they fired me, but we deserved it,” Smith said. “I swear it’s just another game for me. This game doesn’t want to mean any more than SMU. It’s just another game and I want to win it somehow.”

Four of the players on USF’s defense and wide receiver Andre Davis, who is probable to play this week after missing the last five games due to injury, were signed by Smith while he was the Bulls’ defensive coordinator.

The lone addition to ECU’s injury report was freshman defensive end Demage Bailey, who will miss the game with a right knee injury. Sophomore wide receiver Jimmy Williams is listed as probable for the second straight week with a left-ankle concern after not appearing in ECU's win over SMU.

Television: ESPNU (Clay Matvick, Anthony Becht), Radio: Pirate IMG Sports Network (Jeff Charles, Kevin Monroe, Marty Feurer), Kickoff time: 7 p.m.

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