In No. 18 East Carolina’s win 28-17 over American Athletic Conference opponent South Florida, the Pirates demonstrated a near-perfect balance in passing and rushing. ECU passed for 250 yards, ran for 231 yards and all four touchdowns were accounted for by running backs.
That isn’t something that’s many expect from offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s system. When ECU fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill brought him over from Texas Tech, he came with the spread “Air Raid” offense that has proven deadly over the past few seasons.
While working as a receivers coach at Texas Tech under head coach Mike Leach, Riley was charged with the development of record-breaking receiver Michael Crabtree. As a freshman, Crabtree won the Biletnikoff Award.
What separates Riley’s work at Texas Tech from his work in Greenville is the continuing emergence of the running game. He’s always had weapons in the air—from Lance Lewis and Dwayne Harris in the past to Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones today.
His scheme also allowed for running back Vintavious Cooper to find plenty of success. Cooper had consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons in 2012 and 2013. He used the ground offense as a way to open up the passing game. Since Cooper burst onto the scene, though, the running game has evolved as its own threat.
And Riley has continued to make the run game a threat without Cooper. The Pirates now feature a running back by committee approach. Senior Breon Allen gets the majority of carries, but Riley also rotates in junior Chris Hairston and freshmen Anthony Scott and Marquez Grayson. The four have combined for 1,041 yards at the halfway mark of the season.
The Pirates only had 1,309 net rushing yards in 2011—before Riley had Cooper in the backfield. That number consistently increased over the next two seasons with Cooper as ECU rushed for 1,760 in 2012 and 1,821 in 2013. Those two season allowed Riley to continually incorporate running backs into his spread offense.
ECU’s record-setting performance versus North Carolina, in which the offense amassed 789 yards of total offense, the Pirates ran for 343 yards. It was quite the coming out party for the run game that was without a true go-to running back like it had with Cooper.
The running back corps continued to build on that. ECU’s conference showdown with USF was arguably a more impressive showcase of the running game. The Pirates ran the ball on 37 of their 71 plays and averaged 6.2 yards a carry. Allen rushed for a touchdown and made a 35-yard reception for a score, while Grayson and Scott rushed for the other two.
Individually, Allen is on pace to give ECU a 1,000-yard rusher for the third season in a row. As a group, the running backs are also on pace to demonstrate Riley’s growing use of the run game. Should they continue, the Pirate rushers will finish north of the 2,000-yard mark.
For a coordinator known for his use of the passing game, Riley has consistently helped produce more and more balanced offenses under McNeill at ECU than he did under Leach at Texas Tech.