Countdown to Kickoff: UConn

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU (5-1, 2-0 AAC) returns home to face UConn (1-5, 0-3 AAC) for a Thursday night matchup at 7 p.m.

Under the lights at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the East Carolina football team will host Connecticut in a nationally televised showdown Thursday night. It will be the first ever meeting in football between the 18th ranked Pirates (5-1, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) and Huskies (1-5, 0-3 AAC).

After moving up in the AP Poll each of the last two weeks, ECU stayed put during its open date following a 28-17 victory at South Florida on Oct. 11.

“The open week was good for us. It was a good break,” fifth-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We got the chance to (take care) of guys with nicks and bruises, keep the majority of our older repetition guys sharp and then get the guys we’re counting on in backup roles some extra reps.”

Also idle last week, UConn is still seeking its first win against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent — its lone victory was against Stony Brook, 19-16, on Sep. 6 — and to snap a four-game losing streak.

Although the Huskies’ struggles this season are well documented, their defense is ranked second in the American and 20th nationally. First-year UConn coach Bob Diaco has a decorated defensive background that most recently includes a four-year stint as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, where he won the Frank Broyles Award for the nation’s best assistant coach.

The Huskies have had major shortfalls on offense. As a team, they average 77.7 rushing yards per game — with just one rushing touchdown this season — and red-shirt senior quarterback Chandler Whitmer has five touchdowns to three interceptions in 2014 with 142.7 passing yards per game.

Whitmer’s go-to target is junior wide receiver Geremy Davis, who has receptions in 32 consecutive games. The 6-foot-3, 216-pound Davis leads the Huskies by a wide margin in catches (33), receiving yards (431) and touchdowns (3).

The Pirates’ biggest struggles this year has been self-imposed. ECU is tied for 96th in the nation in penalties — averaging 83.5 penalty yards per game — and was most recently flagged 12 times for 148 yards against South Florida, which included seven 15-yard personal fouls.

“We talked about it,” said McNeill addressing the Pirates’ penalty situation. “We pride ourselves on being penalty-free. We require discipline off the field, such as classroom discipline, and expect it to carry over onto the field, too.”

The Pirates are expected to wear their all-black uniforms Thursday in conjunction with the “Black Out” promotion the school has put on. ECU is 7-0 wearing the all-blacks — 2-0 this year — since they were introduced for a Thursday night game against Florida Atlantic last season.

And with the success, a swagger amongst the Pirates has been created in association with the uniforms.

“We know we don’t lose in the black jerseys because when we put on the black jerseys, we got to play another team, but we’re also going to a funeral,” junior cornerback Josh Hawkins said. “It’s a killer instinct when we put them on.”

Hawkins has four of ECU’s six interceptions this season, which prompted second-year defensive coordinator Rick Smith to challenge the other defensive backs.

“I told them today that it’s not against the law for you all to get an interception,” Smith said at the Cliff Moore Practice Complex earlier in the week. “I keep them after practice every day if they don’t get at least three picks at practice and I run them.”

The Pirates are 5-1 under McNeill following a bye week and 8-13 in Thursday night games since 2005. ECU’s meeting with UConn marks the first of its three Thursday night games this season.

ECU freshmen reserves Demage Bailey and Cody Purdie will miss the game with right knee and right wrist injuries respectively.

Television: ESPNU (Anish Shroff, Kelly Stouffer), Radio: Pirate IMG Sports Network (Jeff Charles, Kevin Monroe, Marty Feurer), Kickoff time: 7 p.m.

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