East Carolina’s defense, while sometimes lacking consistency, has been a strength this season. The front seven has been able to successfully shut down the run game in most games, which is a primary goal. The only thing that has been lacking about the defense is its ability to force turnovers.
One of defensive coordinator Rick Smith’s goals for the defense is to force three turnovers each game. With seven games played, though, the No. 21 Pirates have only grabbed seven interceptions and recovered one fumble.
Although he’d like to see more interceptions, Smith is still happy with what he’s seen. He has his own philosophy that a trio of three and outs is the equivalent of a turnover because of field position. By that standard, ECU forced an additional turnover in the fourth quarter by forcing three consecutive three and outs from UConn.
“We would like to get at least three NCAA turnovers a game, which is a fumble or an interception,” said Smith. “We’re not doing that…Of course, when people throw the ball extremely quick, it’s hard to get turnovers.”
Conerback Josh Hawkins, who was recently named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe as the nation’s top defensive back, leads the defense with four interceptions. He picked off Virginia Tech’s Michael Brewer twice en route to a 28-21 win over the No. 17 Hokies. Even so, he’s hoping to become more of a threat in that regard.
“We’re going to leave that to the defensive line and our linebackers,” said Hawkins after Wednesday’s practice. “We’re going to hold it down on the backend. Our coaches have been telling us to stay on out wide receivers more and longer than we usually are and give our linebackers and d-line enough time to get to the quarterback.”
Temple will present ECU’s secondary with the challenge of facing a mobile quarterback. P.J. Walker has thrown for 1,469 yards and 11 touchdowns while rushing for another 147 yards and three touchdowns. He likes to get out of the pocket and make plays from there.
That’s where ECU’s defensive line and linebackers will come in. Walker has thrown nine interceptions in seven games this season, including five between Temple’s losses to Houston and Central Florida these past two weeks. So, if they can pressure Walker, either inside or outside the pocket, they can turn force some mistakes that Hawkins and company will convert to turnovers.
“We’re getting turnovers, but I don’t think it’s enough,” said linebacker Zeek Bigger. “We think we should get more turnovers. I think we should get more turnovers. That’s things we’ve been working on. Every day it's getting better and better.”
At the beginning of the second half versus North Carolina, Bigger jumped a wheel route to pick off Marquise Williams. He returned the interception 46 yards for a touchdown. He’s been watching tape to see if he can notice anything about Temple that can help him force turnovers.
“It’s a scheme thing. I’ve been seeing a lot of things,” said Bigger. “That’s why we watch film. They run a lot of plays that are similar to our offense or an offense we’ve played before. So, you know, it’s not really that hard to pick up things. The thing is you’ve got to work on it every single day.”
Bigger said that every time quarterback Shane Carden comes off the field, Bigger tells him to “get ready for another on.” The Pirates will make the trek to Philadelphia this weekend to take on the Owls on Nov. 1.