Countdown to Kickoff: Tulane

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU (6-3, 3-2 AAC) will host Tulane (3-7, 2-4 AAC) Saturday afternoon at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

An essential piece of the Pirates’ identity under fifth-year football coach Ruffin McNeill is their willingness to always play with a chip on their shoulders. When East Carolina returns home to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for the first time since Oct. 23 on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., it does not have to look far to find that extra motivation.

The Pirates (6-3, 3-2 American Athletic Conference) are in desperate need of a victory after dropping back-to-back games — most recently against Cincinnati last Thursday night — for the first time since 2011.

Their opponent is the Tulane Green Wave (3-7, 2-4 AAC), who surprised ECU with a triple-overtime win on its way to a bowl appearance last season.

“We’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder, regardless (of last year’s loss),” Zeek Bigger said. “They beat us last year; they’ve got to come here. We’ve got to take care of business.”

If the loss wasn’t enough for motivation purposes, senior receiver Justin Hardy, who hauled in a career-high 17 catches in that game in the Superdome a year ago, is just four receptions away from becoming the FBS’s all-time leader in catches (Ryan Broyles, 349) after his 15 grabs against Cincinnati.

In spite of his potential milestone, Hardy was not included on the Biletnikoff Award’s list of 10 semifinalists earlier this week, which prompted McNeill to respond strongly, saying, “That’s the most idiotic thing I have ever heard in my life that they would not put that young man on there,” during his weekly news conference Monday.

Hardy, a former walk-on that was named a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Award this week, has made a career out of proving his critics wrong and will have another chance to do so again with his Biletnikoff omission.

Third-year coach Curtis Johnson’s Green Wave has struggled in 2014, especially on offense, where they haven’t gotten consistent quarterback play. Redshirt freshman Tanner Lee has been up and down this season, throwing 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in his eight starts, but is beginning to settle in as the program’s quarterback of the future.

“I think that they are comfortable now with (Lee),” said ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith. “He did a good job against Houston; where they won that game. They haven’t changed much from last year.”

Freshman Sherman Badie leads Tulane’s crowded group of running backs with 634 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Senior wide receivers Justyn Shackleford and Teddy Veal are tied for a team-high 33 receptions.

After losing one of college football’s premier placekickers, Cairo Santos, who currently plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, the Wave has struggled to find a reliable option in the kicking game. Freshman Andrew DiRocco is just 5 of 11 on field goal attempts this season.

“They have a two-back rotation at running back with Sherman Badie and Lazedrick Thompson. Lazedrick is a pounder and a powerful guy, and Sherman is a really quick redshirt freshman,” McNeill said. “The receivers are talented. Justyn Shackleford and a true freshman, Teddy Veal, are very good athletes. On special teams, they’re very athletic.”

The Wave’s real strength lies on defense — more specifically, in the secondary. Tulane’s 16 interceptions, six of which were made by redshirt freshman cornerback Parry Nickerson, are tied for sixth in the country and its 27 turnovers gained rank seventh nationally. On the other side of the field from Nickerson is standout junior cornerback Lorenzo Doss, who claimed second-team All-America honors by Sports Illustrated last year.

“They are very physical, very aggressive. Their guys get after it,” ECU sophomore receiver Isaiah Jones said of Tulane’s secondary. “Their record doesn’t really show as well as they’ve played either. I feel like we’ve played a lot of teams like that.”

Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley added, “They are one of the best defenses we’ll play all year. They remind you of Virginia Tech just in their aggression and how hard they play. They take a lot of chances and they’ve got some guys in the secondary that they really trust and are good football players.”

Saturday marks the 14th meeting between the Pirates and the Wave — ECU leads the series 10-3 — and ECU’s first game this season that will not be on national television. Two of the Pirates’ promising freshmen, defensive lineman Demage Bailey and wide receiver Trevon Brown, remain out with respective knee injuries.

Television: ESPN3, Radio: Pirate IMG Sports Network (Jeff Charles, Kevin Monroe, Marty Feurer), Kickoff time: 3:30 p.m.

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