Countdown to Kickoff: Tulsa

ECU (7-3, 4-2 AAC) closes its road slate against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane (2-9, 2-5 AAC) Friday night at 8:30 p.m. inside H.A. Chapman Stadium.

Following a 34-6 victory against Tulane, the Pirates (7-3, 4-2 American Athletic Conference) crammed a week’s worth of preparation into six days; marking the first time they have had a shortened game week despite having already appeared in two Thursday night matchups this season.

East Carolina and Tulsa (2-9, 2-5 AAC) have been pitted against each other 11 times — ECU has won the last four meetings to lead the series 6-5 — which includes the Pirates’ 58-24 rout of the Golden Hurricane in Greenville last year.

Fifth-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill always speaks about organizing seasons into four quarters and he described last weekend’s win, which came on the heels of the program’s first set of back-to-back losses in three years, as the perfect start to the fourth quarter of the 2014 campaign.

“I thought that game was a visual of our resiliency for a team that had two setbacks, two tough losses. To come back and play as they did, I was so proud of them and our coaches,” said McNeill. “We have another game this week and we knew we had this 13-day, three-game stretch, and we’ve adjusted our schedule accordingly.

Rather than holding a normal Sunday practice to begin installing preparation for their next opponent, ECU players had the day off. The coaches, however, spent Sunday quickly putting together a game plan for the next three days of practice. The Pirates spent Thanksgiving as a team before chartering out to Tulsa Thursday evening.

“It’s hard on the coaches and their families,” offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said of the short week. “We’ve given them some days off; we’ve geared the whole schedule to finishing this thing strong and we’re counting on that to pay dividends.”

However, not everybody is looking at the short week as a negative.

I kind of like it,” ECU’s senior quarterback Shane Carden added. “Really this whole season, we’ve gone either from a Thursday night and then waited to the next Saturday or then gone from a game and had a bye week and some time. It’s just kind of nice. We’re over this game ... and we’re focused on a new opponent.”

Friday’s matchup will feature the American Conference’s two most prolific quarterback-receiver duos. ECU seniors Carden and Justin Hardy, who just set the NCAA’s FBS record for receptions (355), lead the league in average passing yards (357.4), receptions (8.9) and receiving yards (110.6) per game respectively.

Sophomore Keevan Lucas is second to Hardy by a narrow margin in both receiving categories — averaging 8.6 receptions and 103.1 receiving yards per game — and leads the AAC with 11 touchdowns catches. Lucas’ classmate Dane Evans ranks third in the conference in passing (263.9 yards per game) with 22 touchdowns, but has thrown 15 interceptions.

“They have the same scheme as they had two years ago when they were really explosive,” McNeill said. “Dane is gaining command of the offense. The more reps those guys get, the more the game slows down for them. When you’re young it speeds up, but now it’s slowing down. It will be a tough task for our defense.”

On paper, the mismatch lies in the matchup between ECU’s top-ranked offense against the struggling Tulsa defense, which ranks 10th out of 11 AAC schools in total defense.

Defensive end Derrick Alexander leads the team in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (11.0). Meanwhile, safety Michael Mudoh has amassed a team-best 106 tackles, which is tied for third in the conference — trailing only Houston’s Efrem Olphrant and ECU’s Zeek Bigger.

There will be plenty of emotion for the hosting Golden Hurricane as Friday marks the team’s “Senior Night.” Prior to kickoff, Tulsa will recognize 12 seniors, who will be playing their last home game H.A. Chapman Stadium.

Television: ESPNU (Eamon McAnaney, Dan Hawkins), Radio: Pirate IMG Sports Network (Jeff Charles, Kevin Monroe, Marty Feurer) Kickoff time: 8:30 p.m.

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