First look: Towson
For the fourth straight season, East Carolina will be kicking off its football campaign with an opening game against a Football Championship Subdivision school; this time in the form of Towson. The Tigers, who actually knocked off Connecticut on their way to appearing in the FCS championship two years ago, are fresh off of a dismal season in which they won just four games and averaged just 16.1 points per game. The Sept. 5 matchup will be more than just a tune-up game for the Pirates, though. In fact, the pressure may entirely be on head coach Ruffin McNeill and ECU. A new offensive coordinator and new quarterback headline the surplus of key departures for last season’s eight-win squad. The question for the Pirates will be how quickly the offense can click before traveling to face off against Southeastern Conference opponent Florida a week later. Along with offensive coordinator Dave Nichol, expected new quarterback Kurt Benkert will also be debuting as a starter in front of the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, hoping to pick up where ECU all-time passer Shane Carden left off. Benkert, a sophomore, has attempted just 10 passes in his collegiate career but will get a chance to face a secondary that allowed 18 touchdowns through the air last season. The potent, up-tempo ECU passing attack, led by receivers Isaiah Jones and Trevon Brown should be able to exploit the underwhelming Tiger secondary and Benkert could use the opening game as a chance to seal his spot behind center. Though all eyes will likely be on Benkert and the exciting ECU offense, the Pirates can use this game as a defensive measuring stick and a chance to find replacements for some key departures from last season. With departures up front, including run stopper Terry Williams, combined with the loss of linebackers Maurice Falls and Brandon Williams, the Pirate front seven should be tested by junior running back Darius Victor. Victor proved to be the Tigers’ most effective offensive weapon, accumulating 1,356 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns while carrying the bulk of the offensive load a season ago. Victor’s nose for the end zone, proven by his 19 career touchdowns, could be Towson’s best chance of scoring points and against the partially inexperienced ECU line backing core, the Pirates may have a battle on their hands. ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith has proven the position battles are never won or lost in the first week of the season but a plethora of capable linebackers will be vying to get a head start in the race and good performances against Towson could clear the now-murky water. As important as Victor proved to be a season ago, his abilities were handicapped by the drab Tiger passing attack, which was able to muster just 131.8 yards per game. Led by rising senior Connor Frazier, who tossed just nine touchdown passes last season, the Tigers air attack will be without their top two receiving targets. Receivers Spence Wilkins and Derrick Joseph accounted for 82 receptions and 803 yards last season. They have both since graduated and leave questions to be answered at the position. The Pirates have questions of their own in the secondary, including new starters at the safety and cornerback positions, and the matchup with Towson’s inexperienced, unproductive passing attack could see position battles be decided. With the looming Sept. 12 game at Florida, the Pirates will hope to find the answers to their questions against Towson, otherwise it could prove to be a miserable time in The Swamp.
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