Pirates set for Florida rematch

GREENVILLE, N.C. — A Birmingham Bowl rematch with the Florida Gators stands in the way of ECU getting off to a 2-0 start. Can the Pirates drown out the noise of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium or will they crumble under the pressure?

East Carolina’s record-setting senior class was ushered out of the college ranks with a 28-20 loss to Florida in the Birmingham Bowl last season. Now, the Pirates will look to their replacements to reverse the fortunes and come out of Gainesville with a surprising victory.

NEW SEASON, NEW TEAMS

Two games separate the teams from their last meeting — ECU’s 28-20 win over Towson and Florida’s 61-13 thrashing of New Mexico State — but the offseason that intervened proved significant as both teams are drastically different than the ones that clashed in Birmingham.

ECU, of course, lost offensive mastermind Lincoln Riley to Oklahoma and record-setting seniors Shane Carden and Justin Hardy to the pro rankings. The trio memorably went down swinging in their final play, with Carden throwing a game-ending interception to Hardy in the end zone.

“Everyone is excited,” senior cornerback Josh Hawkins said. “I’m excited to go up against these great receivers. The defense is excited because it’s going to be some great competition. They’re going to play hard and bring their best. The last time they beat us and we can’t let that happen again this year.”

The Will Muschamp era in Florida came to an ugly end last season and former Colorado State head coach and Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has since headed the program. McElwain was always seen as a key component behind the Alabama offense that helped propel the team to multiple national championships.

His return to the Southeastern Conference is partly due to Muschamp’s perceived inability to get the most out of his talented, highly-rated players. McElwain inherits a cabinet full of impressive players, and the quarterback position that was a huge question mark for the Gators last season was proven to be a strength in the first game of the season.

QUARTERBACK: A KNOWN UNKNOWN

Sophomore Treon Harris and redshirt frehman Will Grier impressed in the season-opener. Combined, the duo finished 31-of-38 with 384 yards and four touchdowns through the air. The workload was split evenly with the signal callers attempting 19 and 18 passes respectively. Harris completed 14 of his 19 attempts and passed for 215 yards of his own.

McElwain confirmed that both quarterbacks will see time behind center during the contest, creating some uncertainty for the ECU defense. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, both signal callers have a similar, dual-threat skill set. The plus is that the Pirates won’t be facing different play styles but the option has been a problem in the past for ECU.

“I think Treon is mobile and Will is mobile as well,” head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We offered Will (a scholarship) out of high school, so we know he’s a good player.”

PLAYING WITH THE BIG BOYS

ECU has unabashedly scheduled some of the toughest non-conference opponents since McNeill’s arrival and SEC schools have become a prime focus for the program. The Pirates proved they could compete with top-tier competition when they played South Carolina tough last year and narrowly lost to the Gators in the Birmingham Bowl.

Now, though, close losses aren’t badges of honor for the team. McNeill declares the sentiment and his players echo it. Experience, however, will be leaned on heavily and if the Pirates were to pull of the upset, a lot would seemingly have to go right.

“It’s an SEC team,” McNeill said. “They’ll be very talented. They have a lot of NFL guys on that team. We know that. They have a great staff. Any experience you go through helps. You have to back it up and you can’t get lost.”

Part of traveling to some of the most hostile environments involves dealing with crowd noise. 88,548 mostly blue and orange clad fans will likely be creating as much noise as possible when ECU’s offense, lead by inexperienced junior Blake Kemp, takes the field.

Kemp noted that the opener against Towson was the largest crowd he’s ever played against but with his second start coming in one of the most recognizable venues in the nation the junior lefty has reached out to former players for advice.

“I talked to Shane (Carden) last week and he said once you get going it’s playing in any other game so that’s what I hope happens,” Kemp said. “He never really got rattled, he would take some huge shots and make mistakes but he always got back up.”

OPENING THE PLAYBOOK

Dave Nichol’s playbook against Towson was mostly conservative with short, quick passes to athletic receivers and a steady diet of carries for senior back Chris Hairston. Florida isn’t Towson. The Gators boast an SEC-level front and the athletes on the outside, headed by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will put extra pressure on receivers creating separation and finding soft sports in Florida’s 4-2-5 defensive alignment.

Nichol has stated that every week the offense forms a new identity with the game plan mostly dictated on opposing schemes and personnel. That’s no surprise, but the first-year offensive coordinator mentioned that a lot of what will happen in Florida will revolve around Kemp and the quarterback position.

“It’s every week, every year,” said Nichol. “We had different calls each week for different guys and every player is like that. Our offense evolves with the (quarterbacks). We’ll run our offense and it’ll maybe look the same to the naked eye but it changes depending on who you’re playing.”


Inside ECU Sports Top Stories