Cougars up next for Pirates

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU (3-2) travels to Utah for a non-conference bout with BYU (3-2) this Saturday. The teams are similar in more ways than one.

With one long trip in the books, East Carolina is just a day away from embarking on yet another, as the Pirates head out to Utah for their final non-conference matchup with Brigham Young.

The team admittedly said that the trip to Dallas, Texas last weekend was draining and defensive coordinator Rick Smith noted that the team lacked energy when it arrived back in Greenville for Sunday practice. Now, though, a long plane ride across the country serves as the first obstacle involved in beating the Cougars.

“You just tell them that we all have a job to do,” Smith said. “I’m sorry that you have a four hour plane ride and we’re not playing at 5:30 our time but I don’t schedule the game, you don’t schedule the game. We just have to line up and play as hard we can play on each play.”

Unlike last week’s opponent SMU, BYU (3-2) is one of the premier non-Power Five programs in the nation. Much like ECU, the Cougars have garnered a reputation as a team that isn’t afraid to play big programs, and often times competes. In fact, the Cougars have already faced daunting games against formidable teams Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA and Michigan, albeit with mixed results.

BYU downed Nebraska on opening day thanks to a desperation hail mary after losing starting quarterback and Heisman candidate Taysom Hill for the season. A win the following weekend against Boise State, which might as well be a P-5 team, took the team higher in the rankings. However, the injuries began to catch up with the Cougars and culminated in a shutout loss to Michigan, just a week removed from a one-point loss to UCLA.

The mixed results have produced mixed feelings when watching tape, according to Smith, Impressive wins combined with blowout losses, while trying to find its identity has put BYU as a kind of outlier in terms of footage.

“Michigan’s front four did a great job in terms of getting pressure on their quarterback,” Smith said. “Michigan runs a similar defense to us in terms of pace. They did a great job because the main job is just pressure on the quarterback. I hope we can do that too.”

Tanner Mangum, a redshirt freshman quarterback, had the unenviable task of taking over for Hill and attempting to keep the team’s national championship aspirations alive. BYU’s offense has understandably taken a hit since losing Hill but Mangum has played admirably in his place. His 60.5 completion percentage, six touchdowns and 1,084 yards speak to his play. However, the Cougars’ 24.2 points per game serves as a reminder of an offense still trying to find its rhythm with a new quarterback.

Once again drawing on similarities between the programs, BYU’s struggle to integrate a new quarterback can be sympathized with by ECU fans. The Cougars run a similar ‘Air Raid’ offense to the Pirates and ECU fans understand the challenges associated with losing a starting quarterback. Don’t feel too bad for the Cougars, however. Like the Pirates, they’ve found a way to overcome the injuries offensively, thanks in large part to the large frames of their receivers.

“They have the tallest wide receivers I’ve ever coached against in my entire life and they’re very athletic,” McNeill said. “Mitch Mathews is 6-foot-6, 215 (lbs.) and Terenn Houk is 6-foot-5-6-foot-6, 225 (lbs.). They really use those guys well. They always have big tight ends there. They’re really big and can cause matchup problems.”

Matthews and Houk are just two of the five BYU receivers with over 200 yards. Their size, as McNeill mentioned, has made them matchup nightmares. Matthews leads the bunch with his five touchdowns while receiver Mitch Juergens has two. Outside of the two Mitchs, however, no other Cougar has a receiving touchdown this season — a gross disparity that makes Matthews the key to shutting down the passing game.

However, even before Hill went down, BYU’s defense has been the team’s most valuable asset. Holding opposing teams to just 24 points per game and 216 passing yards, the Cougars’ defense serves as perhaps the toughest that the Pirates will face this season. BYU has also forced six interceptions this season and has five 20-plus tacklers.

While the passing defense has been a serious strength, stopping the run hasn’t quite been so easy. With 160 rushing yards against per game and eight total ground scores on the season, the Cougars are still searching for answers against the run. With dual-threat quarterback James Summers serving as the team’s most explosive running threat, the question then becomes will Summers be able to take advantage of BYU’s trouble stopping the run while finding openings through the air.

“It’s almost like an option-type thought process,” McNeill said. “BYU is going to blitz and being able to stretch them gives them an opportunity. Make those guys be honest on the back end. Make them stay with two safeties. If not, we’ll test them.”

Defensive coordinator Nick Howell is all too familiar with the program. Since joining as an intern with the team in 2007, Howell has slowly climbed the ladder and now leads a defense that has consistently been ranked near the top nationally. Senior defensive back Michael Wadsworth has shined the most under Howell this season.

Wadsworth leads the team with 34 tackles and three pass breakups. However, a cast of experienced defensive players that has been opportunistic in forcing turnovers joins Wadsworth. Junior defensive Kai Nacau already has an impressive four interceptions on the season while Harvey Langi has two.

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