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East Carolina Pirates set for UConn Huskies matchup

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU (4-4, 2-2 AAC) and UConn (3-5, 1-3 AAC) get set for a primetime, Friday night bout.

Despite its conference title hopes virtually destroyed by Temple a week ago, East Carolina must shift its focus to Connecticut for a primetime, Friday night matchup with the Huskies. 

Bob Diaco’s Huskies, like ECU, are fresh off of a loss to conference foe. Cincinnati downed UConn, 37-13, last week, marking the team’s second straight loss. In fact, the Huskies are losers of five of their last six, after starting the season with back-to-back wins over Army and Villanova.  

The losing stretch got started after a Week 3, 9-6, loss to Missouri, and a 40-13 romping of winless UCF is the only bright spot in between.

Diaco, one of the nation’s best defensive coordinators while at Notre Dame, has brought his defensive philosophy to UConn. However, the defensive mastermind has seen success in only one aspect of his defense.

The Huskies pass defense has been its greatest strength this season on either side of the ball. They allow just 204 passing yards per game, good for first in the American Athletic Conference, while also forcing 10 interceptions this season. 

“It’s a lot of 4-3, with some odd fronts,” offensive coordinator Dave Nichol said. “It’s a lot similar to what we faced last year. Not a ton has changed. You’ll see some cover two, cover three and cover four.”

Senior safety Andrew Adams has been the team’s best and most consistent all-around defensive player. His 65 tackles lead the team and puts him sixth in the conference, tied with ECU’s Zeek Bigger. The do-it-all senior has also tallied two and a half tackles for a loss and two interceptions.

Adams isn’t alone in leading the defense, however. Sophomore linebacker Junior Joseph has been a force in the middle of the Huskies defense. Diaco’s best defensive players have historically been linebackers and Joseph fits the mold with his 63 tackles. 

Even with Adams and Joseph bolstering the defense, the Huskies as a whole have struggled in other areas on defense. Despite its conference-best pass defense, UConn sits at sixth in the AAC in terms of total defense. That is mostly due to the Huskies’ inability to stop the run. UConn sits tenth in the conference against the rush and has allowed 10 touchdowns and 184 yards per game.

Essentially, when looking at matchups, ECU’s offense against UConn’s defense seems like the perfect fit. The pass-heavy Pirates will be met with the conference’s pass defense. Nichol expressed a need to produce more on the ground and that may just be the key to a Pirate win. 

The Huskies, while not necessarily high scoring, do posses offensive weapons as well. Sophomore quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, an N.C. State transfer who sat out last season, has been the catalyst in the UConn offense. 

Shirreffs is fifth in the conference in total offense and has 2,065 total yards to his name this season, 1,723 of which have come through the air. The quarterback has completed 62 percent of his passes this season and his five interceptions prove that the sophomore takes care of the ball. 

“The quarterback, I watched him play against BYU before we played them, and he’s doing what Bobby (Diaco) wants, which is managing the game,” head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “Bryant (Shirreffs) is a smart player. He’s 6’2”, 220 (lbs.), has some size, and has some designed runs for him as well. Throws the ball and completes 60-plus percent of his passes.” 

Shirreffs benefits from a deep group of receivers. UConn has five players with at least 180 receiving yards this season. Noel Thomas leads the group with his 493 receiving yards on 37 receptions. 

However, the Huskies have made a habit of getting their sophomore quarterback involved in the run game. Shirreffs, alone with Arkeel Newsome, have created a dual-threat attack. The two have 342 and 412 rushing yards, respectively. With a fourth-quarter meltdown in the back of their minds, the Pirates will have to wary of Shirreffs and Newsome wearing them down late.” 

“We’ve got to win this one,” defensive coordinator Rick Smith. “We have to win the fourth quarter. It’s our job to hold their defense and we have to be on fire in the fourth quarter. We have to out-play their defense.”  

The game, ECU’s ninth and final before its first bye week, will likely be played in cold weather. For the Pirates, that’s not a great sign as they have traditionally struggled in col weather games. If ECU gets uncomfortable early, the game could lean in UConn’s favor. 

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“My dad was telling me to get some hand warmers ready because it’s a lot different than where I’m from,” said quarterback Blake Kemp, an Arizona native. “But it’s exciting and I’m ready for it.” 

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