GREENVILLE, N.C. — Fresh off of two losses to conference opponents, East Carolina now has its back against the wall with its American Athletic Conference title hopes out of reach and a bowl berth becoming less likely with each loss.
The quest for six wins, the magic number to earn a spot in a bowl game, begins with the South Florida Bulls this Saturday. (4-4, 2-2 AAC). ECU (4-5, 2-3 AAC) must win two of its next three with Cincinnati and UCF remaining after this Saturday.
Last week’s loss to Connecticut was demoralizing, to say the least. A thorough, 31-13 beat down at the hands of a perhaps inferior Huskies team didn’t bode well with ECU fans or players.
“We’re not happy with where we were last week,” head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We felt like we had opportunities in the last two games especially, but there’s a point where you have to have all three sides contributing and we didn’t get that done."
McNeill admitted that this season has been his most adverse since taking over, and he’s likely not wrong. Injuries to the starting quarterback, offensive line and secondary have made life difficult for a team that was already in the midst of a transition season. Throw in some inconsistent play at the quarterback position in the pass-heavy offense and you have the 4-5 Pirates.
That’s not to say, however, that the team can’t bounce back. McNeill mentioned that this week has been one of the team’s best on the practice field and the team perhaps knows that the bye-week looms after the Bulls.
“A lot of time adversity splinters,” McNeill said. “But not with these guys. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Don’t hesitate, just play.”
It won’t be easy for the Pirates this week. If UConn and Temple proved anything, it’s that ECU has hit a wall offensively.
The Bulls are no slouch defensively. They’re sixth in the conference in total defense and have allowed 387 yards per game, just four yards more than UConn. They also allow just 5.3 yards per play, good for third in the conference behind just Temple and Houston.
The slumping Pirate offense will likely have to start fast and gain a lead to keep from wearing down late in the game, like they did against the Owls and Huskies.
“Regardless of the defense we have to execute,” quarterback James Summers bluntly said.
USF’s aggressive defense under head coach Willie Taggart has bled into his physical offense. Mack, the true sophomore running back and last year’s conference Rookie-of-the-Year, is the biggest piece of the Bulls’ offense.
The Bulls rank third in the conference on the ground with 214.4 yards per game and 17 total touchdowns. Mack mirrors his team success, ranking third in the conference in individual rushing, with 102 yards per game behind Temple’s Jahad Thomas and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds.
“They do a lot of powers and counters,” senior linebacker Montese Overton said. “(Mack) has speed and quickness. We need to make sure we locate him and secure him and keep him from doing what he’s capable of doing.”
Mack is one of the best backs in the nation along with Thomas, but the Pirates, under defensive coordinator Rick Smith, have always made stopping the run their first priority.
While ECU ranks just seventh in the conference against the run, the defense did hold Thomas to just 66 yards two weeks ago, a season low. In total, the Pirates held the physical Temple offense to just 72 total yards.
However, the Bulls possess another offensive weapon that has been able to help elevate Mack’s individual success. Sophomore quarterback Quinton Flowers has emerged rushing force behind Mack.
Running in more of a power-spread attack, Flowers ranks 10th in the conference in rushing yards and has seven touchdowns this season. He also has ten touchdowns through the air and has completed 60.5 percent of his passes this season.
“They’ve got a quarterback that’s a very good athlete,” defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “He’s a danger when he throws and they run zone reads. Most of his runs are quarterback draws, though. He’s an exceptional athlete that’s gotten better each week.”
Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE
The physicality of USF could provide the Pirates with trouble. However, if ECU can weather the storm, the team will be looking at its first bye-week of the season.