With bowl hopes on the line, East Carolina welcomes to the Cincinnati Bearcats into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a noon, Senior Day clash Saturday.
The Pirates sit with five wins, one away from bowl eligibility, and will take on one of the most high-potent offenses in the conference, led by junior quarterback Gunner Kiel.
Kiel, who had a great sophomore campaign with 31 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions, has suffered through a series of injuries this season, which has understandably cut his production. This season, the junior has only 18 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, but his completion percentage is up nearly six points from what it was a year ago, checking in at 65.4 percent on the season.
Backup quarterback Hayden Moore has performed admirably in Kiel’s absence, accounting for nine touchdowns, eight interceptions and 1,683 yards through the air.
“I like (Gunner) Kiel. He’s an outstanding quarterback, but they’re playing Hayden (Moore) a little but now, too,’’ head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “What stands out on offense is the receiving core. You notice the difference in size between South Florida and this team, especially up front offensively.”
The Bearcats are first in the conference in total offense, racking up 6,286 total yards this season and have a well-balanced attack. Cincinnati is first in passing offense and fourth in rushing offense and in total, they are averaging 37.6 points per game.
Kiel’s favorite weapons have been receivers Shaq Washington, Chris Moore, and Max Morrison. Washington and Moore have 847 and 802 receiving yards, respectively and 12 combined touchdowns. In total, Cincinnati boasts eight players with 100 or more receiving yards on the season, giving ECU’s defense a lot to prepare for.
Running backs Tion Green, Mike Boone and Hosey Williams have split the majority of the workload on the ground this season, and each has over 656 rushing yards on the season. Green and Boone have 15 combined rushing touchdowns on the season and the running corps in general provides a great buffer for Kiel and the passing attack.
Defensively Cincinnati has faced its fair share of difficulties. The Bearcats have been plagued by injuries on that side of the ball and boast an array of youth that has suffered through growing pains this season, especially in the secondary.
Junior linebacker Eric Wilson leads the charge on defense and has been by far the team’s most productive and consistent defender. His 97 tackles leads the team, with junior safety Zach Edwards checking in behind him with 80.
Edwards and Wilson have been the only standouts, statistically for the Bearcats, as the next-leading tackler has just 50.
“They’ve got athletic guys in the secondary. They’re (defensive) line is pretty good,” ECU offensive coordinator Dave Nichol said. “They’re unique in that they just take up space but they know their scheme and they execute it well. We’ll have our work cut out for us, athletically.”
All things considered, Cincinnati still ranks second in the conference in pass defense but blown coverage has led to big play, quick strike scores. It’s also susceptible in the run game, allowing 202 yards per game, and 19 total touchdowns on the season.
“We have to worry about us,” Nichol said. “A team like this, their best defense is a good offense so we can’t look at the scoreboard if they start to get hot. It’ll be fun, it’ll be a good challenge between our receivers and their (defensive backs).”
Cincinnati is fresh off of a 65-27 romping at the hands of South Florida, and the team’s inconsistency has been personified by its inability to string together wins. Stakes are high for both sides and the Bearcats, who were expected to finish first in the East division during the preseason, surely would like to avoid a .500 regular season.
The Pirates, on the other hand, have the emotional edge of aiming for a bowl berth, and claiming a Senior Day redemption, considering the events that transpired last season against Central Florida
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“We see it as a great opportunity to get our sixth win and become bowl eligible,” McNeill said. “We’re looking forward to a great crowd and great fans to support our seniors and team. I’m looking forward to the preparation. That will be big for us.”