Coming off of an offensive shootout in a 49-42 victory over the UTEP Miners, the Cougars must contain yet another high octane offense in the spread scheme the Pirates employ if they hope to win Saturday's game. ECU has only one victory against three losses entering this game, but they have faced one of the tougher non conference schedules in the nation. They have lost to South Carolina (56-37), Virginia Tech (17-10) and North Carolina (35-20). South Carolina and Virginia Tech were ranked 11th and 12th respectively in the nation at the times of their games while North Carolina is seen as a top 35 team. Their only victory was a 28-23 victory over the UAB Blazers two weekends ago.
Their explosive offense is led by offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley who is in his second season implementing the explosive Air raid structured attack. Riley coached for Mike Leach at Texas Tech for the seven previous seasons before being hired by head coach Ruffin McNeill and is one of the youngest offensive coordinators in the nation at 28. McNeill is 7-10 in his second season in Greenville. He also coached for Leach at Tech as their defensive coordinator, linebackers and special teams coach in 10 seasons in Lubbock and the self admitted "football lifer" had been an assistant at various schools for over 30 years before manning the helm at ECU. Brian Mitchell is the Pirates second year defensive coordinator and has led the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme.
I spoke with Riley earlier today and he described his offense, which is structurally similar to the Cougars, as "a quick tempo no huddle attack. If we can execute, we can score with anybody in the nation. As coaches we have to coach them up. There are times we take shots down the field and we also have to run the ball better (although he did admit to having faced three top defenses). We just have to just get the ball to our receivers in space and have confidence that they will make plays. We have to play hard and fast and take care of the ball, most importantly." In talking about their -2 turnover margin (which is tied for last in the nation, "We've driven the ball between the 20's well enough but have fumbled the ball too much. Some of it was just bad luck as in tipped or deflected passes but we have confidence in our receivers in getting the job done." Their offense will also use a little of the read option game as well as using formations out of the pistol to take advantage of ECU quarter back Dominque Davis's running abilities, although he is more of a pure drop back passer.
The aforementioned Dominque Davis is the quarter back who revs the ECU engine offensively. The former Boston College transfer took East Carolina by storm last year as he set school single season records for completions (393), attempts (607), passing yards (3,967), and touchdown passes (37) - all while being named the CUSA Offensive MVP. His numbers are pretty impressive this season as he has completed 133 of 194 passes for 1,165 yards or 291.3 yards per game which is good for 17th nationally. His 127.09 QB proficiency rating has him ranked at only 71st nationally due largely to the seven interceptions he has thrown. He has tossed 9 touchdowns as well. As discussed earlier, a few of those interceptions were due to wide receivers tipping balls directly to linebackers or defensive backs.
Speaking of the Pirates wide receiving core, Riley is very high on them as he said they are three deep at each of the four starting slots(X, H, Y and Z). Lance Lewis (360 yards on 34 receptions along with 5 TDs) is a 6-foot-3, 210 pound receiver who plays the X (or one of the outside slots) and according to Riley he is as physical as he is swift of foot. He uses the athleticism he acquired while playing basketball in high school to his advantage as he a tough matchup in single coverage. Justin Hardy and Andrew Bodenheimer could also cause matchup problems for the smaller Cougar defensive backs. Hardy (285, 31, 2) is 6-0 and 180 pounds while Bodenheimer (131, 15) is a physical 6-3 205 pounder. It is imperative that the Cougars secondary gets healthy in a hurry as safeties Colton Valencia and Chevy Bennett missed part of the UTEP game with injuries and are both "probable" for Saturday's game, according to head coach Kevin Sumlin. Corner back D.J. Hayden missed the game entirely and is "day to day." Hayden and Bennett are key to the Cougars secondary as ECU loves to place their receivers in one on one matchups in space, allowing them to gain yards after the catch. The ball will come out of Davis's hands quickly so the Coogs defense needs to be prepared.
The Pirates don't emphasize the run as their stats suggest (they are 114th in the nation averaging 81 yards per game) but Riley stated they will run if that's what they are given. Of course UTEP also only averaged about 86.5 yards per game but gashed the Cougars for 240 during the game. Coach Sumlin mentioned the run defense at his weekly news conference earlier today, "We had a few times where we had the guy go the wrong way on a stunt. All the gaps were closed but one and he went the wrong way and out the gate it goes. We have to be more consistent. That's not all coaches or players fault, it is a combination of things. We have to give our guys a plan that's executable and something our guys can handle. It isn't necessarily the front all the time. We got to a situation last week where I don't think we had any defensive backs left. But it is something we are working on and trying to correct." While the Pirates don't have a big bruising back a-la Bryce Beall, their leading rusher Reggie Bullock(318 yards on 63 carries) is not a scat back by any means, according to Riley who labels him as a "small physical back." The Pirates will also use the backs in the short passing game much the same way as the Cougars do.
Entering the season, East Carolina's offensive line had only 15 career starts returning which was the third fewest in the nation, but they have improved "on the fly and are getting better each week" Riley said. One of their "veterans," sophomore right tackle Grant Harner (who had 15 career starts) did not play in last week's loss to North Carolina due to a concussion he sustained in practice prior to the game. He will be back according to Riley while senior center Doug Polochak is listed as a game time decision due to a knee injury. ECU's o-line averages out to be 299 pounds and the Cougars defensive front must put pressure on them using only their front three or four mixing in an occasional blitz or Davis will eat the secondary alive. Will or rush linebacker Sammy Brown must continue to live in the opponent's backfield as he will be a load for sophomore left tackle Jordan Davis. One way for the Cougars to control ECU's quick passing game is for the defensive linemen (David Hunter, Dominic Miller, Kelvin King, Eric Braswell, and Zeke Riser) to bat balls down at the line of scrimmage.
Defensively the Pirates are still getting accustomed to Mitchell's 3-4 scheme (that's a familiar feeling) as they allow a whopping 201 yards per game rushing which is 103rd nationally. Their defensive line averages at 6-3 272 pounds but as in all 3-4's they rely on speed and athleticism over bulk. Their two defensive ends, Derrell Johnson and Matt Milner, are only 263 and 257 pounds respectively and both are relied on to give an inside push as defensive tackles normally would in a 4-3 scheme. Both have been pushed around this season as the stats would suggest and the Cougars must continue this trend with their o-line. I look for one of the three of Cougar running backs (Bryce Beall, Charles Sims or Michael Hayes) to dominate the overmatched Pirates defense. I have been impressed with Cougar offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury's emphasis on the run this season as the Coogs continue to improve in the run game as they are now averaging nearly 160 yards per game (52nd nationally). In any 3-4 the inside linebackers are they ‘game changers' on defense and ECU is no different. Backers Jeremy Grove and Daniel Drake lead the defense with 52 and 44 tackles respectively. Grove is the first Pirate to accumulate more than 10 tackles per game to start the season since 2001. Look for Kingsbury to get the Pirates inside backers in one on one matchups with the Cougars slot receivers, as their is no way they can hang with the speed of Tyron Carrier and the agility and toughness of Justin Johnson over the middle. Carrier has been sporting a leg injury and I look for the wily veteran to make up for the dropped passes of last week. Once the defense is softened up via the run and short passing game look for Patrick Edwards to continue to excel in beating defenders over the top on the long ball.
The key to this game may simply come down to whose athletes are the best? The Cougars will need to score touch downs in the red zone as field goals will not cut it in what is sure to be yet another typical Cougar/CUSA shootout. Another key will be who "executes better and takes care of the ball" as coach Riley told me. I asked Coach Sumlin about his linebackers and defensive backs being cognizant on the turnover problems of the Pirate's receivers and if strip drills would be emphasized this week, "We emphasize strip drills every week. If there is one thing that we have done defensively it is getting turnovers and creating negative plays. We work that every week. We're plus-three in turnover margin right now as a team. It is just as important to work on ball security on offense, as it is to work turnover drills on defense. But they have been able to move the ball and they have had problems with turnovers. Their offense is like ours in that they try to take advantage of space and utilize their speed. But we recognize that and will work on it the same way we've worked on it all year."Final Prediction: Houston – 56 East Carolina – 45.