Navy Opponent Preview: East Carolina

Navy has a bye week following their opening day game against Colgate before hosting East Carolina on September 19. The game against ECU is a huge one in the history of the Naval Academy as it will be an American Athletic Conference (AAC) matchup, the first conference matchup in the history of the football program.

2014 Record: 8-5 (5-3 The American). ECU lost to Florida 28-20 in the Birmingham Bowl.

Series Record: Navy leads 3-1 in a series which dates back to a first meeting in 2006. This record includes a stunning 76-35 victory for the Mids back in 2010.

Last Meeting: Navy won the last meeting between the two schools, with a 56-28 rout of the Pirates back in 2012. The Mids piled up 512 yards on the ground and a freshmen sensation at quarterback going by the name of Keenan Reynolds rushed for three scores while passing for two more.

Head Coach: Ruffin McNeill is entering his sixth season as the Pirates head coach with a 37-27 (.578) win/loss record. Hunt has posted three straight winning seasons with the Pirates, with a best ever effort of 10-3 in 2013.

Spring News: The Pirates have spent much of the spring evaluating position battles and looking for players who will step up to be counted and add to the overall talent of this year’s team. While many have taken this opportunity, ECU will enter the fall without a projected starter after Virginia Tech transfer running back Chris Mangus was dismissed on the eve of the spring game for repeated violations of team rules.

Projected Strengths: In an interesting clash of styles the Pirates defensive strength is stopping the run. In 2014 the team had seven different players record at least 2.5 non-sack tackles for a loss, suggesting that the linemen and linebacker in their 3-4 front are very adept at hitting gaps and penetrating into the backfield. Though four of those players have gone the returners and backups project to be just as stingy against the run this fall.

East Carolina graduated its starting running back from last fall in Breon Allen, but the depth chart behind him was loaded with players looking for a chance to impress. While the Pirates are not settled on a starter at this point, it is one of the rare occasions where the decision has been made impossible by the consistently good play of those in the running as opposed to no one standing out. Three players, senior Chris Hairston and sophomores Marquez Grayson and Anthony Scott, all fought to a draw this spring.

Projected Weaknesses: East Carolina runs a high efficiency air raid style attack on offense when they pass the ball. At its best this type of offense spreads the ball around to receivers with mismatches who can make a play in space and pick up chunks of yardage. Finding those receivers this fall though could prove problematic as the Pirates graduated an all-time great college receiver in Justin Hardy (1,430 yards on 121 receptions last year) and also their number three target in Cam Worthy. The talent is there, but finding the right mix is going to take some time.

The Pirates pass defense was just awful in 2014. This is another area where starters have moved on and it is up to a mix of iffy veterans and newcomers with upside to take this team’s pass defense and turn it around. The secondary had just eight interceptions last year and cornerback Josh Hawkins contributed five of those. The secondary needs to find playmakers and get more support from a pass rush which never gave them much of a chance last fall.

Prediction: Navy versus ECU is a very intriguing matchup to begin the conference season. The Pirates got better as the season wore on last fall, but couldn’t win any close games and found stupid ways to lose games they controlled. Their schedule this year is bizarre (they play seven teams ranked in the 30-70 range and five over 115th} but with the right players stepping up they could easily be an AAC contender.

In recent history Navy has simple run all over the Pirates. Until McNeill proves his defense can handle the option, no easy feat for a team which never sees it, Ken Niumatalolo should have Reynolds run the ball right at ECU. In a battle of efficiency engine offenses this game could be determined by mistakes. With a quarterback starting only his second game you have to think those mistakes will come from ECU. Navy in a tight one here.

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