Navy meets East Carolina on Saturday in Annapolis. GoMids.com's Jim Lawler compares the two teams in several critical areas. He also makes a prediction on the game's final score.

Navy opens its new era as a member of the American Athletic Conference when it takes on East Carolina Pirates in its first league game. ECU had an overhaul on offense this year. They had to replace quarterback Shane Carden who graduated and wide receiver Justin Hardy who was drafted by the NFL. The Pirate (1-1, 2015; 9-4, 2014) defense was ranked eleventh nationally in rushing defense last year but the Mids have always had great success running the ball against the East Carolina. Navy’s offense has averaged an amazing 55.7 point per game in the last three games against the Pirates. The Midshipmen easily defeated the FCS Colgate Raiders 48-10 in their 2015 opener. East Carolina opened the season beating Towson 28-20 and lost a 31-24 decision against Florida last week. ECU's comeback effort fell short when Pirate quarterback Blake Kemp fumbled at the Florida 25 with 12 seconds left in the game.

REMARKS: Keenan Reynolds completed 3-of-6 passes for 67 yards against Colgate. It should have been better. He had a nice completion called back on a Chris Swain penalty and suffered two drops. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo has stated that Navy wants to be more effective passing this season and use talented wide receiver Jamir Tillmanto stretch the field. Tillman emerged last year as the Mids top passing target and go-to receiver. Tillman led the Mids with 20 receptions for 386 receiving yards, a 19.3 average and three touchdowns. Jamir is the son of a former NFL player and at 6-4", 206 pounds offers nice size with above average speed. He's caught three passes for 67 yards including a 44-yard gain to set up a touchdown last week. New wide receiver Chad Lewellyn dropped a pass that hit him right in the hands.

The Pirates secondary struggled last year. ECU allowed an average of 255 yards per game and ranked No. 98 nationally. ECU gave up 39 passes of 20-plus yards in 2014. The Pirates have two new starters in the secondary and two on the line. #######They don't have to worry about is cornerback Josh Hawkins who picked off five passes last year. Josh was a Preseason First-Team All-AAC selection by Athlon Sports, Phil Steele Magazine and Sporting News. Hawkins intercepted a pass against Towson in their opener.##### Senior outside linebacker Montese Overton was also a preseason All-AAC selection. Overton started all 13 games as a junior posting 68 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and made three sacks. He can create pass rush pressure off the edge.

EDGE: Navy
REMARKS: The Midshipmen were ranked second in the nation last year in rushing. Navy averaged 338 yards per game. Navy used the fullback dive all day against Colgate to produce 371 rushing yards, a 7.9 per carry average and five touchdowns. In 2014 Keenan Reynolds posted 1,191 rushing yards, a career high 4.8 rushing average and scored 23 touchdowns. He scored against the Raiders and now has scored 65 career rushing touchdowns. Senior fullback Chris Swain had a career-best 128 yards with one touchdown on 11 carries before leaving the game early after twisting his ankle. Swain had a holding penalty and lost a fumble on the opening series before the Swain Train rolled to a 52-yard touchdown run on the next series. The fullbacks combined for 186 yards and four touchdowns. Navy slotback DeBrandon Sanders rushed three times for 66 yards including ripping off a 46-yard run to set up Reynolds’ touchdown run. Navy has run wild against East Carolina in the last three games.

While East Carolina’s defense has struggled against Navy, the Pirates ranked 13th in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game at 127.8 over the past three seasons. They have a great player in senior inside linebacker Zeek Bigger. He earned Second-Team All-American Athletic Conference honors last year. Bigger led the Pirates with a league-high 140 tackles and recorded double-digit stops on eight occasions. Zeek leads the team lead with 17 tackles this season. Fellow inside linebacker Jordan Williams has 13 tackles and two sacks in his first two starts.

EDGE: Navy
REMARKS: East Carolina lost sophomore quarterback Kurt Benkert to a right knee injury a few weeks ago. He was expected to replace Shane Carden who graduated after throwing for 4,736 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior. Junior Blake Kemp is a red-shirted who transferred from Mesa Community College and is now the starter. He has completed 63-of-91 (69.2%) of his passes for 568 yards with three touchdowns and against one pick in his first two starts. ECU's best receiver is Isaiah Jones. Last year Jones started nine of 13 games hauling down a team second-best 81 passes for 830 yards, a 10.2 average, with five touchdowns. Jones leads the team with 20 catches for 212 yards, a 10.6 average with a touchdown. In his career, Jones has caught 163 passes for 1,646 yards with 11 touchdowns in 28 career games. Tight end Bryce Williams was a Second-Team All-AAC selection last fall. Williams caught 18 passes for 237 yards, a 13.2 average with four touchdowns in 2015.

Navy's pass defense was ranked 32nd in the nation in passing yards allowed per game last fall. The Midshipmen secondary allowed 205 passing yards per game last year. The Mids secondary allowed Colgate to complete 14-of-26 passed for 127 yards and a score despite Quincy Adams missing the game and Brandon Clements missing the first half. Brandon Clements made 58 tackles while knocking down four passes last year. Elijah Merchant (6 tackles, PD) impressed in his first start. I thought he was the best defensive back at NAPS in 2013 as I mentioned in the 2014 meet the new Mids I-day report. He understands the game and demonstrated an excellent burst to the ball to break up a pass. Merchant is pressing Quincy Adams for the starting job.

REMARKS: Running back Chris Hairston ran for 154 yards and four touchdowns to help East Carolina beat Towson 28-20 in the opener. Last season as a backup he ran for 528 yards, a 6.7 average and two scores. His backup Anthony Scott carried the ball 12 times for 60 yards against Towson. Kemp is more of a pure drop back passer, and less of a run threat. Right guard J.T. Boyd and left tackle Ike Harris anchor an offensive line that produced 500 or more yards of total offense eight times last fall.

Navy's rushing defense was ranked 95th in the nation and allowed 198 yards per game in 2014. Last week the Mids defense allowed 198 rushing yards, an average of 4.1 yards per carry and didn't allow a rushing touchdown. SAM inside linebacker Daniel Gonzales made 86 tackles with three interceptions in 2014 at Mike linebacker and was moved one spot over this spring. The new Mike linebacker is Micah Thomas (6-1”, 249), a big physical inside linebacker with ability. He led the Mids with seven tackles against Colgate. He made a nice tackle in space to stop Jake Melville short of the goal line on the opening series and force a field goal. Defensive end Will Anthony was a First-Team FBS All-Independent last year. Anthony had five tackles and knocked down a pass at the line of scrimmage. His fourth down stop at midfield ended any chance Colgate had of getting back in the game.

REMARKS: East Carolina's best special team’s performer is punter Worth Gregory. Last year he averaged 43.6 yards per punt, placed 19 inside the 20 and hit 13 punts over 50 yards. Gregory averaged 42.3 yards per punt and nailed one 71 yards in opener. New kicker Conner Torruella missed a 37-yard field goal attempt against Towson. Davis Plowman hit his only attempt last week. Kick returners Isiah Jones, 23.0 YPR average in 2014 and Quay Johnson, 21.7 YPR average offer good speed.

Navy kicker Austin Grebe continued his perfect mark as he hit his only attempt from 27 yards. Grebe had three touch backs in nine kickoffs. In the punter challenge both Alex Bart and Gavin Jernigan hit the ball well. Bart hit an absolute 72-yard bomb in his only attempt. Jernigan had a 42-yard effort. Demond Brown (19.8 KR) fumbled both his returns against Colgate. DeBrandon Sanders returned three punts for 38 yards. Navy's coverage teams have been outstanding the last few years.

REMARKS: Ruffin McNeill is (39-28) entering sixth season East Carolina. He guided Texas Tech to a 41-31 victory over Michigan State in the Valero Alamo Bowl on an interim basis. He brought his wide open attack from Texas Tech. ECU is known for its wide open offense and physical defense. McNeil has built a consistent winner at ECU. The Pirates have appeared in three straight bowl games.

Navy's Ken Niumatalolo (58-35, 62.4%) passed George Welch as Navy's winningest head coach with his victory over Army last year. He has succeeded after following a great coach, in his mentor Paul Johnson, and has established his own legacy. Niumatalolo is the fastest in school history to reach 50 wins. Ivin Jasper, Navy's offensive coordinator, has owned ECU since he became offensive coordinator. Dale Pehrson is filling in at defensive coordinator for Buddy Green who took a leave this season.

REMARKS: East Carolina will be looking to revenge some nasty losses at the hands of the Mids. Their proud run defense has allowed an average of 55.7 point per game over the last three meetings. Navy will be excited to play their first AAC game at home. They should have a lot of confidence in their offense to move the ball. Navy has beaten ECU in three of four meetings.

PREDICTION: NAVY 45, EAST CAROLINA 31. Navy has run the ball at will against the Pirates in their last three meetings. This is a good matchup for Navy with ECU playing their backup quarterback Kemp who has ability but lacks experience. Navy's bend-but-don't-break defense has had trouble defending against ECU's bubble screens and passing game. Still, I expect Navy to outscore East Carolina at home.

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