East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill met with reporters Monday for his weekly press conference in anticipation of Saturday's contest with South Carolina.
"Once again South Carolina is a very good football team," McNeill said. "They have Southeastern Conference talent on all three sides of the ball. Coach (Steve) Spurrier has done an outstanding job. The team won 11 games last year and beat Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl."
One of South Carolina's 11 wins last season was a 56-37 win over the Pirates in last season's opener. ECU dominated early in the contest, but Carolina turned it up a notch in the second half to pull away and cruise to the victory.
One of the keys to Carolina's win last season was the play of running back Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries. Lattimore would later tear the ACL in his left knee and miss the rest of the season. Lattimore returned to action for the first time last Thursday in the 17-13 win over Vanderbilt. The junior ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns and looked like the Lattimore of old.
"Offensively, running back Marcus Lattimore has returned from the injury that ended his season last year and looks fully healthy," McNeill said. "He is a Heisman Trophy candidate and he will be one of the better backs in the country this season."
The status of quarterback Connor Shaw for Saturday's contest is still up in the air after suffering a shoulder injury in the win Thursday. While Spurrier says the jury is still out on Shaw playing Saturday, McNeill and his team will be preparing for Shaw at quarterback this week.
"Connor Shaw is a dual-threat quarterback," McNeill said. "He got banged up a little bit last week, but he will be back in time for the game this week."
Shaw and Lattimore were most of the offense against Vandy. Even with an injured shoulder Shaw rushed for 92 yards as the duo was responsible for 202 of the 272 total yards on their legs alone. Carolina will look to get a passing game that only accounted for 67 yards last week going, and that starts with Ace Sanders. Sanders made his presence known in last season's opener, returning a fourth quarter punt 68 yards for the first touchdown since the 2003 contest with Florida. Sanders will need to make his presence known this week if Carolina hopes to improve its passing.
"The top receiver for South Carolina is Ace Sanders," McNeill said. "Sanders is a speed receiver that will also return kicks."
Another reason for the lack of a passing attack against Vanderbilt is the play of the offensive line. In his weekly teleconference Spurrier said that only 15 passes were thrown, but there were around 30 pass plays called. While some of it was Shaw taking off too early or the receivers failing to get open, some of the blame also goes to the offensive line. The offensive line was expected to be a strength this season, but Thursday seemed a step slow in pass protection. The protection got better when adjustments were made on the line. McNeill still sees the line that many saw in the preseason, not the one that showed up Thursday night.
"South Carolina returns three starters on the offensive line including a Rimington Trophy candidate (best center in the FBS) in T.J. Johnson," McNeill said. "Coach Spurrier has been able to adapt to the league he is in and has adjusted his offense to his personnel. He runs the ball more frequently than he did when he was coaching at Florida."
On the other side of the ball, East Carolina moved the ball almost at will against the Gamecocks last season. The Pirates mounted 345 yards of offense, 78 more than Carolina gave up on average last season. Only Arkansas and Georgia put more points on the board than the 36 ECU scored. However, 273 of those yards came from the arm and legs of ECU quarterback Dominique Davis, who graduated.
Rio Johnson is the starter for the 2012 edition of the Pirates and is entering his third season in the program. The Johnson era got off to a good start against Appalachian State in a 35-13 win. After struggling a bit early, Johnson came on strong, completing 28-of-43 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He also carried the ball twice for 12 yards and a touchdown.
"Rio was poised on the sideline," McNeill said. "He never blinked and stayed confident. Rio found his rhythm in the second half. He checked us into the correct play the highest number of times I have seen from a first-game starter at quarterback and that goes back to the quarterbacks from my time at Texas Tech. Rio has room to improve, but I thought he did a good job of managing the football team. He will keep getting better. He looked sharp at practice last night too."
Johnson will be going up against a bigger, stronger, and faster South Carolina defense this week than the one of the FCS power Mountaineers. Led by defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, the Gamecock defense flies all over the field and makes plays.
"On defense, South Carolina has two of the top defensive ends in the country in Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor," McNeill said. "Both of them have first round draft choice type of ability and cover a lot of ground. Kelcy Quarles is their top interior defensive lineman and he led them in tackles for loss in the game against Vanderbilt last week. South Carolina has an experienced linebacker group led by Shaq Wilson. Wilson stays in on all running and passing defensive packages. D.J. Swearinger is the leader in the secondary."
With the speed of the ends and physical strength of the interior, the South Carolina defensive line is a tough match-up for any team. The Gamecocks limited Vandy to just 62 yards rushing on 36 attempts and got to quarterback Jordan Rodgers five times. While getting to Johnson will be more difficult because of the Pirates' quick passing style, but will still have opportunities to get into passing lanes and get their hands up to knock the ball down. That alone provides a new challenge for the Pirate offensive line.
"The group did some very positive things against Appalachian State on Saturday," McNeill said.
"South Carolina will provide and present a whole new test for them and the rest of the team. Both the offensive line and our defensive line will be challenged and I expect those guys to rise to the expectations that we have for them. The fundamental improvement that I talked about will start with the offensive line."
ECU showed a great amount of offensive production in last week's win, spreading the ball around to a variety of targets. While Michael Dobson got a majority of the 35 carries (19), six different Pirates got an opportunity to run the ball. Nine different Pirates caught at least one of the 28 completed passes, but none had more than six receptions and Johnson was the only Pirate responsible for more than one touchdown. That gives more for Carolina to have to prepare for defensively this week.
"We had great balance with 35 runs and 43 passes," McNeill said. "The area we are still focusing on is finding the roles that each one of our running backs fits into. The staff continues to work on that and it will be an area that is molded throughout the year. I feel good about all our running backs and the way they are playing. For me it has never been about carries or catches at the running back and wide receiver position. It is more about touches. We want each position to have a certain number of touches per game. We want to keep trying to distribute those reps so the defense will not be able to focus on any one player."
One of the biggest reasons for ECU building an early 17-0 lead was the downfall in the second half. The Pirates turned the ball over five times, all in the second half. ECU hit on all cylinders in the first half and then fell apart in the second. A return to the fundamentals it displayed in that first half is what the Pirates must do to have a chance of defeating the Gamecocks in Columbia.
"The key for this second game for us is making sure that we improve fundamentally," McNeill said. "That is an area that we have focused on since I got into coaching and that is the number one element that needs to be worked on when a team transitions from week one to week two. We need to make sure that we keep executing better on all three sides on the ball and play 11-man football for consistent stretches. That is a big goal for us as a staff and for our team. We also need to keep applying good football IQ that has been addressed all off-season and throughout camp."
Quotes via ecupirates.com
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