Homecoming week is here for USF and not even a hurricane can stop the Bulls from taking the field for their fans. The East Carolina Pirates have made port in Tampa, looking to right their ship after suffering a three week skid. Even with a losing streak that has left the Pirates seeking salvation in a win, it has not stopped their potent aerial attack.
The Pirates will rely on the arm of senior quarterback Philip Nelson to get the ball to his playmaking receivers for their first conference win of the season. Senior wide receiver Zay Jones lead the AAC in both receiving yards per game (139) and receptions per game (13.2), sitting at number four in the nation with 695 yards.
“They have a fantastic receiver in Jones,” said USF head coach Willie Taggart. “He’s one of the best receivers I’ve seen in this conference in a while. Strong hands; they’re going to find a way to get him the ball and the kid don’t drop many. It’s going to be a challenge for us; we’ve got to know where he’s at at all times and we’re going to have to do a great job of tackling him. He’s a really good football player.”
The connection between Nelson and Jones may be one of the more effective duos in the nation, but Nelson hasn’t been shy about spreading the ball around to other receivers. The senior quarterback has connected with six different targets for touchdowns this season, tying for a conference leading 11 touchdown passes.
“Nelson is a really good football player. He understands their offense and where he needs to go with the football. He does a great job of distributing the ball amongst all those guys,” said Taggart about Nelson’s ability to see the whole field.
The biggest issue that Nelson has faced this season is an offensive line that has allowed him to be sacked 12 times this season, totaling 16 with backup quarterbacks behind the center as well. The leaky line has also led to the worst rushing offense in the conference, totaling 656 yards and six touchdowns for the season.
The ECU running game revolves around the running back duo of junior Anthony Scott and senior James Summers. The two running backs have split the carries at an almost 50/50 rate; combining for 531 yards, both averaging 5.3 yards per carry and two touchdowns.
With the Pirates’ lacking a rushing offense, the Bulls’ defense should have no issue containing the opposing running backs. In fact, the Bulls’ defense has been able to take over opposing rushers handily. Except for an outlying game against FSU where the Bulls’ gave up a whopping 478 yards on the ground, the USF defense has held opponents to just over 153 rushing yards per game.
Even with the loss of starting redshirt freshman center William Atterbury, expect the Bulls to pound the ball on the ground as their 15th ranked rushing offense faces-off against the second worst rushing defense in the conference. USF averages 251 yards per game and is only second to Louisville in rushing touchdowns with 19. Last year the Bulls’ offense was able to cut through the ECU defense for 242 yards on the ground, with junior running back Marlon Mack picking up 117 yards.
Both defenses are neck-and-neck in the conference while defending the pass, allowing opposing passers 221 yards per game through the air. The Bulls have been more opportunistic though, pulling in six interceptions and recovering six fumbles for a total of 12 turnovers; ECU has only managed three interceptions and one fumble recovery. With Devin Abraham out of the game due to an injury to his thumb, senior defensive back Nate Godwin will shifting from the striker position to strong safety.
“They pretty much do the same thing as last year,” said Godwin about preparing for the Pirates passing offense. “They want quick passes, up-tempo stick routes and quick out routes. They want to get the ball to number seven. They want to get the ball to him, they’ll line him up everywhere. I think if we just play fast, we roll in coverage and we do what we do, we'll play well. I’ll play anywhere they want me to. Anywhere they need me just to help the team out.”
The USF homecoming game will begin at Noon ET. and will be televised on ESPNews.