In general, it was all good from my perspective in ECU’s season-opening 35-13 victory of in-state opponent Appy State. It was all good for several reasons, primary of which is that it resulted in a W. Meaning ECU is 1-0 to start the season and that is important.
It has been said that most teams improve the most between Game 1 and Game 2 of the schedule, so with that in mind, the Pirates have a lot of work to do following the win as they prepare for a gauntlet of a schedule having to go on the road to play No. 9 South Carolina, dominating conference foe Southern Miss, and then in-state rival North Carolina.
There was a some real good in the game today, some surprisingly mediocre things (the Mehs) and some really worrisome things coming out of the win.
Let’s start with the good, IMO.
The Good Stuff:
1. The offensive game plan was appealing. They have obviously worked hard to be able to run and throw the ball in a more balanced fashion. Chiefly, they pounded the ball some and they also took shots deep by air, too, which resulted in open receivers behind the defense. I like that Lincoln Riley stuck with the run throughout. I also like that he stuck with Rio Johnson even when there was clearly an opportunity to put in Shane Carden early on. I was more inclined to see Carden as the starter, but Rio won the job and deserves to be given a chance to get himself comfortable at game speed. Kudos to Riley for a solid game plan…the offense could have scored 35 itself.
2. Additionally, it was clear that we have a stud receiving group. Bodie, Reese Wiggns, Justin Hardy, Derrick Harris, Lance Ray, Justin Jones….they were open all day – though it took awhile for Rio Johnson to start finding and hitting them. Imagine what they will be like when Lance Ray is fully integrated into the system and with Danny Webster, Dayon Arrington, and Donte Sumpter back in the fold.
3. Kick coverage units played very well…(love how excited Zeek Bigger got on his big hit…looking forward to see more of that). Kick return units played well – with their limit opportunities.This is very encouraging. Special teams also generated a TD with Ray’s 90-yard KO return (and would have added a punt return for TD, had the grass not reached up and grabbed Justin Hardy on the way into the endzone. Punter Trent Tignor was super solid in his first start, averaging 44 yards per kick. Despite his misses…Warren Harvey definitely has a strong leg, too, so that is fixable.
4. The Defense gave up on 1 TD on the day and generated 3 turnovers and a Defensive score. Well done. And the defense bottled up – for the most part – the ASU run game. And, from television view, our Defense just looks FAST. They can move for sure. Thought the D line looked pretty solid – though it is clear we need Terry Williams back. Terrell Stanley is going to be a good one, but you could see a drop off when Michael Brooks rotated out.
5. QB Rio Johnson got better as the game wore on. Not only did he make plays, but he was able to get through his progressions better and was letting the ball go by the time the second half rolled in. The offensive line protected well with Johnson getting plenty of time. I really am warming up to Rio…what a great kid who really cherishes this opportunity. I think he could be a VERY GOOD quarterback here.
6. Very few penalties. Hallmark of a good team is to not shoot itself in the foot. Aside from the helmet-to-helmet 15 yarder (Falls), the Pirates were very sound in this department.
7. Michael Dobson was impressive. He ran hard and well, though he did fumble once (which was a problem for him in the past). Vintavious Cooper looks like he will be a nice back for the Pirates. He was definitely good in the pass receiving phase of the game…will be interesting when he is fully understanding the responsibilities, because he could be a guy who takes carries from others. Can see why the staff likes him so much.
8. Came out of the game relatively healthy…particularly of note…on the OL. That was nice. Thought the interior line, by the way, Will Simmons, Taylor Jordan, Jordan Davis and the reserves played a great game…really manhandled ASU’s interior.
9. It is clear that Camp Connors has been effective. Fewer of our guys were cramping up and we stayed healthy in that God-awful heat. Great job guys and Coach C…keep it up!!
10. The Pirate fans…none better. With the weather the way it was, you guys showed up anyway and stuck it out with the boys. A definite advantage for our team. I hope everyone who was overheated is feeling better.
1. The run blocking was ho-hum. Yes we rushed for more than 4 yards per carry, but our O-line was bigger and stronger than ASU’s and it should have been much easier to blow holes open earlier in this game. Of course, it was hard to tell at times because our backs – at least how it looked – were not always very good at finding the holes that were there as it seemed, particularly with Reggie Bullock, that there were some huge holes and he just missed them for some reason. But, even if it was the latter, I really expected our OL to really just pound the hell out of a – frankly – smallish and young ASU defensive line. Kind of alarming.
2. Short-passing game was not nearly effective as it has been in the past – perhaps because teams know ECU as not a vertical attacking team. ASU’s corners were up at the line of scrimmage looking for the screens. Obviously had Rio hit on one or two of those wide-open deep routes, the underneath game would have materialized, but this is why it is critical that our game plan attacks all levels of the defense…dink and dunk days are done.
3. Linebackers were not as strong as expected against the pass, particularly on the outside. It may be that Derrell Johnson and Maurice Falls are still getting the system responsibilities down, but at times they looked very lost in pass coverage. They were not bad, but with our corners playing 10 yards off the ball and ASU throwing screens and short passes, we got ate up in the flats, IMO. The inside backers looked as expected. Kyle Tudor looks freaking fast…is that true? Jeremy Groves played well, too.
1. Rio Johnson must be more accurate next week. He got better as the game wore on as he went from pulling the string a bit early on to being the gun-slinger we had heard so much about. His “strong arm” emerged once he got his confidence up and going. Lance Ray is going to get open deep a lot this year and we have to have a QB who can get the ball to him behind the defense.
2. Our pass rush was not as pronounced as it should have been. We got almost no pressure on the QB until the ASU’s offensive line start to wear down. NO SACKS…really? That must change if we hope to not get bombed by some of our opponents. It is troubling that we could not beat up this ASU O-line out of the gate. WE MUST pressure the QB if we hope to be a good defense.
3. Our corners need to improve greatly. We were so off the ball that every small completion they completed netted a ton of yards. They do not seem as physical I had hoped they would be.
4. Our Field Goal kicking must improve. 0-2 is not going to cut it. Need that to be corrected ASAP because 3 points could spell the difference over the next three weeks.
5. Turnovers. Defense did a good job generating 3 turnovers, but the offense coughed it up twice. Yes, we are still -1 overall, which is good, but there is no excuse for the turnovers. The INT was bad on two counts. Rio forced the ball into a bad spot BUT Derrick Harris has to make that catch…we are too talented and deep at WR for a guy NOT to make that catch. Having Webster back is going to be helpful to put pressure on the IWRs in that position. The fumble….ugggh…protect the damn football.
6. The Defense gave up 400 yards of total offense to Appy State…really? That is unacceptable. If this defense is going to be a legitimate top-25 D…it is going to take a hell of lot better than this. I am hoping that this is more a function of the offense stalling out so much in the first half and the ridiculous heat, but if that wasn’t reason, the D needs to really turn it on this week or we will get crushed in the next three games. That said, if the corners and OLBs can fix the run-support (for the corners) and the pass coverage support (for the OLBs) this week, the defense numbers will probably fall in line with expectations (~300 ypg).
Overall, there is a lot to build on, but the team has very little time to pop in the tape, note the needs, and implement the fixes. With a trip to a pissed-off-with-a-lot-to-prove No. 9 Gamecocks team, the Pirates need to play a near-perfect game to come out with the upset. Can this team do it? Absolutely…I am not sold that USC is that good nor am I sold that we are not a pretty darn good team. The game next week will depend largely on what Rio Johnson learns this week and what his comfort level is come game time. He has the weapons around him. If he makes good decisions and sharpens his accuracy, we will hang points on the Gamecocks (despite their defensive line). Defensively, the good news is that we look pretty staunch against the run, which is what we will face in Columbia. We need to put the clamps on Marcus Lattimore (like we did a year ago) and force the back-up QB to beat us in the air. Given our past proclivity to make back-up QBs look like NFL Hall-of-Famers, I am very worried, but our game plan has to be to force them to throw, meaning our corners and OLBs need to sharpen up QUICKLY.
This week will be the longest yet…Hope the weather is a little milder for our boys.
Please let me know your thoughts on the good, mehh, and bad.