So, in my purple world, the Pirates head into the 2nd quarter of their schedule carrying a 2-1 record and coming off an impressive win at Virginia Tech. The win would be a big-time confidence booster for ECU as they come home to face North Carolina, SMU and then head back out on the road to face South Florida. The first of this three game set, provides an opportunity for the Pirates to post back-to-back wins against North Carolina for the first-time ever. The SMU game will be the Pirates first-ever in the AAC and the South Florida game will rekindle a rivalry – sort of – from CUSA days gone by.
Let’s soldier on, shall we. And, as always, please let me know your thoughts…cause that is the best part.
September 20th, 3:30 p.m. vs. North Carolina
An emotionally spent, but 2-1 Pirate team will somehow have to find some gas left in the tank for this sure-to-be-oversold return home to Dowdy-Ficklen featuring a visit from in-state nemesis North Carolina. Few teams stir the passion that the Tar Heels do, particularly when they visit ECU (something that is begrudged by the team and fans alike at UNC-CH). If you want to see what UNC may have this year, here is their complete spring game. Really…nothing to see here, move along.
After back-to-back, emotional, physical games at USC and Virginia Tech, the Pirates will have to count on running on pure emotions for this game. Last season, the Pirates had a defining win in a whistle-to-whistle thrashing of UNC-CH, 55-31, in a game at their place where the score was even closer than the actual game. Shane Carden completely owned an over-matched UNC defense and the Pirates D dominated the home team, yielding the balance of UNC-CH’s points with reserves playing much of the game at the end.
The win for the Pirates was against a North Carolina team that later would find itself and close out the season on a 6-1 tear under the direction of a new starting QB in Marquise Williams, a rising junior, culminating with an impressive 39-17 win over fellow AAC member Cincinnati in the home game like Belk Bowl. This game is going to be personal for the Tar Heels, who were thoroughly embarrassed a year ago. Don’t kid yourself, there is a reason why their schedule has a two-week prep time for this contest. It may be (and of course your UNC friends would never admit it) one of the most desired wins of the season for them. With all of the crow the UNC fans have had to eat over the past few years with the unprecedented cheating scandal, the debacle in Keenan a year ago was blisteringly painful for their fanbase. Despite this game being a week before they play a critical road game at ACC power Clemson, UNC-CH will be amped up and ready for this game.
New UNC-CH OC Seth Litrell was impressive at Indiana a year ago, mentoring an offense that finished 9th in the nation. If UNC showed an Achilles Heal in the winning stretch last year, it was in its lack of effectiveness running the football (they finished 84th). Will Litrell try to emphasize that or keep Williams in the air? The Tar Heels need to replace two all-ACC linemen, losing their left tackle (uh oh…protection) and their center (key to the calls). So what does this mean for the Pirates’ defense? While Williams was impressive at QB, he had to do it all for them, throwing and running the ball and was effective at it. But with film on him now and go-to tight end Eric Ebron now in the NFL, there is a chance that the ECU defense will be able to key on Williams and pin the ears back and go after him. UNC-CH will have talented skill guys…always do, but again the ECU defense will play a progressively less talented OL then the previous two weeks and should be able to bottle up the running attack again. The question is on the ECU secondary…can they hold up against talented skill guys like the long-bodied, athletic Quinshad Davis, the all-ACC WR? The Pirates D won’t get rolled by this UNC-CH offense, but won’t likely completely stifle them either.
So again, the ECU offense will have to out perform Williams and crew from UNC-CH. A year ago, the Pirates had absolutely no problem shredding the UNC-CH 4-2-5 defensive scheme, which has been hinted to be a complicated scheme for players to master. This may explain why a defense with so much steady talent coming in year over year, struggled the last two seasons. Even in the closing stretch last season, Duke rolled them for 461 yards. Now, with two key defensive backs gone in Tre Boston and Jabari Price and of course, the graduation of defensive lineman and all-ACC performer Kareem Martin, will be welcomed by Shane Carden, everyone knows that UNC-CH will come into Dowdy-Ficklen with a good defense, particularly at linebacker. The match-up underneath, IMO, forces Carden to work the outside first, which may not be his preferred route of dissection, where the Pirates usually carve first underneath with Justin Hardy, Isaiah Jones, and Bryce Williams. The bigger point of emphasis for ECU will come from running backs. Breon Allen and crew must show up and find ways to get to the second level so that the UNC-CH LBs cannot get a jump on pass routes and must play straight up. Still, it is hard to imagine the Pirate O not moving the ball a lot against the Tar Heels. Maybe not to the tune of 600+ yards and 55 points, but I would expect this game to see ECU put 28 to 35 on the scoreboard offensively.
If the Pirates defense can check the NC running game, the Pirates win this game, not handily, not comfortably, but win it. The home atmosphere will help buoy a surely-tired ECU team. But that said, there will be no measure of fatigue that will keep ECU from being up for this game. Pirates continue to achieve firsts in this series…this time winning 2 in a row. Let’s say, for kicks, 28-27.
October 4th, noon vs. SMU
Following a much-needed bye week, the Pirates (now 3-1) will be jacked up for their first league game in the American Athletic Conference (AAC), playing a former C-USA foe in the Mustangs from Southern Methodist. It will be a crazy atmosphere in Dowdy-Ficklen because if Pirate fans know nothing else, they know how to wear a chip. The first AAC opponent represents an opportunity to release a whole lot of angst that has been building since the Pirates were shunned by the Big East many years ago. And in the new league – which feature UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston among the former rivals, the Pirates couldn’t ask for a better match up following a brutal, toll-taking OOC slate.
A middle of the pack team a year ago (5th place finish), SMU will have to endure the rigors of a long distance road game against a Pirate team with two weeks to prepare for them. The Mustangs -in typical June Jones fashion – roll up a lot of offense, but also, unfortunately for them, give up a ton of offense and that latter point is the one that presents a scary situation for the Mustangs. Offensively, ECU will be equipped to put up a lot of offensive and points on a defense that gave up a whopping 412 yards per game. They do return 8 defensive starters, but even if they have greatly improved, they are not likely to be able to contain a seasoned O like the Pirates.
But this game, is in the hands of the defense and the match-up on paper is clearly with the Pirates. The Mustangs are returning only 5 starters. Starting with quarterback, Matt Burcham got a good amount of snaps a year ago, but was not the machine that starter Garrett Gilbert was. Gilbert is gone and now Burham has to establish his effectiveness and he will have to do it without two 1,000 yard receivers, both graduated. They do have dangerous WR Darius Joseph (808 yards receiving and 5 TDs), but the other wide outs are unknown. And, up front, they need to replace two guards on the line. This is a good match-up for an ECU front 7 that by this point in the season should be well established and seasoned by fire. It doesn’t seem likely that SMU will be able to run effectively against he ECU D and with a rebuild at the skill positions in progress, the expectations that the Mustangs will out score the ECU O is not reasonable. Unless the Pirates really are out of sync on offense, this one should be an AAC-opening victory.
I think it is close for two quarters and then the Pirates pull away for a Homecoming victory, something like 55-24.
October 11th, 7 p.m. at USF
Fresh off its first-ever AAC league win, the Pirates will be rolling at 4-1 overall and 1-0 in the league when they head to Florida to take on an old nemesis in the South Florida Bulls. Here, my friends, is one that REALLY concerns me. First, as a program, the Pirates are an Ofer against the team that lured former beloved coach Skip Holtz away from ECU. That is in zero wins for us, 4 wins for them and save a 48-47 loss to them in 2003, the games have not been close at all.
In fairness, we are a different program now and our talent level is higher. They, too, are a different program, down-trending of late, though 2nd year coach Willie Taggert may shake them out of their funk somewhat this year. On paper, this should be a game where the Pirates roll to a big win on the road. But, it concerns me nonetheless. The Bulls 2013 highlights…if you want to see them.
From a paper perspective, let’s be honest, South Florida was dreadful a year ago going 2-10 on the field. Yes, they had a new coaching staff installing their schemes and recruiting trend was down as Holtz faired poorly before he was shown the door…and we are seeing now, that maybe fate was kind to us with Holtz. So, it seems a massive jump that they would be able to right the ship quickly to the point that they would beat the Pirates, but historically, this is the very type of game ECU loses in an otherwise stellar season. Could USF be our Marshall? Our UAB? Our WTF loss in 2015?
From a scheduling perspective, our players should note that we are USF”s homecoming choice in 2014…hmmm, nice blackboard material there. The Bulls take a week off via a bye ahead of our clash, so they will have a full two weeks to prepare – although they may need it to heal up some after a tussle with Wisconsin before the bye. The Pirates should be focused and rolling by this game and with an attitude to match, looking to finally get a W against a program that cut to the front of the BCS line without paying its dues not long ago. As anyone might guess, they were a young team in 2013 – well at least from a depth chart perspective – losing only 3 starters on O and 3 on D. The QB was a frosh last year (Mike White) who was one of a bevy of QBs who got a shot – he finished the season as the starter. This year it will either be White again – signaling that the Bulls are willing to make a slow climb back – or Penn State transfer Steven Bench, who showed promise in the spring. It probably won’t matter much for one of the worst offenses in the league last year – perhaps the country. The offensive line was woeful and now the offense – that was truly inept a year ago – has to go back at it with most likely a true freshman at running back. Our defensive front should feast on this opponent, but lest we forget, somehow…somehow, this USF team figured out some way to beat Cincinnati last season. This is why I worry about this being our bonehead game of the season.
Defensively, graduation hit the Bulls hard on the defensive line which bodes well for ECU. If our offensive line can mandhandle a defensive front, Carden and crew will roll and roll and roll. And even if the Bulls leftovers and rising players can grasp the 3-4 defense (the Bulls are installing it), the Pirates have plenty of know how to work against the scheme. Again, on paper, this is a mismatch that heavily tilts towards the Pirates.
Let’s say that…we don’t pull a Tulane…Pirates roll 56-14.
So, if this is accurate, the Pirates hit the half-way mark at 5-1 and 2-0 in the AAC. Not out of the realm of possibilities. And, if they have a good showing in that early USC game, by this point, the Pirates should be getting some love in the rankings…maybe even crack the top-25, depending on how the OOC foes are faring. Ahead lies a home Thursday night game on national TV against UConn, followed by a road game at Temple (I will be at that one if anyone wants to tailgate) and then another nationally-televised game at Cincinnati in what may be the most pivotal game of the 2014 season for ECU, IMO.
Check back to read about those.
Go Pirates, Go!