Should ECU roll over North Carolina Central on Saturday night in Dowdy-Ficklen in the 2014-15 season opener? Absolutely. There is nothing about NCCU that indicates, really, a realistic chance of an upset, let a lone a scare. That said, it is a first game with the Pirates breaking in a host of new starters. And, the Pirates do have a huge statement road game looming at South Carolina a week from Saturday.
While I think that the Pirates should dominate the trenches and hence, allow the offense to operate unfettered, there are some interesting factors that might make analyzing the first game easier.
First, let’s start with the variables that do NOT bode well for NCCU:
- Coach Jimmy Mack will be coaching his first ever game as a head coach. Winning the first one on the road at a higher level opponent is not an odds on bet. He will be experiencing a lot of things on the sideline that he has never experienced before and much of it will be beyond the Xs and Os on the field. (BTW, his presser was pretty good: go here)
- The Pirates have won 8-of-the-last-9 of its home openers and the crowd will be raucous for a night game at the Fick.
- The Pirates have only lost once in its history to a 1-AA team and carry a 22-1 mark in this category of competition.
- NCCU has lost all four (4) times it has stepped up out of division since 2006 and the scores have been horribly unbalanced, losing an average of 49-8 in those games.
- NCCU was picked to finish 8th in the MEAC this season.
Now, can anything happen? Sure and that is why – as they say – you play the games. But, this NCCU team is not the 2007 App State team either in regards to talent. So, what does the match-up present?
Looking at our O vs their D, it is interesting inasmuch as the NCCU defense is a 4-2-5 alignment with essentially 5 DBs sitting there to try and stop the passing attack. This means the Pirates will face a smaller, but faster set of coverage players. So, this game is a perfect opportunity to work the running game…to see what the new linemen can do and the stable of backs getting a lot of reps to either run all over the visitors or force them to change personnel. It should also give the Pirates a chance to test the deep ball early this season…see what we have on the outside and if Shane Carden can be accurate over the top.
Our offensive line averages 6-5, 298 across the front against an NCCU defensive line averaging under 6-2, 250 pounds. This should be a decisive advantage for ECU’s offense as the OL is not only big, but also very athletic against an undersized DL. Breon Allen should have space and Chris Hairston should have lanes to the 2nd level. The caliber of talent at wide receiver should be able to work the short and intermediate routes even with 5 DBs playing tight coverage. My guess, particularly, is that we should see Davon Grayson, Cam Worthy, and Jimmy Williams really able to stretch their legs on Saturday night outside and over the top. A nice challenge for Carden to see if he can consistently hit those guys on deeper routes. The NCCU D gave up close to 450 yards of offense to opponents per game against MEAC programs along with 28+ points per game. Also of note, the NCCU defense has only 1 senior on it and 5 total upperclassmen. They are young out there and will not doubt be impacted by the atmosphere at ECU.
Flipping over to the Pirates D vs their O, our thin defensive front may have a good workout ahead, but the linebacking unit should help off-set the fact that NCCU has a pretty big OL themselves, averaging 6-4, 306 pounds. The Pirates D front is much bigger and athletic than NCCU has experienced, but with that size and a game plan to attack via the air, their could be an early challenge for our D Line. The NCCU offense is counting on new JUCO QB Quin Billerman (who threw for more than 2,900 yards and 30+ TDs at NM Military in 2013) to pass over the stout ECU defensive front and attack the newbies on the back-end. They have an experienced set of receivers, though not particularly big in stature. Still, the big tell on this offense is that a year ago, they were…well…horrible…they only managed ~264 yards of TOTAL offense a game against MEAC competition in 2013. And, from a passing perspective, they could only muster about 155 yards per game in the air. What this indicates to me, is that Saturday night we will learn very quickly if Maurice Falls and Montese Overton are the dynamic pass-rush duo we all think they are. They will have plenty of opportunities to meet at the QB. We will also see if our new set of DBs are as physical as we are hearing as they try to lock up the NCCU receivers allowing the front 7 to focus on making the visitors one-dimensional.
Where we should all be paying attention is on special teams. NCCU has one of the most dynamic kick returners in the nation, all levels considered in junior Adrian Wilkins (#21). Wilkins is a very good athlete and has a nose for kick returns (ala Dwayne Harris). Some guys just have it and Wilkins is one of those guys regardless of who it is against. Pirates coverage teams will have to perform to not allow a cheap TD or an easy field position for a team that will need those breaks to hang in there. On the ECU side, we definitely all are eager, without a doubt, to see how Worth Gregory does at punter and holder. Also, I think we see a spectacular year out of Warren Harvey this go round.
The score will be less important than how efficiently – that is, how easily – the game is won and how healthy we are afterwards.
By the way, if you want to get a small high view of NCCU, check out Ryan Weymann’s game-focused pump up vid here. Ryan does a great job on these.