Like most of you, I was cautiously optimistic about the USC game, having laid out my concerns in a previous post (where I predicted a close loss to the Gamecocks) about the South Carolina offensive line and the difficulty of playing at Williams-Brice Stadium following an opener that really told us nothing about our team. Those concerns were intensified after USC was pummeled by Texas A&M, ensuring that the Gamecocks would be uber focused on ECU rather than fighting the urge to look ahead to SEC East foe Georgia (which, fortunately, USC took care of, helping our SOS out a great deal). That added factor made it crucial that we played a near mistake-free game in order to win it. And, as Steve Logan said in his breakdown of the Virginia Tech game, by settling for FGs against USC, we left 4 points on the table each time…hence, we left the win on the table.
And, we were not mistake free either (see the blocked FG), resulting in a closer-than-the-score indicated 33-23 road loss.
In the week running up to the Virginia Tech game, I felt like we were going to see the typical Game 1 to Game 2 improvements from our team between Game 2 and Game 3. And, it played out that way. In fact, I almost nailed it in my forecast back in August when I wrote (scroll down in this previous post):
In the OOC slate (not counting NCCU), this is the one I think presents the best match up for the Pirates. I am thinking the Pirates take a closer than the score win in this one, something like 35-21.
To pat myself on the back, we was ripped off on the phantom holding call (one of litany of suspect calls IMO) on Cam Worthy on that TD run against VPI and had the zebras not cost us that…cha-ching, I would have nailed it completely. Meh…the point is, our team learned a ton from the USC game and it showed up in the visit to Blacksburg this past weekend.
For example, we learned against the Gamecocks that our offensive line was pretty damn talented and very athletic. Specifically, when a guy like Tre Robertson is a reserve…you got a very good line. The two JUCOs have delivered on a level we have not seen a JUCO OL deliver on in my limited 30 years as a fan. We learned that our receivers are THAT good. We learned that our backs are good not only pass pro, but also running the football (no matter what the play mix is). We learned that our secondary is very athletic and could be a strong group by end of year. We learned that our defense is fast. We learned that we have another big-legged punter that so far, has delivered the right kick for the right situation each time out.
We also learned that our front seven is a bit thin and that no matter how well conditioned we are, we need to ensure that we have games in hand by the time the fourth period comes around. Thank goodness we got Terry Williams back. Not just because he is so good – as he demonstrated against the Hokies – but because we need the bodies. Can you imagine this defensive front if Terrell Stanley could have been a go this season? Holy cow! Further, we learned that our offense still needs to be more consistent. We cannot, given the depth issues on defense, afford to have long periods of time without a sustained drive (even if it does not result in points). We also learned that our field goal situation is not a good one. We really need to sure this up soon.
The lessons learned from the USC game were on full display on Saturday in the convincing win over No. 17 Virgina Tech at the Terror Dome (are we allowed to still call it that?). Equally as important as the victory, to me, was the Pirates dominance at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. If ECU does this each week, we will have that dream season everyone hopes this year will be. While Shane Carden did get sacked a few times, they all appeared to be coverage sacks, not because he was running for his life. Defensively, once again, the front seven stifled the Tech offensive line, limiting them to less than 100 yards on the ground and while they did yield 389 yards of offense, most of it came in the second half with our offense playing conservative and the defense forcing Virginia Tech to drive for points.
What showed up defensively, also, was our team speed and aggressiveness not only in stopping the run but also in pass defense (a little too much so on the routes that our corners jumped in the red zone resulting in VPI TDs). And…the kids tackled well. The ingredients are there for a very good defensive unit.
Perhaps the biggest positive in this game against VPI was that with the game tied, Lincoln Riley was able to move the offense back from neutral to full-speed ahead when it was needed. Whether or not the 3rd and 4th quarter were indicative of a purposeful conservative offense or more a result of Virginia Tech balancing its offense out to grind out for TDs (keeping our O on the sideline more), what was clear was that the O came out and operated efficiently and effectively in the same manner as it had in the 1st quarter. It was a clinic, care of Carden and crew, who executed the game plan perfectly early on and then at the end.
It was great to see Cam Worthy step up huge. In my preseason sit down with Riley, he told me that Cam had worked his ass off and transformed himself from a good, raw-skilled athlete to an excellent receiver and that he was looking forward to the impact that Worthy would make this year. Well, given the stage, Worthy stole the show and I was very excited for him but even moreso for the offense. Now teams are starting to understand that they can’t throw all of their effort into stopping the Freak and stop the O…doesn’t work that way at ECU. Hardy, while quiet on the stat sheet this weekend, flipped the script on VPI and went ahead and tied up Kendall Fuller all day while Carden and Worthy, Isaiah Jones, Trevon Brown, and Bryce Williams feasted on that secondary. And, by the by, let’s not forget that Hardy not only had 4 grabs for 47 yards, he drew two key pass interference calls (probably should have drawn another 3-4 if the officials weren’t so bad) to aid the effort.
Looking now towards the North Carolina visit this weekend, the win in Blacksburg should be a cautionary tale to our players. Success is a fragile friend and now, with two emotional, big games in the rear view, our coaches and kids need to be fully focused, fully prepared, and somehow summon the energy required to face a team playing their Super Bowl this weekend in Dowdy Ficklen. Love saying that and now can reference our frienemy (pardon the use of this portmanteau or linguistic blend here) Carlton Tudor’s use of the same phrase here (read in 4th graph).
The Tar Heels have shown that they have a mobile QB who runs a balanced (at least statistically) offense and have an opportunistic defense (causing turnovers at an alarming rate so far this season). They have had two weeks to prepare for a game that is as important as any to their program and fanbase. They will bring their A game to Greenville. Our kids can ill-afford to believe anything in the press about them and I am really glad that UNC-CH is a ranked opponent because it allows our coaches to again leverage the chip.
This game is going to be a close one, IMO, because of the hype, the emotions, and the fact that our team is running on fumes after the last two games. Still, the positives going in are that DFS is sold the slam out which should provide much needed boost. Other positives are that our senior leaders appear totally focused. It is the younger guys who will have to find it somewhere inside them if we are to pull off a never-before-accomplished back-to-back win over the Tar Heels.
Best scenario for ECU: The O gets out front quickly on UNC-CH (like it did against Tech and last year against the Tar Heels) and score TDs rather than FGs. This way, our defense will be facing a pass first UNC O and our team speed will be a complete asset for us as we pin back and try to get Williams rattled and our DBs can give effort in short, effective bursts. Special teams respect their extremely talented return game.
Worst scenario for ECU: UNC-CH gets up early and begins to try to grind it out. While we do have better depth with Williams back at nose tackle, we have shown a tendency to fade some down the stretch so far this season. Our O goes dormant for stretches and fails to execute in the red zone and our special teams inexplicably kick to their all-America returner.
Our team is good enough to win this game straight up. If we execute we win…that simple. But, this game will not be an easy one. In my preseason breakdown, I predict a 1-point ECU win. I will be thrilled to walk out of that stadium with that in hand. Anything else will be gravy.
This one, IMO, comes down to individual preparedness. Ruff will have the scheme and the team well informed of what to expect and how to play it. This one is on the players – individually and collectively. If they each man up and play to their capabilities and game plan, we will fare well. If too many of them have a post VPI hangover…we will not be a happy group come this Sunday.
Let me here it friends!