Pirates begin C-USA play today at USMPublished 6:27pm Friday, September 14, 2012
GREENVILLE — It’s time to breakout the measuring stick for East Carolina. The Pirates earned a comfortable 35-13 win over FCS Appalachian State in Week 1 before getting dismantled by No. 9 South Carolina 48-10 in Week 2.
Today, East Carolina (1-1) will play its Conference USA opener on the road against defending league champs Southern Miss (0-1) and the contest should offer a truer measure of the Pirates’ ablities.
Both teams head into the game with questions at quarterback. Junior Rio Johnson (46-72, 435, 2 TDs) won the Pirates’ preseason QB battle over sophomore Shane Carden, but could not hold on to the job as he threw four interceptions in two games.
Carden, who threw a pick on his first collegiate pass attempt in the second half versus the Gamecocks, recollected himself and finished the contest hitting 12 of his 18 pass attempts for 140 yards and a score. That effort was good enough to earn him the starting nod for today’s C-USA opener.
“Rio’s done a lot of great things, but taking care of the ball is No. 1 for us,” ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “He didn’t do that so we had to make a change.”
All season long both ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill and Riley have stated how much confidence they have in both QBs and when asked how confident he was that Carden would have a good outing against the Eagles Riley said “Very confident.”
The Golden Eagles felt compelled to make a change at the QB spot as well after junior Chris Campbell started against No. 17 Nebraska in Week 1 and went 6-for-11 for 69 yards and one scoring pass in the Golden Eagles 49-20 loss.
USM had a bye in Week 2.
True freshman quarterback Anthony Alford completed only one of his five pass attempts versus the Cornhuskers, but it was the athletic QB’s 15 rushing attempts for a team-high 84 yards that persuaded USM’s first-year coach Ellis Johnson to give him the start.
“He’s a threat with the ball and what that does is it opens up the game for the running back a little more often,” Johnson said. “When a quarterback is a threat to go 50 (yards), they’re going to be worried about him.”
ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said that his unit must contain Alford.
“That kid’s a very athletic individual,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to defend what they’ve shown on film and we’ll have some contingency plans if they go outside of that.”
Keeping Alford in the pocket will be critical, but slowing down Tracy Lampley, the Eagles 5-9, 168-pound do-it-all weapon is a must for the Pirates.
Last year Lampley, who is on the verge of becoming the first USM player in school history to eclipse the career 1,000-yard mark in rushing (969), receiving (905), kickoff returns (1,189) and punt returns (816), ripped off a 70-yard punt return for a TD in the Eagles’ 48-20 victory over the Pirates last year.
Lampley was named the 2012 Preseason Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Year and the Pirates will need to bottle him up today if they want to be successful.
“Special teams is big every week but it will be even bigger this week because of Lampley,” McNeill said. “Tracy is one of the top returners in the country, period.”
Under the Pirates’ first-year special teams coach Kirk Doll ECU ranks 102nd in punt return defense and 99th in kickoff return defense.
Offensively, the Pirates’ QB shuffle hasn’t seemed to bother 6-0, 185-pound sophomore WR Justin Hardy, who has been sensational so far this year.
Hardy leads the team with 14 receptions for 149 yards and two scores and has been the Pirates most consistent weapon.
“Justin is a player that we need to keep getting the ball to,” McNeill said. “He is one of those guys that can make plays.”
Allowing Hardy time to get open is an ECU offensive line that drew high praise from Riley after the South Carolina game.
“They dominated in pass pro. They absolutely dominated in pass pro there was no question about that,” Riley said. “There were not many pressures, we let up one sack. I just felt they have to improve in the run game.”
ECU will face a tough Eagles defense led by star DE/LB Jamie Collins and junior cornerback Deron Wilson who has made 29 straight starts.