East Carolina WR Justin Hardy (left) and the Pirates will resume C-USA play tonight when they host UTEP at 7 p.m. (ECU Photo/Rob Goldberg)

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ECU looks to get in the zone

Published 6:33pm Friday, September 28, 2012

GREENVILLE — After being on the road for the past three weeks the Pirates have made their way back to Greenville and are hoping they can find their way back to the end zone as well.
Crossing the goal line is something East Carolina (2-2, 1-0) failed to do in last week’s 27-6 loss to North Carolina as it reached the red zone twice and both times were forced to settle for Warren Harvey field goals.
Tonight, ECU will return to Conference USA action as it hosts UTEP (1-3, 0-0) at 7 p.m. and it is imperative that the Pirates make the most of their scoring opportunities.
Under head coach Ruffin McNeill and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley ECU has been traditionally strong inside the 20. However, as they break in sophomore QB Shane Carden, the point totals have dipped as ECU ranks 76th nationally in red zone efficiency and 118th in scoring with 18.8 points per game.
“(Red zone scoring) is something we’ve been really good at here. Once we get inside the red zone we usually get touchdowns a high percentage of the times,” Riley said. “(Against UNC) we just didn’t execute down there. We had some things that when you go back and look at where there but we just got to finish.”
After throwing five interceptions in the first two games, the Pirates placed a premium on ball security and the result has been zero picks in the last two contests. A subsequent effect of that has been that Carden, who will be making only the third start of his career tonight, has been a bit hesitant to pull the trigger, which in part rationalizes the seven sacks tallied by the Tar Heels last Saturday.
As ECU goes forward with Carden, the next phase in his development is for him to play with confidence.
“He’s been a little too conservative,” Riley said. “His aggression and learning spots where we can take some chances is part of him growing.”
The team broke out of summer camp with a playbook tailored more towards opening day starter Rio Johnson, but with Carden now at the helm McNeill said he will tweak the playbook to better suit his strengths.
Part of that process will be to simplify the offense for the inexperienced passer.
“We talked about scaling down a little bit to make sure he feels comfortable,” McNeill said. “He’s grasping (the offense) but when the bullets are flying and the game is going on you want to take a step back a little bit, but we don’t want him to hesitate.”
East Carolina will host a Miners team that is brimming with confidence despite its 1-3 record as they played competitive contests against a loaded nonconference schedule that included Oklahoma, Ole Miss and Wisconsin, who they lost to 37-26 last Saturday. UTEP’s lone victory came in a 41-28 blowout of New Mexico State.
The Miners are led by preseason all-Conference USA QB Nick Lamaison, who has completed 55 percent of his passes for 811 yards, seven TDs and zero interceptions.
UTEP runs a spread offense and 5-11, 205-pound sophomore RB Nathan Jeffery has been a key element in its attack. Jeffery has been banged up early this season but returned to action versus Wisconsin and is expected to be at or near full strength tonight. Jeffery averages 6.4 yards per carry and leads the team with 186 rushing yards.
Michael Edwards, UTEP’s 5-11, 190-pound WR/return man has caught a team-high 21 passes for 325 yards and three scores and is ranked 32nd nationally with 134.5 all-purpose yards per game.
The Pirates will combat the Miners with a defense that ranks 47th nationally with 2.3 sacks per game, while being ranked 33rd against the run allowing 117.5 rushing yards a contest.
Defensively, UTEP features an  undersized front seven which is something that ECU might look to take advantage of with its run game.
UTEP DE Horace Miller has been a force in pass rushing situations and is tied for the C-USA lead with four sacks.
The kicking game could be interesting tonight as UTEP has missed two extra points in the last two games and has made only 75 percent of its kicks. Harvey, the Pirates’ strong-legged kicker has made 50 percent of his attempts and is 1-for-5  from beyond the 30.

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