Pirates look to tame the TigersPublished 3:57pm Friday, October 12, 2012
GREENVILLE — The second half of East Carolina’s season begins today, as the Pirates will look to rid themselves of their hangover from their loss to Central Florida by taking on a Memphis team that has been a perennial Conference USA doormat.
The Tigers (1-4, 1-0) earned their second C-USA win in the last year-and-a-half last week as they overcome a 10-0 halftime deficit to top Rice 14-10.
The victory was the first for Memphis’ new coach Justin Fuente, a former co-offensive coordinator at TCU. Under Fuente the Tigers have a new look on offense and defense, and the first-year coach is also hoping to give the program a new reputation as well by trying to top an East Carolina team (3-3, 2-1) that has been one of the league’s signature programs over the last few years.
The Pirates’ hopes of winning a Conference USA East Division title suffered a setback last week as they fell 40-20 to UCF, but with half the season still remaining ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said his team must keep fighting.
“My job is to try to get the team to realize that we still have a lot of season left. We have six games left and can still accomplish a lot as a team,” McNeill said. “Our division has not been won yet. Our goals are still out there for us. We need to continue to attack and follow our plan of action to reach them.”
The signature moment in the loss to the Knights was a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by UCF’s Quincy that proved to be a counterpunch the Pirates never recovered from.
The Pirates currently rank dead last in the FBS in kickoff coverage allowing 33.6 yards per return, which has led to some shakeups in the unit.
“We changed some guys,” McNeill said. “That’s one of the things we evaluated and we put some guys on there that we think can make plays. Some starters may be doubling up.”
Memphis kickoff return man Bobby McCain is statistically one of the best in the nation as he averages 32.9 yards per return, which ranks fifth in the FBS.
“He’s got great speed and he’s got a knack to hit it, so does (Keiwone) Malone on punts,” McNeill said. “They do a good job of blocking for them.”
With Fuente at the helm, Memphis runs more of spread-style offense and plenty of read-option plays, which McNeill said gives the unit more of an “Oregon” style flavor.
Triggering the offense is senior Jacob Karam, who spent his first four years at Texas Tech before transferring to Memphis. Karam has completed 59 percent of his passes this season for 787 yards and six TDs, while throwing only one interception.
Karam was at Texas Tech while McNeill, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell were a part of the Red Raiders’ coaching staff and Mitchell said having a little extra knowledge of Karam is a big advantage.
“He was our scout team quarterback and we know his strengths and we know his weaknesses,” Mitchell said.
Karam has two quality wideouts to throw to in Malone (25-272, 2 TDs) and senior Marcus Rucker (20-263, 3 TDs). The 6-4, 190-pound Rucker has established himself as one of the Tigers top receivers as he is 10th all-time on the school’s career receiving yards list (1,403), 11th in receptions (99) and seventh in TD receptions (14).
The Pirates’ offense has had its ups and downs this season but sophomore WR Justin Hardy has been routinely magnificent and leads the team with 39 catches for 480 yards and five TDs.
Last week ECU’s offensive line struggled against the Knights but Riley said that the unit, which has had all five players start all six games, should benefit from that continuity in the second half of the year.
The Tigers moved to a 3-4 on defense under Fuente. Defensively, the Memphis front seven does not like to tip its hand early as it meanders around the line of scrimmage until the last possible second.
“They try to move around a little bit and create some indecision and they’ve done a good job,” Riley said. “I think Rice was really indecisive all night and they created a lot of problems for them. … It will be key for our guys to get a good bead on what they’re doing.”