Pirates look to bounce back against rival Tar HeelsPublished 4:21pm Friday, September 27, 2013
GREENVILLE —Ruffin McNeill has always been blessed with the ability to light up a room when it’s time to give a speech, but the Pirates fourth-year head coach had to summon all his vocal prowess when it came time to talk his players after East Carolina came a few plays a way from taking down Virginia Tech its last time out.
“The last game we played, that was a tough locker room to address,” McNeill said. “I’ve addressed a lot of locker rooms as a coordinator and a head coach, and its tough.”
What made it so difficult was the fact that the Pirates knew they were in a winnable game against an ACC team, but their normally potent offense managed only 204 yards and 10 points, wasting a staunch effort by a defense that surrendered only 15 points and has appeared to turn the corner.
The Pirates had a week off after their loss to the Hokies, giving them time to work out some kinks, which McNeill is hoping leads to a much different postgame speech after East Carolina (2-1, Conference USA) clashes with instate rival North Carolina (1-2, ACC) today at 12:30 p.m. at Kenan Stadium.
After falling to South Carolina 27-10 in Week 1, the Tar Heels picked up their first win of the season against another Conference USA team, Middle Tennessee, before falling to Georgia Tech 28-20 a week ago.
North Carolina holds a 12-2-1 lifetime record against the Pirates, and the last time it lost to ECU at home was in 1975.
Like the Pirates, the North Carolina offense, under the direction of second-year coach Larry Fedora, puts a heavy emphasis on tempo. However, the unit has not fully clicked so far this season as it is still figuring out how to compensate for the the loss of running back Giovanni Bernard and guard Jonathan Cooper, who are now both in the NFL.
The Tar Heels enter today’s contest averaging 23.3 points per game, compared to ECU’s 31, and are led by star senior quarterback Bryn Renner, who many believe by this time next year will be playing on Sundays with Bernard and Cooper.
On the season the 6-3, 225-pound Renner has completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 751 yards and four touchdowns.
“He can throw the ball and hit a dime at 50 yards,” ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “I think they’re the best football team we have seen so far and I hope they wait another week before they really start clicking.”
Expect Renner to be throwing his pinpoint accurate passes to explosive 6-4, 245-pound junior TE Eric Ebron, a matchup nightmare who leads UNC with 13 receptions for 200 yards.
On a whole, the Heels’ receiving corps is dynamic and blessed with height. Sean Tapley is a 6-1 junior who has eight receptions for 130 yards, 6-4 sophomore Quinshad Davis has eight catches for 93 yards, while 6-2 sophomore Kendrick Singleton has two for 23.
“It’s a bunch of really, really good wide receivers,” Smith said. “Ebron is a phenomenal athlete … he can run, catch and block. He’s special. I don’t know how you take him away and double him because those other guys are pretty good too. I think the strength of their football team is the skill position.”
Offense seeks bounce back performance
The potent Pirates offense suffered a setback against Virginia Tech as junior quarterback Shane Carden went 19-for-31 for only 158 yards and one score, while throwing three interceptions.
The Hokies 4-2-5 defense was able to generate pressure with its front four while their athletic secondary locked down the Pirates receivers in man coverage, which resulted in seven sacks.
“They did a good job up front. They were able to play a man on the back end. Bud [Foster] has one of the top defenses in the country and you have to give him credit,” McNeill said. “We took what we learned from that game and worked on it. I like the way our staff fixes things. We’ll bounce back and learn from it.”
East Carolina will face another 4-2-5 defense today, but offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said that while the alignment is similar the schemes vary.
“The front does some similar things but the back end is a little different,” Riley said. “(UNC) is a lot more of a zone based team. They will play some man. … But again, it’s another defense with good athletes that can run around and make plays.”
Linebackers Jeff Schoettmer and Travis Hughes lead UNC in tackles with 23 and 22, respectively, while LB/DE hybrid Otis Norkeithus’s three sacks are a team-high.
Senior safety Tre Boston is the leader of the secondary and will be a big factor in today’s game.
East Carolina will counter behind Carden, who has completed 74 percent of his passes for 796 yards and eight touchdown passes, and an electric group of wide receivers led by junior Justin Hardy, whose 6.8 receptions per game is the third-highest total in the FBS.
On the season, Hardy has caught 26 passes for 258 yards and one score.
A big key for ECU today will be just how much it gets RB Vintavious Cooper involved. Cooper, who is averaging 4 yards per carry and 9.6 yards per reception, has shown the ability to be a menace in both the ground and air game and his presence in both is vital.
Defense on the rise
A definite bright spot in ECU’s 15-10 loss to Virginia Tech was the play of its much-maligned defense. Despite the fact that ILBs Brandon Williams and Zeek Bigger where making their first career starts, the ECU defense turned in it’s best performance of the year.
Filling in for injured starters Jeremy Grove (chest) and Kyle Tudor (shoulder), Williams and Bigger combined for 21 tackles (Williams had a game-high 12).
The duo helped the ECU D achieve its prime objective: stopping the run, as the Hokies rushed for only 55 yards.
“I believe if you stop the run you have a great chance to win and because we stopped the run we had a great chance to win,” Smith said.
Smith said that Bigger and Williams will get the start again today. Tudor practiced with the team this week and is listed as probable, while Grove will remain on the sideline.