Pirates on the right pathPublished 7:15pm Monday, October 7, 2013
GREENVILLE — It may not have been the high-powered, point-for-point shootout that East Carolina fans have become accustomed to, but that does not diminish the significance of Saturday’s 24-17 victory over Middle Tennessee State.
With the win, ECU (4-1, 2-0) now sits alone atop the Conference USA East Division standings and are one of only two teams in the East with an overall record above .500, with the other one being Marshall (3-2, 1-0).
Saturday’s game was the first of a string of six straight conference contests and there’s no doubt Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill was thrilled to begin that stretch with a victory.
“I was very happy and very pleased with our win on Saturday,” McNeill said. “It was a conference game number one, which is very important to us and our program. But it was also a division game, which is more important.”
With MTSU (3-3, 1-1) out of the way, the Pirates’ path toward a division title looks pretty smooth, as their five upcoming opponents own a combined overall record of 7-19 and a C-USA record of 3-3.
Tulane (4-2, 2-0), who ECU will play in New Orleans this Saturday at 3:30 p.m., accounts for two of those three conference wins and presents the biggest Conference USA obstacle to the Pirates before their season finale against Marshall.
East Carolina holds a 10-2 lifetime record against the Green Wave, who has eight returning starters on defense and are quarterbacked by Nick Montana, the son of NFL legend Joe Montana.
“Defensively, they have a lot of speed,” McNeill said. “It seems like we’re playing a fast defense each week … They play a lot of kids up front that all have mobility.”
On Saturday, Tulane improved its conference mark to 2-0 thanks to a last-second 27-yard field goal kick by Cairo Santos to give it a 24-21 victory over North Texas.
Running in a new direction
The Pirates offense suffered a big blow against the Blue Raiders on Saturday as leading rusher Vintavious Cooper (372 yards) sustained a concussion late in the first quarter.
Cooper is listed as out for this Saturday and there is no timetable set for his return.
With the temporary loss of Cooper, and the season-ending knee injury sustained by No. 2 running back Cory Hunter, the Pirates depth chart at the RB position is looking slim. However, sophomore Chris Hairston appears ready to handle his enhanced role, as he rushed for 94 yards on 18 attempts against MTSU.
“I thought Chris Hairston did a good job of seizing the moment,” McNeill said. “He ran relentlessly, which we need, but he also protected the football, which is important.”
Next man up
The Pirates have done an excellent job of replacing personnel so far this season, with Hairston’s 94-yard effort against MTSU being the latest example.
Since the preseason, ECU has had to deal with the loss several key players, whether it be for the year or stretches of games, and their replacements have stepped up to the challenge.
The first wave of roster shakeups happened before season even started with the losses of standout wide receivers Justin Jones (eligibility) and Jabril Soloman (transfer).
The next wave hit in Week 3 when it was announced that starting ILBs Jeremy Grove (chest) and Kyle Tudor (shoulder) would be sidelined with injuries, which was followed by the suspension of promising nose tackle Terry Williams, who violated team rules.
However, freshmen WR Davon Grayson (17-168, 4 TDs) and Isaiah Jones (11-90, 1 TD), along with speedy junior Lance Ray (11-133, 2 TDs), have kept the Pirates offense potent.
Defensively, linebackers Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams have excelled in the starting lineup, combing for 63 tackles and 5.5 tackles for a loss, while Chrishon Rose has done a nice job filling in for Williams up front.
Losing two starting ILBs and a stellar nose tackle can be a huge hit to a defense, particularly against the run, but don’t tell that to ECU. Despite playing the Hokies and the Tar Heels in back-to-back weeks before taking on MTSU, the Pirates currently rank fifth in the nation in run defense, yielding only 80.6 yards per game.
The loss of Hunter for the season wasn’t the only one announced on Monday, as freshman WR Jimmy Williams, who just had his redshirt removed before the UNC game, is out for the year with a foot injury and DE Jeton Beavers will miss the season with a back injury.
On a positive note, Grove, who has sat out the last three contests with a chest injury, is listed as probably for Saturday.