Pirates on the cusp of bowl eligibilityPublished 5:32pm Friday, November 1, 2013
GREENVILLE — The Pirates march to Miami looking to cross off one of its major goals this season, as East Carolina will attempt to win its sixth game of the year and clinch bowl eligibility when it takes on Florida International at 6 p.m. today.
East Carolina (5-2, 3-1 Conference USA) couldn’t ask for a better postseason-clinching scenario as it rolls into the matchup with the struggling Panthers (1-6, 1-2 C-USA) fresh off a 55-14 thumping of Southern Miss, which was followed by a bye week.
“It’s very important for us to be bowl eligible,” said ECU’s fourth-year coach Ruffin McNeill. “We’ve missed it one time since I’ve been here, but I haven’t missed it many times during my coaching years, personally. … That is one of our goals.”
If the Pirates, who are 23-point favorites, win today they will make their second straight bowl appearances and ninth since 2000.
Today’s contest will mark the first meeting between ECU and Conference USA newcomers FIU.
The Panthers, who squeezed past Southern Miss 24-23 to pick up its first win of the year, are in the midst of a two-game losing streak and have been held to 10 points or less in four of their seven games.
Pirates offense vs. Panthers defense
Despite the loss of several key receivers for various reasons, the Pirates offense keeps humming along. With its 55-14 thrashing of Southern Miss, ECU now boasts the 26th-highest scoring offense in the FBS (37.1 ppg), a number fueled by its astounding third down conversion percentage of 53.1 percent, which is the sixth-best in the nation.
Junior quarterback Shane Carden is tops in the country in completion percentage (74.5 percent) and 13th in passing yards (2,325) and is in sniping distance of the school’s single season record for passing yards, needing to average 328.4 yards over the final five games to tie Dominique Davis’ mark of 3,967 set in 2010.
Junior wide receiver Justin Hardy has been equally hot and leads Conference USA in receptions per game (9.6) and receiving yards per game (109.3).
The Pirates offense will be challenged by a Panthers’ defense that has been surprising strong against the pass this year, ranking fourth in the league (209.3 ypg) despite playing the likes of Louisville and Maryland.
Junior safety Justin Halley and senior corner Sam Miller lead FIU with two interceptions each, while senior LB Markeith Russell is the team’s top tackler with 55 stops.
Up front, FIU boasts nearly 600 pounds worth of defensive tackles in seniors Isame Faciane (6-5, 300) and Greg Hickman (6-2, 280) and that duo will pose a challenge to the Pirates offensive line.
“I think their two inside guys on the defensive line are two of the best we’ve seen,” Riley said. “(Faciane) and (Hickman) are really good football players. They’re physical and anchor a solid defensive line.”
That could potentially be an issue for ECU as it will likely be without starting right tackle Adhem Elsawi, who is listed as questionable with an eye injury.
Starting in his place will be 6-5, 325-pound sophomore Tre Robertson, who has been worked into the rotation during practices this season.
“Tre has been exposed to our offense and has a good understanding of what we want, offensively,” McNeill said. “You can’t replace Adam (Elsawi) and what he brings to the table leadership-wise and experience-wise, but I expect Tre to play well on Saturday.”
Pirates defense vs. Panthers offense
After seven games the Pirates pass defense ranks 96th in the country, allowing 255 passing yards per game, but that’s largely a byproduct of a decision to concentrate on stopping the run.
First-year defensive coordinator Rick Smith has been ardent about making teams one-dimensional, and with a run defense that ranks third in the nation (87 ypg), his game plan has been effective.
All together, ECU ranks 16th in the FBS in total defense (342.1 ypg) and its 2.9 sacks per game ranks 22nd.
Linebackers Brandon Williams and Derrell Johnson are tied for the team lead in tackles with 44 each, while defensive end Lee Pegues leads ECU with four sacks and safety Damon Magazu has a team-best three interceptions.
The FIU offense has floundered so far this season, averaging a C-USA-worst 11.1 points per game. The Panthers are last in total offense (219 ypg), rushing offense (74.4) and passing offense (145.1 ypg).
All of the above has led first-year coach Ron Turner to make a change at the quarterback position. For the first time this season sophomore E.J. Hilliard (22-35-1, 195, 2 TDs) will start over junior Jake Medlock (63-125-6, 821, 4 TDs) for reasons that don’t relate to health.
Sophomore WR T.J. Lowder and freshman TE Jonnu Smith lead FIU with 16 receptions each — one less than Justin Hardy had versus Tulane alone — while Silas Spearman is the team’s top rusher, gaining 252 yards on 2.9 per attempt.
Statistically, the Panthers appear to be an inferior offense, but their versatile personnel can be tricky to match up with if the Pirates defense is not on their toes.
“They do some things that create problems for you on defense because they lineup in a 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) but then they can get in every formation there is,” ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “They got two tight ends that could be NFL guys one day. (Ya’keem Griner) is about 6-5 and sophomore (Smith) is about 6-4 and he can run and that’s why they use those guys.”
“They’re such good athletes, not only can they lineup in the tight end position and block and run routes, but they can line them up as wide receiver and run routes and they can line up at fullback. … With these guys, if they’re in 12 personnel it’s hard to get a tendency on them because they can be in any formation.”