Pirates look to navigate past HurricanePublished 6:22pm Friday, November 8, 2013
GREENVILLE — It may not be the East vs. West showdown that everyone expected, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a dogfight.
Today’s East Carolina-Tulsa matchup was originally viewed as one of the Pirates most prolific league games of the season, pitting the defending Conference USA champion Golden Hurricane against an ECU team that is looking to bring that crown back to Greenville.
However, Tulsa has stumbled upon tough times this season, and with a 2-6 (1-3) record, finds itself sitting in sixth place in the West.
The Pirates (6-2, 4-1), on the other hand, are still on course to represent the East, but with Marshall (5-3, 3-1) hot on their heels they must navigate their way through the Hurricane to keep control of their destiny.
East Carolina’s fourth-year coach Ruffin McNeill, who got his first coaching win with the Pirates in a 51-49 thriller over Tulsa in 2010, couldn’t say exactly why the Hurricane isn’t winning, but that effort is not the issue.
“I can’t answer (why Tulsa is struggling) because I’m not inside their program,” McNeill said. “I know they play hard, extremely hard. When you watch them on film they’re very sound.”
East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said that teams with a pedigree like Tulsa’s must always be feared.
“They’re a championship team. A lot of those guys were part of that team that won the conference championship last year and that doesn’t just go away,” Riley said. “I know they’ve had a couple of close losses and a couple of things that haven’t gone their way, but they’re a good football team.
“You can sit there and look at their record and say one thing, but the people that go watch the film and know football, they see a good football team there.”
The two programs have played each other a total of 10 teams and have each won five games.
East Carolina offense vs. Tulsa defense
The Pirates offense gave a pedestrian performance during last week’s 34-13 victory on the road versus Florida International, but it was enough to get the win.
Like every game this year, ECU came out firing in the first quarter, racking up 14 points, but managed only seven during the middle quarters and needed a trick play to capture 13 fourth-quarter points.
When the offense is operating at its highest level senior running back Vintavious Cooper is a threat in both the running and passing game. However, Cooper had only six carries going into the fourth quarter.
Cooper did end the game with a rushing TD and TD reception, but finished the contest with only 14 attempts for 48 yards.
East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said that the running game was on the verge of a big time performance, but was held back by lack of execution.
“The run game was close. We did so many really good things in the run game,” Riley said. “I told the guys after watching the film that 95 percent of what we’re doing in the run game is really good, we just have to go get that last percent.
“(That five percent) isn’t just one thing. We would have everything perfect and then a back would slip or we would have everything set up and a receiver would come off a block. … If we can just clean up that five percent the results are coming.”
Those results could come as early as today, as Tulsa ranks 11th in Conference USA in run defense, allowing 198 yards per contest.
The Hurricane, which runs hybrid heavy 4-3 defense, fares much better against the pass, where its 195 yards allowed per game ranks second in the league.
Tulsa is led in tackling by 5-10, 195-pound senior Bandit backer Michael Mudoh, whose 88 stops are the second-most in C-USA.
East Carolina defense vs. Tulsa offense
The Pirates defense will have its hands full with Tulsa running back Trey Watts. The senior all-purpose back ranks third in Conference USA with 737 rushing yards, while leading his team with 37 receptions and is the key to the Hurricane offense.
“He’s a really good running back,” ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “(Watts) is a great player. They put him everywhere on the field. They put him in the backfield and hand him the ball and they put him out at receiver and throw him the ball. It’s kind of hard to get a bead on where he’s going to be.”
Stopping the run has been ECU’s specialty this season as its 85 rushing yards allowed per game ranks third in the nation.
The Pirates have also excelled at rushing the passer, and with 3.6 sacks per game, rank No. 1 in the nation.
That could be bad news for Tulsa, who is rumored to be giving redshirt freshman Dane Evans his second career start today.
Senior quarterback Cody Green has struggled this season, throwing for 1,312 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions.
Green threw for only 46 yards during the Hurricane’s 34-15 loss to UTSA last week, forcing coach Bill Blankenship to contemplate a change at the quarterback position.
“We’re having those discussions,” Blankenship said Monday. “If there had been one guy that was clearly playing better, it would be an easy decision. Their performance can help you make a decision. As it is, there’s not been a whole lot of difference. I could give you the pluses and minuses of each guy. It’s all on the table.”
The Pirates defense is led by senior OLB Derrell Johnson, who has 51 tackles and 4.5 sacks, while safety Damon Magazu’s three interceptions are a team-high.