Pirates look to slow Houston’s explosive offense

Published 1:12 am Saturday, September 27, 2008

By By STEVE FRANKLIN, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — After a pair of grueling road games, East Carolina is happy to be back home.
Two weeks ago, the Pirates pulled off a comeback victory over Tulane in the final two minutes to win their conference opener 28-24 in New Orleans.
Then, last week in Raleigh, ECU suffered its first setback of 2008, falling to in-state rival N.C. State, 30-24 in overtime after losing a lead late in regulation.
With two hard-fought battles behind them, the Pirates are eager to get back to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, where they scored arguably their biggest win in program history over No. 8 West Virginia back on Sept. 6.
After jumping out to a 3-0 start, the Pirates stumbled last week against a one-win Wolfpack squad. Now, Coach Holtz is hoping his Pirates can regroup and pick up its second conference win when Houston (1-3) pays a visit to Greenville this afternoon for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff.
The No. 23 Pirates will face a daunting task today, as Houston brings in the country’s fourth-ranked passing offense. The Cougars have lit up their opponents for 599 yards a game and have averaged 36.2 points per game.
Holtz said he anticipates a high-scoring affair this afternoon. That means both the Pirates’ offense, and their 36th-ranked pass defense will need to rise to the challenge today.
That’s just fine with quarterback Patrick Pinkney.
Holtz added that the key to victory today will be limiting Houston’s big plays.
The Scouting Report
Houston Cougars (1-3) at No. 23 East Carolina Pirates (3-1)
At Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.
The line: Pirates are favored by 10 1/2 points
UH: The Cougars come to Greenville armed and dangerous as quarterback Case Keenum has flourished under new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen’s offense. Holgorsen spent the last three years calling plays at Texas Tech, and last season his air-attack finished second in the nation in total offense.
So far this season Keenum leads the nation in total offense, accounting for 416 yards per game, while he is second only to Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell in passing yards with 1,521.
Houston loves to spread out the field using a lot of four-wide sets, and will get the ball to all of its receivers.
The Cougars have 14 players who have registered a reception, and seven who are over double-digits (ECU only has three players with over 10 catches).
Tight end Mark Hafner has emerged as Keenum’s favorite target, as he has 30 catches for 319 yards and seven TDs. Tyron Carrier is second on the team with 24 receptions for 228 yards and three scores.
Averaging 6.7 yards per carry, Bryce Beal is the team’s leading rusher, and accounts for 55 rushing yards per game. East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said the Cougars like to use short passing routes as an extension of their running game, but when they do go to the ground they can be dangerous.
ECU: East Carolina sophomore running back Norman Whitley may have emerged as a serious rushing threat for the Pirates.
On the season East Carolina is averaging a modest 132 rushing yards per game, which ranks them eighth in Conference USA. Behind Whitley’s team-leading 83 yards ECU tallied 173 for the game, which is a good number for a ball-control offense that features three quality backs.
Look for the Pirates to really grind out the ball and get up over the 200 mark against a Houston run defense that ranks 115th in the nation (235 yards per game) against the run.
UH: The Cougars’ offense puts up a lot of points, and they need to the way their defense has been playing. Houston has allowed 438 yards per game, which ranks 107 out of 119 FBS teams.
Houston is led by senior defensive end Philip Hunt, who racked up 10.5 sacks last season and 18 tackles for a loss en route to being named to the C-USA first team. Hunt leads the team with three sacks this season.
Under first-year coach Kevin Sumlin the Cougars have gone from a 3-4 team to a 4-3 team, and are still in the learning process of a new system.
During his Monday morning press conference, Holtz said he was impressed with the play of Houston safeties Ernest Miller and Kenneth Fontenette.
Strong side linebacker Matt Nicholson leads the team in tackles with 30.
ECU: The East Carolina secondary looked shaky at times, and susceptible to the deep ball in its last two games. That’s not good news for the Pirates as they face the high-powered Houston offense.
Holtz shouldered some of the blame for his secondary Monday morning by saying that he should not have played cornerback Van Eskridge and safety J.J. Millbrook for the entire game against the Wolfpack.
Pressure from the Pirates’ defensive line will be crucial today, as ECU will have to play a lot of nickel and dime packages against the Cougars.
Special Teams:
UH: Wide receiver Patrick Edwards has done a nice job on kick returns for the Cougars, averaging 22.6 yards per return. Edwards has 4.3 speed and is capable of busting a big one if the Pirates don’t wrap him up early.
ECU: East Carolina struggled last week with NCSU’s speedy kick off returner T.J. Graham. Graham’s 45-yard kick return in the fourth quarter was key to the Wolfpack’s game-tying scoring drive.
— Brian Haines