ECU ready for C-USA showdown with UCF

Published 7:53 am Sunday, November 2, 2008

By Staff
By STEVE FRANKLIN, Sports Writer
After a 15-day layoff, East Carolina returns to the field tonight in Orlando as the Pirates take on Central Florida in a crucial Conference USA East Division showdown.
The Golden Knights, the preseason favorites in C-USA East, enter the contest with a 2-5 mark (1-2 in conference), while East Carolina (4-3, 2-1 in C-USA play) must win to maintain pace with Marshall atop the C-USA East standings, after the Thundering Herd topped Houston on Tuesday night.
But don’t be fooled by Central Florida’s record. The Golden Knights have played a tough non-conference schedule, with losses to South Florida, Miami and Boston College, and their in-conference losses are to No. 19 Tulsa and high-scoring UTEP.
Central Florida has struggled offensively as it is still searching for replacements for All-Conference quarterback Kyle Israel and 2,000-yard rusher Kevin Smith. Freshman Rob Calabrese and junior Joe Greco have split time as the Knights’ signal caller with neither putting up gaudy numbers. At tailback, the Golden Knights are led by Ronnie Weaver, who has amassed just 348 yards on the ground.
UCF ranks last in C-USA in scoring offense (17.9 ppg), pass offense (122.0 yards per game) and total offense (239.6 yards per game).
As bad as they are on offense, the Knights are the complete opposite on defense. And it starts with corners Joe Burnett and Johnell Neal, who each have three interceptions. They’re also stout across the defensive front, led by Torrell Troup.
East Carolina will look to attack the Knights’ stingy defense with the combination of quarterbacks Rob Kass and Patrick Pinkney. Kass came on in relief of Pinkney against Memphis and led the Pirates to 23 unanswered points in the second half, to give ECU a 30-10 win.
ECU will also have to replace troubled running back Jonathan Williams, who’s been suspended after two arrests in the month of October. They’ll turn to Norman Whitley and Brandon Simmons to carry the load.
Scouting report
Brian Haines, Sports Writer
UCF: The Knights have failed to muster any kind of offensive attack after losing 2,000 yard rusher Kevin Smith to the NFL draft in the off season. Coming into its battle with East Carolina, UCF ranks dead last amongst FBS teams in total offense averaging 248 yards per game.
After an injury to junior quarterback Michael Greco sidelined him earlier in the season, the reigning Conference USA champs have been led by true freshman Rob Calebrese for their last five games. While the rookie has been shaky, the Knights love his confidence in the huddle and his fleet feet.
The Knights have replaced Smith this season with four freshman running backs, and so far Ronnie Weaver has emerged as the leader of the pack as he leads the team with 348 rushing yards.
The Knights use a lot of three receiver sets, and are young at that position as well. Redshirt sophomore Brian Waters leads the team with 27 receptions.
Up front UCF is guided by senior left tackle Pat Brown who was a second team all-conference selection last year, and is on the Lombardi watch list this season.
ECU: The good news for the Pirates is that they finally got a 100-yard rushing performance from an individual running back in their 30-10 victory over Memphis. The bad news for the Pirates is that, that running back will not play another snap this season.
With the arrest of ECU’s leading rusher Jonathan Williams, the team is now down to Norman Whitley and Brandon Simmons at running back. Both have showed flashes of brilliance, but need to be more consistent. Look for Whitley to make the most of this opportunity.
ECU coach Skip Holtz will continue to use both Patrick Pinkey and Rob Kass at the quarterback position. Kass performed well against Memphis, as he was 9-17 with 167 passing yards and two TDs. Pinkney was 3-7 for 34 yards.
UCF: Who ever is at quarterback for the Pirates will have their hands full trying to pass against the UCF defense which is ninth in the nation in interceptions with 13. Senior defensive backs Sha’reff Rashad, Johnell Neal and Joe Burnett are all ranked 12th in the country with three picks each.
Anchoring the Knights’ 3-4 defense up front is sophomore defensive end Bruce Miller whose four sacks ranks him eighth in the conference.
ECU: The Pirates are really banged up on the defensive side of the ball as defensive lineman Marcus Hand and Khalif Mitchell are listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, while Scotty Robinson is doubtful.
Cornerback Jerek Hewett is also listed as doubtful, forcing sophomore Darryl Reynolds to get the start.
Despite all the adversity on the defensive side of the ball, most notable the absence of Quentin Cotton, the Pirates are tops in C-USA in scoring defense, third in pass defense and fourth in rushing defense.
Special teams:
UCF: The Knights feature the most dangerous kick return unit in C-USA, a group that is led by return man Joe Burnett. Burnett leads the conference with an average of 31 yards per return and two TDs. Burnett is UCF’s leader in all-purpose yards despite never playing a snap on offense.
ECU: The Pirates kick coverage unit will really have to step up on Sunday, as special teams will play a big factor in Sunday’s game. ECU ranks 10th in the conference in kick coverage, and will need play its A game if it wants to keep Burnett out of the end zone.