A look inside the Liberty Bowl matchups

Published 7:28 pm Friday, January 2, 2009

By Staff
ECU: East Carolina enters today’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl with an offense that has been inconsistent at times. The Pirates are averaging 23.7 points per game, but were held to under 20 points in four straight games during November. They got on track late, averaging 40 points per game in their last two contests. ECU’s offense ranked ninth among 12 teams in C-USA as it averaged 336 yards per game. Senior Patrick Pinkney, who will make his 18th career start at quarterback in the Liberty Bowl, leads the Pirates’ offense with 2,379 passing yards and 12 touchdown tosses. His favorite target Dwayne Harris (58 receptions for 654 yards) was lost for the season in a win over Marshall on Oct. 18, so since then, Pinkney has found chemistry with tight end Davon Drew, who has caught a career-best 38 catches for 575 yards with three touchdown catches. In the backfield, the Pirates feature a two-back tandem as sophomore Norman Whitley leads the way with 667 yards and four rushing touchdowns, while senior Brandon Simmons has been a bruiser, rushing for 430 yards and six scores.
UK: The Wildcats enter the Liberty Bowl with an offense that’s averaged 22.4 points per contest. Kentucky will turn the starting quarterback job back over to Mike Hartline today, who started the first eight games before being benched for the final four. Hartline has thrown for 1,462 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. The ’Cats will also likely use freshman Randall Cobb under center. Cobb has had his troubles throwing the ball (542 passing yards with just two touchdowns and five interceptions), but he’s a rushing threat with 316 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns. The Wildcats leading rusher is Tony Dixon, who has mustered just 341 yards, but has found the end zone seven times. Kentucky also features a balanced receiving attack as 12 guys have caught at least 10 passes this season.
ECU: The Pirates defense has carried the team all season long. They’ll be expected to do it again today. Last time out, ECU created a season-best seven turnovers in a 27-24 win over Tulsa in the Conference USA title game. East Carolina now ranks fourth in the nation, creating 32 turnovers. Their 21 interceptions also rank fourth in the country. It all starts with the four guys up front. C.J. Wilson, Jay Ross, Linvall Joseph and Zack Slate have all had terrific years. Wilson leads the team with 10.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles-for-a-loss. At linebacker, Pierre Bell and Nick Johnson pace the Pirates. Bell has a team-best 92 tackles, 9.5 TFL’s and two interceptions, while Johnson has logged 89 tackles, 10 TFL’s and two interceptions. Junior safety Van Eskridge leads the Pirates’ secondary with 89 tackles and a team best four interceptions.
UK: Save for contests against Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt, the Wildcats’ defense has been stout. The ’Cats are giving up 21.2 points per game, but in four non-conference games, Kentucky is allowing just 5.5 points per contest. Leading the defensive effort are linebackers Micah Johnson and Braxton Kelley. Johnson has 87 tackles and 11.5 TFLs, while Kelley has logged 90 tackles and 6.5 TFL’s. Along the defensive front, Jeremy Jarmon and Myron Pryor have had good years. Jarmon has made 28 tackles and 3.5 sacks, while Pryor has netted 10 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. In the secondary, Marcus McClinton and Trevard Lindley have each hauled in a team-best four interceptions.
Special Teams
ECU: Kicker Ben Hartman has had an up-and-down season. The junior set a single-season record with 19 field goals, but also misfired on 10 attempts. His season-long is 51 yards. Punter Matt Dodge ranks 16th in the nation with a 43.5 yard punting average.
UK: Lones Seiber and Ryan Tydlacka have shared the kicking duties for Kentucky. The two have combined to connect on just 12-of-22 field goal attempts and have had three kicks blocked. — Steve Franklin