ECU defense ready to defend its title|Unit will be counted on heavily in Pirates’ conference opener

Published 7:50 pm Thursday, September 24, 2009

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — Heading into this season East Carolina’s defense was looked upon as the key element in the Pirates defense of their Conference USA title. Despite a few highlight reel passes from its opponents, defense remains the bread and butter of this team, and will be counted on heavily this Saturday as the Pirates head into their C-USA opener against the University of Central Florida at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at 3:30 p.m.
The ECU defense has had its up and downs this season. A big last minute, fourth-quarter stand against Appalachian State helped the team capture its first win. However, allowing West Virginia to pass for 334 yards and No. 24 North Carolina to come within 15 yards of 300 contributed to its 1-2 record.
For the most part, the Pirates’ defense has been a steady force, but the injury of safety Levin Neal and corner back Emmanuel Davis has greatly hampered the secondary and allowed teams to strike deep.
On Monday, East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said that the statistics are not indicative of how well the defense has played. Holtz noted that of the 130 snaps the unit has been on the field for in the last two games, it has given up 940 yards, with 500 yards coming off of 16 plays.
On Wednesday, Pirates’ defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said he is pleased with the play of his defense and its work ethic.
“I like where we are at,” Hudson said. “There are 16 plays I would like to have back … but the couple of other 190 or so have been what we want. We are getting some players back, but the kids are playing hard. As long as we are playing hard, we always have a chance.”
Aside from hustle, a strong defensive line also keeps ECU in the hunt every game. Led by preseason C-USA defensive player of the year, defensive end C.J. Wilson, the D-line is mammoth and has potential to shut down opposing offenses.
The only problem is, it just hasn’t happened yet. Despite being able to pressure West Virginia quarterback Jarrett Brown, it could not contain him as he guided his team to a 35-20 and 509 yards of total offense.
East Carolina could not get any pressure on Tar Heel’s quarterback T.J. Yates as he led his team to a 31-17 victory, and compiled 433 yards of total offense.
To be fair, an at times inept offense has left the defense on the field for long stretches of time, and that can not be ignored when mentioning other teams statistics.
Two of the ECU D-linemen are in the team’s top five in tackles (Wilson 18, Linval Joseph (17), which is a great sign, unfortunately is just hasn’t translated into that dominant defensive performance that fans are waiting to see.
“They’re still the strength of the defense,” Hudson said referring to his defensive line. “People have had all year to prepare for them too, and they have done a good job. They make them make plays in space, and they don’t come right at them … And I would do the same thing.”
The team’s ability to get to the quarterback has been inconsistent. The Pirates have only three sacks this season, and all of them came against the FCS members App State.
When asked if the defense does not blitz its linebackers because of the scheme, or because of his faith in the defensive linemen’s ability to get to the quarterback, Hudson said neither. The defensive coordinator noted that the notion that the ECU linebackers do not blitz is incorrect.
“That’s actually a misconception around here (that the defense doesn’t blitz). One, people don’t understand what a blitz is; we blitz more than people think. That’s the beauty of our defense, we blitz and people don’t know it,” Hudson said. “When (opposing teams) don’t know it, then we are doing a good job.”
Hudson estimated that his team blitzes once every three snaps, which is an aggressive number. Unfortunately the team’s sack totals don’t bear that out. For all the blitzing ECU has done, none of their linebackers or members of the secondary have sacks. Defensive end Scotty Robinson leads the team with 1.5, while Josh Smith has one and Joseph has a half.
East Carolina’s defense will have its hands full this Saturday as it will be going after mobile quarterback Brett Hodges, a senior transfer from Wake Forest. Also new to UCF is offensive coordinator Charlie Taafe, who is looking to bring more of an option attack to the Knights’ offense.
“I can see them trying to move towards running the quarterback a little bit more, getting into the spread” Hudson said. “But that’s (UCF coach) George O’Leary’s team, they are going to do what George does: that’s running the football, play-action, no mistakes and it’s going to be a defensive battle. It’s old school football.”
Hudson said for his defense to have a successful Saturday it must play with the right mind set.
“We have to have a foxhole mentality,” Hudson said. “Our guys have to take care of their gap, get off blocks and then we just have to make tackles and stop the run. If we can do that we will be in good shape.”