Pausing to evaluate the Pirates|Commentary

Published 8:49 pm Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sports Writer

GREENVILLE — With East Carolina’s 19-14 win over the University of Central Florida, the Pirates have officially concluded one-third of its schedule, which makes it a good time to pause and assess the team and its expectations.
Season Goals
Preseason expectations: Win Conference USA, get into the Top 25, possible BCS birth.
New expectations: Win Conference USA, maybe crack Top 25.
East Carolina came into this season with expectations at an all-time high in Greenville, but after a 2-2 (1-0 C-USA) start those hopes have to be re-calibrated. There was thought in Pirate Land, as well as the national and local media, that if ECU got off to another hot start like it did last season, it would crack the Top 25 and generate some BCS buzz. However, the Pirates failed both their tests against Top-30 caliber opponents as they fell 35-20 to West Virginia and 31-17 to then-No. 24 North Carolina.
Those two losses, combined with a narrow win over FCS Appalachian State in the season opener, extinguished any kind of BCS thoughts. However, achieving a ranking by the end of the year is still very possible, especially with No. 6 Virginia Tech scheduled to make a visit on Nov. 11.
Preseason expectations: A healthy veteran offense would post 30 points per game.
New expectations: If the Pirates can just get to 25, they can win.
With the return of sixth-year senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney, both 2008 opening day starting receivers back, a host of capable running backs and a big offensive line, the ECU offense was expected to turn the corner this year and improve on the 23 points per game it averaged last season.
Didn’t happen.
The offense is averaging 21 points per game and just doesn’t seem to be on the same page, though it’s hard to point the finger at one particular player or unit. It’s easy to drop the blame on Pinkney, which he does deserve his fair share, but it’s not always his fault. The wideouts have dropped plenty of balls this season. Pinkney on the year is 73 of 136 (54 percent) for 756 yards, while tossing four TD passes and four interceptions.
Running back Dominique Lindsay looked good against App State, but has been hurt since the second game of the year. Kentucky transfer Brandon Jackson has done a nice job averaging 4.4 yards per carry and leads ECU with 230 rushing yards. Jonathan Williams has been a disaster, fumbling twice in 14 attempts, both times at costly positions on the field.
ECU coach Skip Holtz is high on Giavanni Ruffin, though it’s hard to tell why. His attributes aren’t much different than Jackson’s, but he is not as good right now. With both of them in the backfield, there is no change of pace. The guy that could bring that kind of variation is Norman Whitley, the Pirates leading rusher of a year ago. Injuries and breaking team rules have put Whitley to the back of the running back line, but circumstances could lead to him getting some carries in the near future. The sooner the better, as ECU is ranked 99th in the nation in rush offense.
The passing offense is ranked just a little bit higher at 75th, and that’s thanks in large part to Dwayne Harris. The junior WR has been the offensive MVP of the season and has 22 catches for 238 yards (10.8 ypc) and has accounted for three TDs.
On top of all that there is the second half and red zone issues, which should have Holtz and his staff absolutely scared to death. The Pirates’ offense didn’t score in the second half of a game until the fourth quarter of the third game of the year, when it settled for a field goal. On the season, ECU’s offense is averaging 1.5 second half points. No team in America wins a conference playing like that in the late stages of a game.
Inside the 20, the Pirates are not as atrocious, but are in need of vast improvement. Out of the 14 red zone appearances this season, ECU has only scored five touchdowns. That’s just not going to cut it.
Preseason expectations: Backbone of the team, capable of being ranked in Top 25 in most major defensive categories.
New expectations: Backbone of team, just keep the ball in front of you.
With preseason defensive player of the year, C.J. Wilson, playing up front, along with preseason all-conference selections, MLB Nick Johnson and S Van Eskridge, the Pirates defense looked like it could match the 21 points per game allowed by last season’s squad. Maybe even do better.
This season the group has allowed 26 points per contest, while ranking 53rd nationally against the run and 104th against the pass.
Though those numbers seem horrendous, the defense has actually played pretty good. An injury to starting safety Levin Neal really hurt this team in its first few games, as it has already let up three touchdown passes of 40 yards or better.
Aside from the big play, this defense has played well. Against UCF, ECU intercepted four passes and racked up a season-high four sacks.
Though the stats might not reflect it, the Pirates’ D-line is having a strong season and will continue to get better. Aside from Wilson, DT Linval Joseph is outstanding, and fellow DT Jay Ross had the first interception of his career last Saturday.
The linebacking unit, a small area of concern heading into the season, has held up. Johnson has two interceptions this season, while WLB Chris Mattocks has shown he can cover and help on the run. Mattocks and fellow LB Jeremy Chambliss are tied for second on the team in tackles with 26. Eskridge leads the team with 34.
Injuries to Neal and corner Emanuel Davis have made the secondary the early weak link, but expect this unit to bounce back and play up to expectations.
This defense is very good, and can lead this team to an appearance in the C-USA title game if it stays healthy.
Special teams
Preseason expectations: FG kicking could be an issue, punting is solid, return teams are solid.
New expectations: The same.
There was never any doubt that punter Matt Dodge would have a good year, but throughout the first four games he has been the team’s MVP. Every time the offense has stalled out, Dodge bails it out with a booming punt. Dodge leads the conference in punting with a 45.1 average. So far he has booted punts of 50 yards or longer seven times, while pinning opponents inside the 20 eight times.
As far as field goal kicking goes, a hip injury threatened senior Ben Hartman’s season, but so far he has played every game. He is 7-10 on the season with a long of 37-yards, but missed a crucial 33-yarder against UCF. Bottom line, Hartman has proven that when it matters most, he will make it; that’s all that counts.
The ECU return teams have done relatively well. The Pirates are second in the conference in punt returns with a 21.5 average, but are just 10th in kickoff returns averaging 19 yards per return.
Brian Haines is a sports writer for the Washington Daily News. You may reach him at 940-4216, or by email at