Case closed: Pirates must stop Keenum|Hudson will look to cross up star QB

Published 8:13 am Saturday, December 5, 2009

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — If East Carolina wants to win its second consecutive Conference USA crown it goes without saying that the Pirates’ defense must keep Houston quarterback Case Keenum in check.
Keenum’s credentials are well publicized. The junior quarterbacks’ 4,922 passing yards are first in the country, along with his 410 yards per game average. The 6-2, 210-pound QB has outstanding timing with his receivers and his solid decision making has helped him complete a whopping 70 percent of his passes (412-584), while throwing 38 touchdowns to only six interceptions.
It’s been that kind of play that has led Houston (10-2, 6-2) to a No. 18 ranking and program boosting wins over the likes of then No. 5 Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
East Carolina’s fifth-year defensive coordinator Gregg Hudson said Keenum’s gaudy numbers are no fluke.
“He’s a good as advertised, he’s a special player,” Hudson said. “He’s very confident in what he does, but also very talented and well coached. He knows how to run that offense, he looks like a young Drew Brees out there right now.”
That’s a scary thought for the Pirates (8-4, 7-1). However, while Brees and his Saints maintain a perfect record, Houston has lost two games, which means it can be defeated.
The Cougars first defeat was a rare instance in which they lost a shootout with UTEP 58-41. Their second loss came at the hands of a stellar defensive team in UCF, which beat Houston 37-32.
That, is something East Carolina can relate to.
It will take a tremendous and virtually mistake-free ball game from Hudson’s defensive unit to silence Houston.
The Pirates’ defense has been the one mainstay of the team, especially after safety Levin Neal and corner Emanuel Davis returned from injuries earlier in the season.
Last year Houston came into Greenville and caught the Pirates on the heels of a 30-24 overtime loss to N.C. State and poured some salt in the wounds by topping ECU 41-24.
In that game Keenum threw for 401 yards and three touchdowns.
“I thought last year’s loss had more to do with us, we just weren’t ready to play last year.” ECU senior middle linebacker Nick Johnson said. “I know I was tired, we were hot and tired and I think the loss before to N.C. State the week before had something to do with it. We just weren’t ready to play football. I think this year we are a lot more confident and know what we have to do.”
Johnson is tied with safety Van Eksridge for the team lead in tackles with 83, and is one of 28 seniors who will be playing in their last home game this Saturday. Johnson said that he hasn’t got too caught up in the sentimental aspect of this weekend’s game.
“It’s my last game here so it will mean more than just a football game to me, but it’s not like I’m going to try and put anymore into it than any other game. We just have to go out there and do what we do,” Johnson said. “To be honest, it feels just like any other week.”
If Johnson and those other 27 seniors want their last game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to be a win the defense must find a way to get to Keenum. One of Keenum’s greatest attributes is his pocket presence, but Hudson’s crew must find a way to make him uncomfortable when he drops back to pass. The Pirates’ defensive coordinator said one of the ways to do that is to mix up the play-calling.
“We got to give him a lot of looks. We can’t let him go on and have conversations with his coaches about ‘I see this’ or ‘I see that.’ He’s got to say ‘It looks different every time.’ We can’t let him get a bead on us,” Hudson said. “Really, we got to take our defense to them instead of trying to defend them and letting him pick us apart.”
Another way to make Keenum uncomfortable is to get at him with a consistent pass rush. Because Houston uses so many four and five receiver sets ECU will need to keep seven and sometimes eight players in coverage, making the ability of the D-line to get pressure so vital.
Strong pressure from the line would mean the Pirates wouldn’t have to blitz their linebackers as much, giving them more players to cover the pass.
“It’s important the pass rush is at the point of attack, but what we have to do if we can’t get to him because of the depth that he is at – their shotgun is six yards, when he drops back its about eight or nine – we have to at least be in his face with our hands up pressuring. Pressure can be as good as a sack if he is throwing a bad ball.”
The Pirates must proceed with caution when going after Keenum. While the QB’s throwing prowess is no secret, his ability to escape the pocket and take off down field is.
“That’s a big factor, especially on third down when he can keep a drive alive,” Hudson said. “When he runs he’s got to pay for it. We have to wrap him up and hit him just like a tailback.”
Another overlooked factor of the Houston offense is the fact that it can run the football. The Cougars have two dangerous backs in last season’s Conference USA Freshman of the Year Bryce Beall, and true freshman Charles Simms.
Beall ran for over 1,200 yards last season, but this year he has split the duties with Simms and they have each rushed for over 600 yards this season. Beall averages 4.9 yards per carry and leads Houston with 663 yards, while Simms is averaging 5.7 yards per attempt en route to 620 yards.
Hudson said his defense must ground the Cougars’ ground game.
“We have to take away parts of the offense that (Keenum) is not completely in control of like the run game,” Hudson said. “We have to stop the run, we have to do a really good job on their screens, and that’s two-thirds of the offense. Then we just have to be opportunistic in the passing game. We have to find a phase and shut it down.”