Pirates put title on the line today against Cougars|ECU looking to win second straight C-USA crown

Published 8:12 am Saturday, December 5, 2009

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — The time has come. The moment is here.
At noon today the game that so many East Carolina fans dreamed about will take place as the Pirates will battle No. 18 Houston for the Conference USA championship at home in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
By late afternoon this game will enter Pirate lore one way or another. Either the talk will be about how ECU stunned Case Keenum and his 18th-ranked Cougars to win its second-straight C-USA crown, or the chatter will be about the time the Heisman hopeful came to Greenville and picked apart ECU by posting what Pirates coach Skip Holtz rightfully refers to as “video game numbers.”
The winner of today’s game would likely move on to play in the Liberty Bowl, which has SEC ties and has become Conference USA’s premier bowl.
Holtz got a firsthand look at Keenum at work last season when the Cougars topped the No. 23 Pirates 41-24 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Keenum dissected ECU’s zone defense for 401 yards and three touchdowns.
That loss took the Pirates out of the rankings, and there is no doubt ECU is looking to return the favor.
While the Pirates squeezed by Southern Miss with a 25-20 victory to lock up the East Division last week, the West was won when the Cougars crushed Rice 73-14.
Heading into today’s game UH’s junior quarterback is No. 1 nation in total offense with 5,027 yards (410 passing yards per game), passing yards with 4,922 and is responsible for the most points per game averaging 21.3.
On the season Keenum has completed 70 percent of his passes (412-584), and has tossed 38 touchdowns while only being picked six times.
He will be facing a Pirates team that is second in the conference in total defense (371.3 yards per game) and scoring defense (21.2), while ranking third against the rush (131 ypg) and fourth against the pass (240.2 ypg).
“They are explosive, they can score from anywhere,” Holtz said. “They put up huge numbers of points and huge numbers of yards with what they do. … Offensively it starts with Case Keenum, his numbers are better than anyone’s in the country.”
Houston’s second-year coach Kevin Sumlin has tons of weapons at his disposal. Sophomore running back Bryce Beall was last season’s Freshman of the Year in C-USA as he ran for over 1,200 yards. This year Beall has split duties with true freshman Charles Simms. While some teams have a thunder and lightning style backfield, the Cougars duo is all lightning.
Beall is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and leads the team with 663 rushing yards, while Simms is averaging 5.7 per carry for 620 yards.
Houston runs a shotgun-spread offense with four wide receivers and no tight end. Keenum does not discriminate between his targets as five players have over 30 receptions this season. Beall will become the sixth with his next catch.
The Pirates have three players with over 30 receptions.
James Cleveland, a 6-2 junior, has caught a team-high 82 passes for 941 yards, while pulling down 11 touchdowns.
Sophomore slot receiver Tyron Carrier poses a big threat to the Pirates defense and has nabbed 75 passes for 904 yards.
Carrier, a sprinter who took third place in the conference meet in the 200-meter dash, also plays a big role on special teams as he leads Conference USA with an average of 29 yards per kick return with a long of 99. Carrier and ECU’s Dwayne Harris each lead the conference with three returns for a touchdown each.
Up front the Cougars are a bit weaker than they were a year ago as they lost mammoth tackle Sebastian Vollmer to the NFL draft.
UH has a young, but athletic line that features from left to right: junior Roy Watts (6-6, 315), junior Jordan Shoemaker (6-3, 280), senior Carl Barnett (6-2, 290) and sophomore Chris Thompson (6-2, 285).
The matchup between the Cougars’ O-line and the Pirates’ D-Line might be the only place ECU has a distinct advantage on defense.
The Pirates defensive line, led by Preseason Conference USA Player Defensive Player of the Year and hero of last week’s Southern Miss game C.J. Wilson, must win its one on one matchups along the line.
Wilson (6-4, 280) leads ECU with 5.5 sacks, and he along with defensive tackles Jay Ross (6-3, 314), Linval Joseph (6-6, 322) and DE Scotty Robinson (6-4, 271) have to create pressure on their own.
East Carolina defensive coordinator Gregg Hudson has been masterful at deviating from the team’s zone tendencies enough times – and in certain situations – per game to throw off opposing offenses this season, and he will need to do more of the same today.
The Pirates will be forced to play more man coverage than normal because Keenum is so adept at picking apart zones. Facing such a dangerous passing attack will likely force ECU to drop seven players back into coverage for large portions of the game, meaning pressure from the front four will be vital. It’s simple logic, the less time the back seven have to cover receivers, the easier their job become.
“I think we are going to have to play man, we are going to have to play all out man and get after them some. We are going to have to play zone and make it all look alike,” Holtz said. “We are not going to be able telegraph what’s coming at them.”
While the defense will try to suppress the high-powered Houston attack, the Pirates’ offense will try and keep pace.
Pace and tempo will play a big role in today’s game, as ECU will no doubt look to control the clock a little bit more than usual in an attempt to keep Keenum on the sidelines.
The play of running back Dominique Lindsay will be critical. As the same with the defense, the Pirates hold a key advantage on the line of scrimmage. Lindsay, ECU’s leading rusher with 977 rushing yards, will be running behind an NFL-sized line consisting of LT Willie Smith (6-6, 290) LG Terence Campbell (6-5, 318), C Sean Allen (6-3, 310), RG Cory Dowless (6-5, 309) and RT D.J. Scott 6-6, 323). This unit has emerged as one of the best lines in the country and has let up an FBS-third best .75 sacks a game.
The more time quarterback Patrick Pinkney has time to throw the better. Pinkney and the Pirates offense has come on of late as the sixth-year senior has not been intercepted in his last three games.
Sophomore wideout Darryl Freeney caught eight passes for 83 yards against USM, and in his last five starts has three 100-yard receiving games.
With opposing defenses keying on junior WR Dwayne Harris, whose eight receptions last Saturday vaulted him to the top of ECU’s all-time list with 154, Freeney must make Houston respect the other side of the field.
Holtz likened the Houston defense to his own and said the Cougars run a 4-3 base defense and play zone a majority of the time.
Sophomore middle linebacker Marcus McGraw and Will linebacker C.J. Cavness lead the team in tackles and are two of the best in C-USA. McGraw’s 123 tackles are the second most in the conference, while Cavness’ 111 is fourth.
Defensive end Tyrell Graham leads the Cougars with seven sacks, while corner Jamal Robinson’s five interceptions are a team-best.