Pirates look to go 2-0|Take on Memphis today

Published 3:34 pm Saturday, September 11, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — The Pirates’ 51-49 last-second victory over Tulsa was big for East Carolina in a lot of ways.
The thrilling victory proved to the players and fans that the high-powered offense that first year coach Ruffin McNeill, along with first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, have installed really can work in Greenville.
Against Tulsa, the Pirates who returned only a handful of starters on offense from last year’s Conference USA championship team, posted 383 passing yards and 155 rushing yards for seven touchdowns in just its first game under the new regime. Junior transfer quarterback Dominique Davis threw for five of those TDs and ran for another. The last time an ECU QB had five scoring passes in one game was when Jeff Blake did it against Southern Miss in 1991.
Had the offense not come out firing on all cylinders and only posted 21 points-or-so, the speculation about whether the system could really get it done and who should start at quarterback would have been the theme of this week. However, a 50-point debut answers a lot of questions.
Sunday’s victory provided a tremendous enthusiasm booster for players and fans. A new coaching staff packed with first-year coordinators, combined with a loaded schedule, is always a troubling equation. However, with the first win of the season also being the team’s first Conference USA win of the year, the victory’s effect is magnified. Now, East Carolina heads into today’s home game against Memphis with a ton of confidence and a very real chance of starting the season with a 2-0 conference record.
Memphis comes to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with an entirely new coaching staff as well. After going 2-10 last season coach Tommy West was fired and former Memphis running back Larry Porter was hired. Porter spent the last five seasons as a running backs coach for LSU.
While McNeill got to take over a two-time Conference USA title-winning team that has a fair amount of talent on it, Porter grabbed the reigns of a program whose cupboard is bare after losing its three best players in RB Curtis Steele and wide receivers Duke Calhoun and Carlos Singleton.
While all eyes in Greenville where on the offense against Tulsa, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that the new-look ECU defense let up 399 passing yards, 180 rushing yards and came up with only one stop in the second half when Travis Simmons picked off Tulsa QB G.J. Kinne.
The defense should look remarkably better today for two reasons. You can expect both the offense and defense to make strides each week as new players get more acclimated to their respective new systems. Plus, Memphis comes into this matchup with a lot of issues on offense.
The Tigers have been in the midst of a summer-long quarterback controversy that is way more intense than the Wornick-Davis battle.
In one corner is Cannon Smith, a 6-foot sophomore transfer from the University of Miami who is also the son of billionaire FedEx CEO and founder Fred Smith. In the other corner is Ryan Williams, a 6-5 freshman who is more of a classic drop-back quarterback
Despite being named offensive MVP of the spring game, Williams did not get the start in the Tigers’ season-opening 49-7 loss to Mississippi State. The moved fueled speculation that Smith was handed the job because of his last name.
Smith may have started, but lasted only three possessions before getting yanked for Williams, who didn’t do any better than Smith. There is a good chance that Pirates’ fans will see both QBs today, and there is a good chance it won’t matter.
Aside from all-conference selection offensive guard Dominik Riley, the Tigers’ offensive line is very suspect and a concern for Memphis. The unit failed to pave the way for its running backs in its opener as Memphis rushed 21 times for only 41 yards. To its credit, the unit let up only one sack last week, but in a 49-7 blowout who knows how much pressure it had to defend against.
This week will be a different story, and may be the most important one of the game. If Riley and his gang up front can’t handle ECU’s blitz-heavy defense it could be a very long game for whoever takes the snaps.
When the QBs look to throw expect big 6-8 senior TE David Onarheim to be a main target along with junior transfer WR Jermaine McKenzie.
Senior Gregory Ray is expected to start at running back.
East Carolina’s defensive line will get some help this week as promising sophomore DT Michael Brooks is expected to get some action today after hurting his knee during the summer. Brooks is listed as questionable for today’s game along with fellow DT Antonio Allison who has an ankle injury.
“I think the biggest thing is that we’ll have additions on defense. We had four guys who are projected starters who were not in the game. Michael Brooks got hurt in the spring and Antonio Allison had a high ankle sprain in camp,” McNeill said on Monday. “We’re hopefully expecting Allison back while Brooks and Derrell Johnson are possibilities to have back. Those are three guys and we may get Jimmy Booth back, but that’s still a day-to-day deal.”
McNeill also said he expects MLB Steve Spence and CB Rahkeem Morgan to be put in more packages.
Offensively, the Pirates did their job as well as could be expected in a season-opener with a new staff. Davis left little doubt he was the right choice at QB, while RB Jonathan Williams ran hard as he tallied 92 yards on 15 carries (6.1 ypc) and scored the first TD of the game on an impressive 37 yard run.
East Carolina sported two 100-yard receivers as Dwayne Harris (7-121, 2 TD) and Lance Lewis (6-105, 2 TD) led the wideouts.
One of the biggest concerns heading into last week’s game, and really every game until they prove consistency, revolved around the kickers. However, field goal kicker turned punter Ben Ryan looked decent in his debut punting and averaged 43 yards per attempt. New placekicker Michael Barbour hit on all his PATs and converted on a 38-yarder in the first quarter.
It turned out that it was not the kickers, but the kickoff coverage that was more of an issue last week; which is something McNeill said he will look to improve against Memphis.
The Tigers may have a lot of needs, but punter is not one of them as Tom Hornsey, a 6-3, 203- pounder from Australia averaged 48.7 yards per punt with a long of 57.