Pirates set to take on Tar Heels|ECU in middle of tough four-game stretch

Published 7:55 pm Friday, October 1, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — It’s been two weeks since the Pirates have last taken the field, which has afforded first-year coach Ruffin McNeill a little extra time to evaluate his team as it heads deeper into the toughest portion of its schedule.
After topping fellow Conference USA opponents Tulsa and Memphis in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, East Carolina (2-1, 2-0) packed its bags for its first road trip of the year and the first leg of a staunch four-game stretch that features three ACC opponents along with one of the best programs C-USA has to offer. This stretch should not only provide a lot of excitement for fans, but also a much clearer picture of just how good this team is and can be.
The first portion of that four-game slate came on Sept. 18, when ECU hit the road to take on Virginia Tech. Though the Pirates lost 49-27, they did hold a 24-21 halftime lead over a team that only a few weeks ago was considered a national title contender.
Next up for ECU is another road game against an ACC opponent that had title-contending hopes only a short time ago in North Carolina (1-2). After that, the Pirates will take on Conference USA rival Southern Miss, then head home to battle another ACC in-state rival in N.C. State.
To keep the players’ eyes from wandering up and down the schedule McNeill has urged his team to take on a “whoever’s next” approach as to answer the question which team on the schedule the deserves the players’ full focus.
Right now, that team is the embattled Tar Heels, who due to academic and agent related investigations, are down 12 players for today’s 3:30 p.m. matchup at Kenan Stadium. Entering this season the Tar Heels’ defense was expected to be one of the best in the nation as it boasted several future NFL players. However, that unit was hit the hardest by the scandals and will face the Pirates without stars such as Marvin Austin, Robert Quinn and Kendric Burney. On the offensive side of the ball UNC will be without notables like wideout Greg Little and running back Ryan Houston.
Despite the depletion of the roster, the Tar Heels still have plenty of talent and a tough defense which is led by linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant.
Carter, who is fourth on the team with 17 tackles, just about single-handedly won the team’s first game of the year last Saturday against Rutgers. The senior strongside linebacker returned an interception 55 yards and blocked a punt, both of which set up UNC for scores in its 17-13 victory.
Sturdivant, who leads the team with 27 tackles, recorded 12 against the Scarlet Knights before leaving late in the fourth quarter with a tweaked hamstring.
Both Sturdivant and running back Johnny White (ankle) are expected to be game-time decisions.
The Pirates enter the matchup relatively healthy as only Anthony Garrett (knee) Dekota Marshall (leg) and Kemory Mann (hand) are listed as out.
The Pirates will look to attack that handicapped UNC defense with an offense that ranks in the top three of nearly every major statistical catagory in Conference USA.
East Carolina 42.3 points per game is second only to Houston, as its 441.3 yards of total offense per game ranked third. That stat is boasted by ECU’s 299.3 passing yards per game, which is the second highest total in C-USA.
So far first year coordinator Lincoln Riley’s offense has been as good as advertised, and so has quarterback Dominique Davis. The JUCO transfer’s 296 passing yards per game average is second only to Tulsa’s G.J. Kinne, while senior wide receiver Dwayne Harris’ 23 receptions and 98 receiving yards per game are both tops in the conference.
While there was no doubt Harris would be ECU’s top target, the fact that Jonathan Williams is the team’s second leading pass catcher is. The senior running back has recorded 15 catches this season for 93 yards.
When asked if Williams’ high total was by design or because the other receivers where not getting open, Riley said that it’s a result of the staff trying to get their star back more touches.
Lance Lewis has the third most receptions with 12, and his 153 receiving yards is second on the team to Harris.
ECU hinted that their could be some changes at the offensive line this week as McNeill and his staff try to figure out the best way to replace freshman RT Grant Harner. One of the scenarios that had been kicked around was moving right guard D.J. Scott to right tackle, and putting 6-3, 290-pound freshman Jordan Davis at RG.
While the offense has been one of the most productive in the conference, the defense has lagged way behind.
The Pirates rank dead last in scoring defense as they have allowed 41.7 points per game, while its 480 yards of total offense per contest is also worst in C-USA.
ECU has shaken up its lineup for today’s game, starting athletic sophomore linebacker Lamar McLendon ahead of Wes Pittman and Matt Thompson. Up on the line, freshman defensive end Derrell Johnson and sophomore DE Marke Powell will start together for the first time against the Heels.