Pirates look to stand firm at "The Rock"|ECU to battle Southern Miss tonight

Published 9:41 pm Friday, October 8, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE – The Pirates venture into ACC territory ended with mixed reviews as they put forth strong first halves in each contest only to get bullied in the later portions of both their 49-27 loss to Virginia Tech and their 42-17 defeat at the hands of North Carolina in their last two games.
The good news for East Carolina is that it is heading back to Conference USA play, the bad news is that the team will have to pack up and play its third straight road game with tonight’s contest coming against Southern Miss (4-1, 1-0) at “The Rock.”
The Eagles own a 26-9 lifetime record against the Pirates at M.M. Roberts Stadium and head into their clash riding an 11-game home winning streak.
East Carolina will try not to let that streak get to 12, but in order to do that the team must play a full game. So far this season the young Pirates have been out-scored 106-54 in the second half and first-year coach Ruffin McNeill knows that if that trend continues there is no way his team can compete for a third-straight Conference USA crown.
McNeill said that his team’s poor second half performances are not a result of X and Os, but because his team abandons its fundamental principles and tries to do too much.
“In the second half, it’s nothing Virginia Tech or UNC has done differently. As a matter of fact, they have simplified what they are doing. Their execution in the second half has been better in both games,” McNeill said. “After looking at the film and evaluating it as a staff, the teams we’re playing haven’t changed or done something magical coaching- wise. They have simplified what they’ve done. … The last big thing for us this week is assignment focus. This is something you have to keep addressing with a team. When some adversity hit, the players started trying to do too many things and somebody else’s job. That’s what I’m talking about when I saw assignment focus.”
Late-game collapses can also be a sign of a young team getting tired. McNeill conceded that the team’s tempo is not where he wants it to be saying, “Not yet. I talked with [offensive line coach] Brandon Jones about it this morning. That point is when assignment, assignment focus and execution started breaking down a little bit.”
Tonight’s game is a critical one for ECU in terms of trying to hold on to its C-USA crown. The Pirates play three top-tier Conference USA games this season with tonight being the first. The next heavyweight battle with be on Oct. 30 when they play at UCF, with the last one coming on Nov. 26 at home against SMU, the only C-USA team to beat them in the last year.
It would significantly increase ECU’s odds of a C-USA three-peat if it can post at least a 2-1 record in those three games.
For that to happen the Pirates must step up on defense. Heading into tonight’s game the team is last in the conference in scoring defense (41.8 points allowed), total defense (471 yards allowed) and rush defense (198.2 yards allowed), while ranking 10th in pass defense (272.8).
It should be noted that not many C-USA teams have seen the likes of a Virginia Tech and UNC in back-to-back road games, however, ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell needs to elevate his unit’s play.
That task will be a bit tougher for the rest of the season as the Pirates will have to go without promising freshman defensive end Justin Dixon who sustained a knee injury while playing against the Heels.Dixon led ECU with three sacks.
Looking to pick up the slack is the young quartet of starting ends (Fr) Derrell Johnson, (So) Marke Powell, along with backups (Sr) A.J. Johnson and (Fr) Matt Milner.
The youth and inexperience of the Pirates up front will put more of a demand on their linebacking corps. However, sophomore Lamar McLendon did a nice job in his first start of his career last week as he tallied eight tackles against UNC.
Melvin Patterson has been able to overthrow presumed preseason starting MLB Steve Spence. Patterson is second on the team with 29 tackles, while Spence has had five in limited action. McNeill ripped into Spence earlier in the week and said that the junior needs to step it up in practice if he wants to play.
“Steve needs to understand that there is no entitlement here. I have mentioned that at my first press conference and my first team meeting,” McNeill said. “What we go on is the tape and practice and I’m going to play the guys that do what we need to do to help us win. He has to do that in practice, I won’t experiment with him in a game.
“When Steve learns that there is no entitlement here and when he learns how to practice then we will find a way to get him on the field.”
The Pirates offense posted 17 points against the Tar Heels, their lowest out-put of the year. One way they will look to increase production is to give RB Jonathan Williams more than the eight rushing attempts he received last week.
In first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s offense quarterback Dominique Davis stands at the line and gets to choose from a two to three plays, with one usually being a running play. McNeill said Davis must incorporate the running game more into the offense.
“We give [quarterback] Dominique Davis the option to run or pass,” McNeill said. [Offensive coordinator] Lincoln [Riley] and I talked about it and we’ll give the ball to Jonathan more this week.”
The Eagles will counter with a stingy defense that is led by DT Anthony Gray and MLB Korey Williams. So far this season Southern Miss has allowed a mere 18.4 points per game, and only 12.3 ppg in its last four games.
On offense, the Eagles, when healthy, have a potent attack led by junior QB Austin Davis. Davis has hit on 65 percent (99-153) of his passes for 968 yards with three TDs and three picks.
What makes Davis hard to defend is that he is very adept at running an is the team’s second leading rusher with 182 yards (3.6 ypc) and four TDs.
USM will have to play today without leading rusher and pass catcher Desmond Johnson (296, 4.9 ypc, 14 rec, 76 yards), who violated team rules earlier in the week. Running back V.J. Floyd is expected to start, but sophomore Tracy Lampley could have a bigger impact on the game.
It appears the ECU defense might be able to dodge another bullet by not having to face 6-6 WR DeAndre Brown who has missed time due to a lower leg strain. Brown had a tremendous freshman season and is widely viewed as an NFL-type talent. Brown is expected to be a game-time decision.