Pirates look to avoid trap against Marshall|ECU seeks fourth straight C-USA win

Published 12:35 am Saturday, October 23, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Brian@wdnweb.com, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — The definition of a trap game is having a sub-par opponent sandwiched in between two really big games, so by definition the Pirates should watch their step this today as they gear up for their 100th (59-40) Conference USA game in the school’s history.
One week after winning what is arguably East Carolina’s biggest game of the year, a 33-27 overtime victory over in-state rival N.C. State, the Pirates (4-2, 3-0) are set to host fellow Conference USA East member Marshall (1-5, 0-3) today, before hitting the road to take on UCF in a game that should firmly establish who is in the driver’s seat in the East Division.
The Knights (4-2, 2-0) also have to watch their step today as they are hosting a feisty Rice (2-4, 1-2) team that just knocked off a Case Keenum-less Houston squad last week.
Should both teams survive today, it will set up a clash of undefeated Conference USA East teams one week from now in Florida.
First things first, East Carolina must find a way to avoid any type of emotional let down today and come out and trample the Thundering Herd early. A fast start is a great way to squash any thoughts of an upset.
Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill is aware that his team is riding a high right now, and it has every right to after topping Southern Miss and N.C. State is successive weeks, but said that it is his job to keep his players grounded.
“We have no problem here humbling our players. We keep them in their place. That’s always going to be a risk when you have an emotional game. If you say it’s not then you’re not telling the truth," McNeill said. "We have to do a great job as coaches. The leaders on our team have to do a great job of being leaders. After an emotional win, at home, in that environment that’s going to be a concern. We have to do a great job and it starts with me. I won’t have a problem bringing them down to Earth tomorrow. Trust me on that one."
Both teams have entered this season under the direction of first-year coaches as ECU is led by McNeill and Marshall is guided by Doc Holliday. Both teams have also played a pretty tough non-conference schedule, however, that’s where the similarities end.
The Pirates set the stage for a thrilling season by topping Tulsa 51-49 on a last-second, fourth down Hail Mary pass in McNeill’s debut. The Herd lost 45-7 to then No. 2 Ohio State in its season opener.
The following week Marshall took West Virginia down to the wire but came up short losing 24-21 to the Mountaineers in OT. East Carolina rolled over Memphis 49-27 in its second week.
So there you have it. In the first two weeks of the season each team has been involved in a thriller and a blowout. For the Pirates those experiences were positive ones, while Marshall can’t say it feels the same way.
Offensively, these two squads have been polar opposites. East Carolina has the conference’s third most explosive offense as it averages 36.8 points per game, while Marshall’s 18.3 points per contest ranks 11th out of the 12 C-USA teams.
The Pirates have been fortunate enough to land junior transfer quarterback Dominique Davis, whose 302.5 passing yard per game is tops in the conference. Davis is second in the nation in completions per game and points responsible for, while his 317.8 yards of total offense is seventh in the FBS.
The Herd has been struggling to move the ball on offense as senior QB Brian Anderson is posting 168.2 passing yards per game. Marshall has been looking at backup quarterback Eddie Sullivan lately and there is a chance fans may see both today.
Running the football has been an issue for the Herd as well as the team’s 90.3 yards per game is second to last in C-USA.
The Pirates, behind the effort of their running back tandem of Jonathan Williams (60.3 ypg) and Giavani Ruffin (26 ypg) have the team averaging a C-USA ninth-best 107.2 rushing yards per game.
Noticeably absent from the running game this season has been Norman Whitley. McNeill said during the week that the 5-9 senior has been a positive influence on the team and in practice, but is simply stuck behind two talented backs.
Whitley has proved he can perform for the Pirates, and if William continues to have trouble hanging on to the ball the senior could get some playing time sooner than later.
Despite the dreary offensive numbers, Marshall does have a few playmakers. Wide receiver Aaron Dobson is a gifted 6-3 sophomore who has team-highs in receptions (24) and receiving yards (402). Running back Martin Ward leads the team in rushing with 281 yards, but sophomore Andre Booker is viewed a the more elusive back and leads the team with 4.5 ypc.
Though its 1-5 record is shoddy, it must be factored in that Marshall has played some real heavyweights this season. The Herd started off the year having to face No. 2 Ohio state on the road, then came home to play West Virginia, a team that is now ranked No. 20. Two weeks later it faced two traditional C-USA powerhouses in Southern Miss and UCF, which it fell to 35-14 last week.
Marshall’s been the most effective on the defensive side of the ball where it is led by tackling machine Mario Harvey. The weakside linebacker is averaging an astounding 12.2 tackles per game and has tallied a C-USA second-best 73 tackles this season.
The Herd also feature an emerging force in junior defensive end Vinny Curry. The 6-4, 252-pounder was hidden on the depth chart last season behind future NFL draft pick Albert McClellan, but has taken the conference by storm this season.
Curry racked up two sacks against Ohio State and pulled off another double play against West Virginia the following week. Curry’s eight sacks this season are third in the FBS and his 11.5 TFLs have him ranked seventh. The junior DE is also second on the team in tackles with 59.
The Pirates defense, which has been knocked for its inconsistency, took a big step up last week against N.C. State as it held a Russell Wilson-led offense to only two field goals in the second half of their game
East Carolina has received strong play from its young defensive ends who have been asked to do a lot this year. True freshman Derrell Johnson and redshirt freshman Matt Milner both played over 90 snaps last week and performed admirably. Another young player who has risen to the occasion is freshman strongside linebacker Lamar McClendon who has started the last three games and tallied 23 tackles.
The Pirates will also gain some depth in the secondary as safety Derek Blacknall will make his return from a one-game suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit during the Southern Miss game.
Weakside linebacker Dustin Lineback leads the team in stops with 55, while middle linebacker Melvin Patterson is right behind him with 47.
The struggling Marshall offense is working hard to turn the corner, however, the ECU defense must set the tone early and let the Herd know today will not be the day for it finds success if the Pirates want to avoid an upset.