It's sink or swim time for ECU as it faces Navy|Young Pirates defense faces tough task

Published 3:48 am Saturday, November 6, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES,, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE – Last week East Carolina went down to Central Florida looking to maintain control of the East Division of Conference USA. The Knights (6-2, 4-0) won the battle of the two undefeated league teams 49-35 thanks to a dominant rushing performance that churned out 265 yards on the ground, which led to five TDs to hand ECU its first C-USA loss of the year and lower its record to 5-3 (4-1).
The young Pirates’ defense, which returned only two starters from its conference-winning team a year ago, will face another physical challenge today when the team looks to become bowl eligible by containing Navy’s triple-option offense which is posting an FBS-10th best 258 rushing yards per game.
“It’ll be a physical day for our defense this week versus Navy,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “It’ll be a discipline and assignment-focused day for our defense playing this type of offense. (Navy coach) Ken Niumatalolo has done a great job installing his system. They do a great, great job. It’ll be a physical contest for our football team. It’ll be about the sixth game in a row of pretty physical football. We have a lot of guys banged up.”
East Carolina’s defense has taken some big hits this week, especially along the defensive line, as it was announced that promising sophomore defensive tackle Michael Brooks will be out for the season with a knee injury while sophomore defensive end Marke Powell will be sidelined for at least two games because of an injury.
The Pirates already suffered a big blow up front this season when freshman DE Justin Dixon suffered a season-ending injury during the team’s 42-17 loss to North Carolina in Week 4.
Dixon left that game as the team’s leader in sacks with three and four game later he is still the team’s sack leader.
As a team, East Carolina has not recorded a sack in three games. A big reason for that is the fact McNeill is trotting out a D-line rotation that features only two seniors and seems to be shrinking every week.
With Powell out, the Pirates will have to take on Navy’s rushing attack with only three defensive ends in the rotation. Freshmen Derrell Johnson and Matt Milner will be the starters, while senior A.J. Johnson will be the backup. A lot has been asked of the young unit and so far it has given an admirable effort.
“Our philosophy is the next guy picks up the flag and it’s time to go,” McNeill said. “The next guy steps up and here we go. That’s how it’ll go here. We hope those guys get back; we’re pulling for them. [Assistant athletics director medical services/head athletic trainer] Mike Hanley does a great job.”
Another reason the Pirates have not gotten many sacks lately is that team’s have just been getting rid of the ball faster.
“The last three teams we have faced have been 90 teams, three-step (drops by the quarterback) teams who have gotten rid of it quickly,” McNeill said. “Against offenses like that the sacks will be limited so you have to get more bat-downs and hope for picks.”
There won’t be many opportunities for an interception today as Navy has only attempted to throw over 20 times in a game once this season and that was in last week’s 34-31 loss to Duke.
Previous to that game, the Midshipmen won three in a row topping Wake Forest, SMU and Notre Dame.
Quarterback Ricky Dobbs leads Navy in both passing (54-107, 955 yards) and rushing (3.2 ypc, 552 yards), while slotback Alexander Teich is the teams second-leading rusher as he averages 5.5 yards per carry and has tallied 482 yards on the year. Greg Jones is the team’s leading receiver with 21 catches for 390 yards and averages over 18 yards per catch.
“Defensively, we have to be ready to face a team that is not going to try to fool us,” McNeill said. “They are going to ground-and-pound, even though they did a good job last week against Duke throwing the football. They run for a living, not for a hobby.”
The Pirates pass for a living, and will try to make that living against a Navy defense that has been susceptible to the short pass. The Midshipmen allowed 326 passing yards to Wake Forest and 314 to Duke last Saturday.
East Carolina enters the contest averaging an astounding 304.1 passing yards per game. Junior quarterback Dominique Davis ranks first in the country in points responsible for, second in completions per game and seventh in passing yards per game.
On the season, Davis has hit on 65 percent of his passes (235-for-362) for 2,333 yards 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Senior wideout Dwayne Harris leads the team with 63 catches, which is the 14th best total in the nation, while tallying 750 passing yards and six TDs.
When the team does decide to run, it has gotten good production from both its running backs as Jonathan Williams leads the team with 483 yards and a 5.0 yards per carry average, while Giavani Ruffin has accounted for 251 yards on 4.7 yards per carry.
It was nice to see 6-8 freshman wide receiver Justin Jones get more touches last week. After only having two receptions in the last four games, Jones caught four passes for 16 yards and a score against UCF.
The Midshipmen will counter ECU’s passing attack with a veteran 3-4 defense.
“Defensively, they probably have the most returning guys of any we’ve faced. They’re made up of all seniors and juniors. They run a 3-4 or `50’ look. The Joker position guy who they move around a lot is Jerry Hauburger. He’s very active,” McNeill said.
“They do a good job defensively. They’re very sound. They are third in the nation in fewest penalties per game at 3.6; that’s amazing. They are also in the top 50 in red zone defense. They remind me of Central Florida as far as being disciplined and those kinds of things. They don’t beat themselves. You have to go out and beat them.”
Linebacker Tyler Simmons leads Navy in tackles with 75, while Jabaree Hauburger is the team’s sack leader with three. Senior safety Wyatt Middleton is the leader of the secondary and has tallied 53 tackles on the year.