Pirates keep their eyes on the Owls|ECU to kickoff against Rice at 1 p.m.

Published 6:47 am Saturday, November 20, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES, Brian@wdnweb.com, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — Central Florida’s 31-21 loss to Southern Miss last week has opened the window for East Carolina to climb back into the hunt for its third straight Conference USA title.
The Knights (7-3, 5-1) handed the Pirates (6-4, 5-1) their first C-USA loss of the season when these two teams clashed in Florida three weeks ago. That loss to UCF essentially put East Carolina two games behind in the C-USA East standings. However, with the Knights’ loss to Southern Miss and the Pirates 54-42 win over UAB, ECU was able to make up a game’s worth of ground last weekend.
The Pirates head down the stretch having to play Rice (2-8, 1-5) on the road today before closing out the regular season at home against a tough SMU (5-5, 4-2) team that is competing with Tulsa (7-3, 4-2) for the C-USA West title.
Central Florida will play its final two games on road as it heads to Tulane (4-6, 2-4) today and then to Memphis for its season finale.
If the Pirates want to keep their hopes of winning the C-USA East title alive, they must first take care of business against Rice.
The Owls have struggled mightily this year and have won only two games all season. However, one of those wins came against Houston (5-5, 4-3), who despite not having Case Keenum, is still a strong team.
McNeill said it is imperative to keep the team’s attention on the task at hand.
“I just want to be 7-4 right now. If the other (win) happens, that would be great. All our focus is really going to be on Rice,” McNeill said. “We’re going to take it one game a week like we have all year. We have to have total focus on Rice.”
The Pirates focus will also be on star quarterback Dominique Davis, who bruised his left (non-throwing) shoulder during the win over the Blazers and was forced to the sideline for a possession.
Davis, whose 31 TD passes is tops in all of the FBS, has been getting treatment all week and said he will be ready to go come kickoff.
“It’s fine, I will be ready to play Saturday,” Davis said.
The injury occurred when Davis took a shot near the end of a play in the third quarter.
“I was trying to get out of bounds,” Davis said. “(The UAB defender) just got me before I could get out of bounds and threw me right on my shoulder. As soon as I hit the ground I felt pain instantly.”
Davis is averaging an FBS-best 31 completions per game and leads Conference USA with 3,077 passing yards thanks to a C-USA best 307 yards per game average.
Davis’ 3,077 passing yards are an East Carolina single-season record, as is his 31 touchdown passes.
ECU wide receiver Lance Lewis (63-699) has caught 10 of those scoring passes, which ties three other Pirates for the most in a season. Dwayne Harris (76-879) is right behind Lewis with nine TD receptions.
All those numbers add up to big trouble for Rice who has allowed 40 points per game this year and heads into this contest having the 11th-rated pass defense in the conference (308.7 ypg) along with the 10th-rated total defense (458 ypg).
Rice plays a base 4-2-5 nickel defense which is led by senior defensive end Cheta Ozougwu who has 48 tackles and three sacks, along with hybrid safety/corner Cory Frazier who is the team’s leading tackler with 78 stops.
That unit is charged with the task of having to slow down ECU’s all-time leading receiver in Harris, who is sixth in the nation with 7.6 receptions per game and is second in C-USA with 879 receiving yards. Harris has caught at least one pass in the last 41 games, which is second only to Scotty McKnight of Colorado (47).
When Rice has the ball, its biggest weapon is sophomore running back and Michigan transfer Sam McGuffie. The speedy back’s 71.3 yards per game is fifth-best in the conference and has allowed him to tally 713 yards on the ground.
McGuffie has also caught a team-high 34 balls for 287 yards, which is the second-highest total on the team. Luke Wilson paces the Owls with 380 yards, while Vance McDonald is the team’s top red zone target with a team-high six TD catches.
The Owls have used four quarterbacks this season, but Nick Fanuzzi has been the main player as he has hit on 62 percent of his passes for 1,681 passing yards, 11 TDs and nine interceptions.
“Offensively, (Rice head coach) David (Bailiff) is playing two quarterbacks – Nick Fanuzzi and Taylor Cook,” McNeill said. “Fanuzzi is an Alabama transfer who we know about. He’s a San Antonio kid who does a good job. He had a tough night against Tulane Saturday, when David replaced him with Taylor. Fanuzzi is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. When they put Taylor in, he is 6-foot-7, 240 pounds. He doesn’t move around badly. He’s not your typical passer, but he throws the ball well. They have some guys to throw it to.”
The Pirates defense is still struggling as they are last in C-USA in scoring defense allowing 41.4 points per game. ECU is last in the conference in rush defense (212 ypg) and eighth in pass defense (253 ypg). On a national scale, the team has given up an average of 465 yards per game which is ranks 119 out of 120 FBS teams.