All eyes on the defense as Pirates play finale|ECU finishes regular season at home against SMU

Published 7:51 am Friday, November 26, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES,, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — To defend or not defend. That is the question for East Carolina as it heads into its regular season finale against SMU today at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The Pirate (6-5, 5-2) are coming off of one of their worst defensive performances of the season as they were run over by the lowly Rice Owls (3-8, 2-5) who galloped for over 400 yards to upset ECU 62-38.
The loss all but assures that the Pirates will not be heading to their third straight C-USA title game, as East Division leaders Central Florida controls its own destiny and is playing at Memphis, who at 1-10 (0-7) owns the worst record in the league.
However, there is a scenario that would place the Pirates in the title game. First, ECU needs to top SMU, then Memphis would have to pull off a giant upset against UCF, while Southern Miss would need to top Tulsa.
That scenario would leave ECU, UCF and Southern Miss each with 5-3 conference records, but the Pirates would take first place because of they would have the best record against East Division opponents.
SMU (6-5, 5-2) is playing for the chance to represent the West Division in the title game and can do just that if it wins today.
It’s been a rough week for East Carolina defensive coordinator who has come under fire after his young unit was scorched against by the lowly Owls and at times looked helpless.
The Pirates head into today’s matchup up with the C-USA-West leading Mustangs with the worst defense in all of college football. ECU ranks 120th out of 120 FBS teams in total defense (481.5 ypg) and scoring defense (43.3), while it is 119th against the run (230 ypg) and 104th against the pass (251 ypg).
East Carolina has also had to fine nine new starters this season and has been playing a depleted defensive line that loaded with underclassmen.
Despite those numbers East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said he still has confidence Mitchell.
“Of course I do, I mean please. I have great confidence in Brian Mitchell,” McNeill said. “Brian Mitchell is a good football coach. I would just tell the fans to keep cheering.”
Cheering might be hard to do as opposing teams continually run through the ECU defense and today might not be any different.
SMU’s ground game is powered by one of the best running backs in Conference USA in Zach Line. The sophomore rusher leads the league with 1,174 yards and has run for an average of 106.7 yards per game and a whopping 6.6 yards per carry.
Though Mustangs’ coach June Jones likes to have balance with his run-and-shoot offense, it would be hard to imagine that they wouldn’t try and run the ball down the Pirates’ throat.
“What June has added to (the run-and-shoot), which he had a little bit at Hawaii when I faced him out there, is a running back. Zach Line who is one of the top backs in the league,” McNeill said. “He has almost 1,200 yards rushing and has eight touchdowns. He’s a really good running back. He is 6-foot-1, 235 pounds and has good speed and vision. They do a good job blocking for him on the run and getting him touches. They use him a lot on screen passes, too. He only has 13 receptions, but they are all highly effective.”
SMU also has one of the top quarterbacks in the league in sophomore Kyle Padron, who is right behind ECU quarterback Dominique Davis in yards per game with 270.5
Davis leads C-USA with 307 yards per contest and 3,385 passing yards.
Padron has hit on 240 of his 406 attempts for 2,975 yards, 25 TDs and 10 picks.
Padron’s top target is Aldrick Robinson, whose 95.7 receiving yards is No. 1 in Conference USA. Padron also likes to get the ball to Cole Beasley, whose 6.4 grabs per game is second in the league only to ECU’s Dwayne Harris who is tallying 7.5 receptions and 90 receiving yards per game.
Harris, a senior heads into his final game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and has had an amazing run with the Pirates. The wideout enters the game as the program’s all-time leader in receptions (250), receiving yards (2,876) and is one TD reception away from tying Larry Shannon’s record of 21. The electric Harris is also five catches away from breaking Terrance Copper’s single season record of 87 receptions, and is 27 yards away from Aundrae Allison’s single-season record of 1,024 receiving yards.
Harris is the leader of a talented senior group that includes notables such as LT Willie Smith, LG Cory Dowless, RG D.J. Scott, RB Jonathan Williams, CB Travis Simmons, LB Dustin Lineback and DT Josh Smith.
This year’s crop of seniors have won 32 games, which tied for the third-highest total in the program’s history. With two more wins, it can tie the 1975-78 for the most by a class with 34.
McNeill wants to do everything he can to help them achieve that goal.
“I think we were picked to maybe win two games by some people. I didn’t think that way. These seniors have done everything I’ve asked,” McNeill said. “They work hard and really care about being successful. I want to send them out on the right note. I know leaving here on the right note was very important to me. That has been mentioned many times.”