Trying to predict the Pirates

Published 10:04 pm Friday, September 2, 2011

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill (left) and Lance Lewis talk during practice. The Pirates will kickoff the 2011 season tonight when they take on No. 12 South Carolina. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — The last time East Carolina visited Bank of America Stadium the team stunned a heavy favorite to hand then-coach Skip Holtz’s one of his most signature victories. Today, Pirates’ second-year coach Ruffin McNeill would like to do the same when his team takes on No. 12 South Carolina at 7 p.m. in both teams’ season opener.
Though it was only three years ago that T.J. Lee’s late blocked punt and ensuing touchdown run allowed Holtz and his Pirates to upset No. 17 Virginia Tech 27-22 to kickoff the season, when ECU returns to Charlotte today the only thing the only resemblance it will have with the ’08 team is the purple and gold uniforms.
Gone is the more conservative offense installed by Holtz, which has been replaced by offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s pass-happy Air Raid offense that tallied 36.8 points per game to rank 16th nationally.
The powerful bend-but-don’t-break 4-3 defense that was a staple of the Holtz era has been sacked too, as defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell’s 3-4 scheme will make it’s debut tonight against the Gamecocks.
Though the team and schemes may look drastically different, the goal is still the same: Open the season with a statement.
Just exactly what that statement will be is yet to be determined. Clearly, all eyes will be on the defense as it is coming off of a horrendous 2010 campaign in which it allowed a staggering 44 points per contest, the second-worst total in the FBS.
The defense’s performance can be partly rationalized by the fact that first-year coaches McNeill and Mitchell inherited an extremely inexperienced group that returned only two starters, cornerbacks Emanuel Davis and Travis Simmons, and was bit by the injury bug. However, it’s understandable if Pirates’ fans still can’t wash the taste out of its mouth left by the 76-35 home loss to Navy and the 62-38 road loss to Rice which led to the scrapping of the 4-3 defense.
Despite that, ECU still managed to go 6-7 overall and 5-3 in Conference USA. That mark allowed the team to earn a bowl appearance, something that would have been a bit of wishful thinking at this time last year. Though the team lost 51-20 to Maryland in the Military Bowl, it’s safe to say the 2010 season surpassed expectations.
Heading into this year, the first challenge is to define exactly what the expectations are, which is extremely difficult to do in large part because it’s extraordinarily tough to gauge how improved the Pirates’ defensive players are and how they will perform in the new 3-4 scheme.
To get a better feel of how this year could play it out let’s breakdown the 12-game season into stretches of four.
East Carolina will open the 2011 campaign at Bank of America Stadium against No. 12 South Carolina, before it heads to Greenville for a three-game home stand that includes No. 13 Virginia Tech, C-USA rival UAB and in-state rival UNC.
That’s a tough road to tread for any team, which makes the Conference USA opener against the Blazers extremely important.
Going 2-2 in the first four games, assuming one of the wins comes against UAB would be fantastic. Surviving that stretch at 1-3 (1-0), with the one win coming against UAB wouldn’t be so bad either.
After that, the Pirates will hit the road to face trendy C-USA favorites Houston, then travel to Memphis the next weekend before heading north to take on Navy in Maryland and then finishing up the four-game slate at home against Tulane.
The first thing that stands out is that they have to win the Memphis game. The Tigers are a fellow C-USA East team and one the Pirates are expected to be better than. Next, you hope they can split between Tulane and Houston. After that, though it’s a non-conference game, it would be nice to see them deliver some payback against the Midshipmen, who will be without graduated star QB Rickey Dobbs this time around.
If you reasonably evaluate that stretch, you figure they top the Tigers and Tulane, fall to Houston, and Navy is 50-50, which leaves them at either 3-1 or 2-2 after completing the belly of their schedule.
Heading into the final four games East Carolina will host Southern Miss, travel to UTEP, host reigning C-USA champs UCF and finish the season on the road against Marshall.
The Pirates have a pretty good shot to split between Southern Miss and UCF and beat both UTEP and Marshall leaving them at 3-1 through the final four-game block. Going 2-2 wouldn’t be awful as long as one of those wins comes against the Golden Eagles or the Knights. Losing to both USM and UCF figures to cripple any chances of winning the C-USA East crown. When you add it all up here’s what you get:
Conservative: 1-3 (1-0) + 2-2 (2-1) + 2-2 (2-2) = 5-7 (5-3)
Moderate: 2-2 (1-0) + 3-1 (2-1) + 2-2 (2-2) = 7-5 (6-3)
Optimistic: 2-2 (1-0) + 4-0 (3-0) + 3-1 (3-1) = 9-3 (7-1).