Pirates begin C-USA play

Published 8:35 pm Friday, September 23, 2011

ECU wide receiver Lance Lewis (left) makes a catch during the Pirates loss to South Carolina earlier this year. (AP Photo)

GREENVILLE — While the sports world has been buzzing with talks of conference realignment, East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill and his players have kept their focus squarely on today’s Conference USA opener against UAB.
Though ECU confirmed it sent a letter of application to the Big East this week, the Pirates are still a member of Conference USA and must worry about the current task at hand.
Right now, McNeill’s biggest concern is removing the zero from the win column, as so is his UAB counterpart Neill Calloway, as both teams enter today’s game with 0-2 records.
The Blazers got blanked by Florida 39-0 in their season opener, then got rolled by Tulane 49-10 in their Conference USA opener last week. Throughout two games the team is averaging five points per contest and their lone touchdown of the year was not produced by the offense, but was a result of a Nick Adams 92-yard kick return.
Though its lack production has not sunk nearly to the level of UAB’s, East Carolina’s offense did get slowed for the first time in second-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s tenure. During its 17-10 loss to No.11 Virginia Tech, the unit produced a mere 112 yards of total offense.
East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis completed 20 of his 38 attempts for 127 yards and was intercepted once. The ground attack was even less affective as the Pirates finished the game with -15 rushing yards. That total was their lowest since they ran for -16 against TCU in 1999.
After the loss to the Hokies, ECU entered its bye week, and with some extra time to examine that performance, Riley said he felt his unit’s focus was misguided. Instead of executing the task at hand, the offense became too entrenched in a cat-and-mouse game with the Tech defense. At times Davis looked confused and so did the Pirates’ young offensive line as they allowed five sacks.
“I think we just worried a little bit too much about what Virginia Tech was doing instead of executing our plays,” Riley said. “That’s the thing about this offense, what you see on (opponent’s) film; it’s a 50-50 shot that you’re going to see that (defense) or something you’ve never seen before. People tend to play us differently.
“You have to be focused on you, and I thought as coaches and players we got a little bit too focused on them.”
JUCO transfer running back Reggie Bullock enters today’s game with 23 carries for 77 yards (3.3 ypc) and no TDs, while sophomore Michael Dobson has rushed for 26 yards on seven attempts and one touchdown. Riley said in order for the ground game to take off it will take better execution by both the backs and the linemen.
“It’s all the way around. We have to play better up front and the backs have to make the cuts when they’re there,” Riley said.
That unit also must get WR Lance Lewis more touches. Against South Carolina, Lewis had 13 receptions for 108 yards and two scores. Virginia Tech refused to let Lewis beat it and employed a lot of double coverages to keep him out of the game. The Pirates cannot allow that to happen again and other receivers must step up and make defenses pay. So far freshman WR Justin Hardy (14-122, 1 TD) has been a solid second option, but after him the next leading receiver is Bullock, who has six catches for 25 yards.
The Blazers will play a 4-3 defense led by junior MLB Marvin Burdette and preseason all-conference selection DT Elliot Hengan.
While the Pirates offense went into the bye week seeking ways to rebound from its struggles, the defense is hoping it doesn’t lose any of the momentum built from two sturdy efforts against two ranked teams.
As of today, the unit is ranked 52nd in total defense (341.5 jpg) and 113th in rush defense (230.5). While those numbers don’t seem overly impressive, it must be taken into account that ECU faced two of the best running backs in the country in USC’s Marcus Lattimore and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson.
A number that is overly impressive is 111, that’s the number of passing yards per game the Pirates have allowed, which ranks fourth in the country.
Junior inside linebacker Daniel Drake and freshman inside linebacker Jeremy Grove have done a nice job up the middle and lead the Pirates in tackles with 27 and 24, respectively. Drake’s 13.5 stops per game ranks No. 2 in the FBS.
Cornerback Derek Blacknall has four pass breakups and his two breakups per game, which ranks second in the nation.
“On defense we’ve worked on continuing to have a group of guys that, on a high percentage of snaps, are doing their jobs schematically and fundamentally,” McNeill said. “That has been a key reason for success. It hasn’t been by accident or luck. We’re not even close to where we can be, though.”
The defense will look to slow down a UAB attack led by senior QB Bryan Ellis, who became the Blazers starter after the fourth game of the 2010 season. In last year’s matchup with the Pirates, Ellis threw for a career-high 418 yards and five touchdowns in a losing effort.
Perhaps UAB’s biggest weapon is senior RB Pat Shed, who led the team in rushing last season with 847 yards and set a school record for receptions by a running back with 47.
Ellis and Shed will be protected by a veteran offensive line that is led by 2010 first-team all-conference tackle Matt McCants.
Jackie Williams is the team’s leading receiver with eight catches for 72 yards, while Patrick Hearn is right behind him with five for 45 yards.