Pirates in for a big challenge

Published 12:07 am Saturday, October 1, 2011

GREENVILLE — With an 8 p.m. kickoff, the Pirates will play a primetime matchup with instate rival North Carolina tonight (to be aired on CBS Sports), and though the game is littered with high profile players, the key to East Carolina’s success will be the play of the guys who get little TV time.
The Tar Heels (3-1, ACC) head east to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and bring with them an offensive and defensive line that might be the biggest ECU (1-2, C-USA) might see all season.
“They’re a BCS football team with BCS talent,” Pirates defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “Talent is talent and they’ve got it at every position. They’re big and strong and physical up front. They have big tight ends that can run. They’re talented team with a running back that can take it the distance and they do some really good things in the passing game.”
The Tar Heels run a pro-style offense and will protect sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner (74-95, 897, 7 TD, 6 INT) with a line that averages an NFL-like 320 pounds per player.
Promising sophomore LT James Hurst is 6-7, 310 pounds, junior LG Jonathan Cooper is 6-5, 305 pounds, senior C Cam Holland is 6-2, 320 pounds, junior RG Travis Band is 6-7, 345 pounds and junior RT Brennan Williams stands at 6-7, 315 pounds.
While Holland is the senior leader, Cooper was named to the all-ACC team last year and Hurst made several freshmen all-American teams.
The Pirates, who have only one player in their front seven who weighs over 300 pounds in backup NG Terry Williams (324), will combat that UNC line with a 3-4 defense that looks like this up front: 6-1, 263-pound sophomore DE Derrell Johnson, 6-3, 297-pound junior NG Michael Brooks and 6-4, 257-pound sophomore DE Matt Milner.
Johnson leads the team in sacks (2) and TFLs (3) and together he and his line mates must continue to do a solid job up front so ECU’s two tackling machines ILBs, Jeremy Grove and Daniel Drake, can continue to each average 13 take downs per game, which ranks third in the nation.
“We face another offensive line that has a lot of returning starters. Our defensive line will have another challenge,” ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “That’s where the game will be won – up front.”
On offense, the Heels, who lost their first game of the year against Georgia Tech last week, feature several playmakers. Giovani Bernard, a 5-10, 205-pound freshman running back, has been outstanding and has averaged 7.4 yards per carry to rack up 402 rushing yards and six TDs in four games.
The Pirates have already faced their share of elite backs this season as they have had to defend against South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson in their losses to the Gamecocks and Hokies, respectively. Lattimore ran for 112 yards and three TDs, while Wilson racked up 137 yards but was kept out of the end zone.
Mitchell said Bernard is top tier back.
“Gosh, he’s a talent,” Mitchell said. “I think, unlike some of the other guys, he’s a little shorter but he’s more powerful. He can cut on a dime like those other guys, but he’s so compact it’s going to take a group effort to bring him down.”
The Tar Heels are equipped with tall, big-play receivers and are led by potential NFL wideouts Dwight Jones (6-4, 225), Erik Highsmith (6-3, 190) and Jheraine Boyd (6-2, 190).
On the season Jones is averaging over 15 yards per catch and leads the team with 27 grabs and four TD receptions.
Of course, East Carolina is no stranger to making big plays on offense, but the unit’s biggest issue so far this year has been hanging on to the ball. Heading into today’s matchup, the Pirates have committed 13 turnovers, which ranks 117th out of 120 FBS teams. That number was boosted by their school-record-tying seven giveaways during their 28-23 win over UAB last Saturday.
“We have to take care of the ball better, (seven turnovers against UAB) was ridiculous,” ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said.
ECU quarterback Dominique Davis had his first 300-yard game of the year as he hit on 35 of his 42 attempts for 367 yards and three TD passes. However, he also threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a score.
“The quarterback made a lot of good decisions and really had a low number of bad decisions, but the bad decisions were turnovers,” Riley said.
One good decision was to keep handing the ball off to junior RB Reggie Bulllock, who ran for 169 yards and a TD against the Blazers to be named the C-USA Offensive Player of the Week.
“It was a start, we kind of built on what we did against South Carolina where we got the running game going a little bit but weren’t able to sustain it and against UAB we were,” Riley said. “We played much better up front, and I don’t really care who the opponent was, we played a lot better up front. We could have been playing the New England Patriots, but we played a lot better up front.”
The line will have to play on that same level tonight as it faces as UNC D-line that is littered with potential NFL players. The Pirates head into that matchup shorthanded as senior center Doug Polochak is expected to miss 3-4 games with a knee injury. Taking his place will be senior Hugh Parker.
That unit will look to slow down sack machine Quinton Coples, a 6-6, 290-pound senior DE who is projected as a first round NFL pick.
On the other side of Coples is 6-6, 260 pound sophomore DE Karim Martin and 6-4, 260-pound Dante Paige-Moss. In between them are DTs Tydreke Powell, a 6-5, 305-pound preseason all-ACC selection and Sylvester Williams, who stands at 6-3, 315 pounds.
Behind them are linebackers Kevin Reddick and Zach Brown, who lead UNC in tackles with 27 and 25, respectively. Brown and Martin lead the team in sacks with 2.5 each, while safety Matt Merlitti has a team-high two interceptions.