Pirates ready to rebound

Published 7:35 pm Monday, October 3, 2011

East Carolina’s Bradley Jacobs (3) prevents North Carolina’s Dwight Jones (83) from making a pass reception from quarterback Bryn Renner in the second quarter Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Robert Willett)

GREENVILLE — Question: Is a 1-3 team that has battled closely with three BCS conference teams —two of which were ranked — better than a 5-0 team that squeaked past a non-ranked opponent from AQ conference? The answer to that question will be known on Saturday when East Carolina (1-3, 1-0) takes on Houston (5-0, 1-0) in a Conference USA clash at 7 p.m.

So far this season the Pirates have held halftime leads against then-ranked No. 12 South Carolina and No. 11 Virginia Tech, before falling to the heavyweights 56-37 and 17-10, respectively.

ECU would go on to pick up its first win of the year over UAB as it topped the Blazers 28-23 despite committing a school-record-tying seven turnovers. Following that, the Pirates again took the field against a BCS team as they battled in-state rival North Carolina of the ACC and fell 35-20.

On the other hand, Houston edged past a UCLA (Pac-12) team that has lost a lot of its luster over the years with a 38-34 victory, then topped North Texas 48-23 before having to rally to beat Louisiana Tech 35-34.

The Cougars crushed Georgia State 56-0, then slipped past UTEP with a 49-42 victory this past Saturday.

East Carolina is hoping its competitive games against nationally ranked teams will give it confidence heading into its matchup with the Case Keenum-led Cougars, who were a popular pick to win Conference USA in the preseason. The only problem is the Pirates’ confidence may be wavering after committing and FBS-worst 17 turnovers after four games. Against the Tar Heels, ECU turned the ball over on its first three possessions of the game and never recovered.

On Monday, East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill didn’t deny that the turnovers have lingered in the players’ minds.

“A lot has been made of it. Anytime they get asked about it in an interview it’s only natural that it will be on their mind,” McNeill said. “We practice to protect it … The guys work on it every day and we will keep working on it. But, the mental part, when you get asked about something I would imagine you would remember it.”

The Pirates also remember the last time they played Houston, as they held on to take a 38-32 victory in the Conference USA championship game on Dec. 5, 2009.

In that contest Keenum threw for 527 yards in the loss, however, that effort came against a much different ECU defense. As it turned out, that would be Skip Holtz’ last game at the helm for the Pirates, along with defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and his 4-3 defense.

This time around, the Pirates have shifted to a 3-4 scheme, which has for the most part been a success. That defense, which is ranked 23rd in the nation against the pass, will be in for another big challenge on Saturday trying to defend against Keenum, who will become the NCAA’s all-time leader in total offense sometime in the next two games.

The ECU defense might have to do it again without sophomore outside linebacker Justin Dixon. Dixon did not play against North Carolina on Saturday for what the school dubbed “corrective reasons” and is questionable for the Houston game.

“I don’t know (if he will be playing Saturday),” McNeill said. “I don’t know right now, we will see how that develops. It’s up to me. I like Justin, but he has to learn how to do things the Pirate Way and he’ll be fine; I love Justin … but he’ll be there when I decide he’s there. He’s on my time schedule.”

The defense also might be without senior cornerback Derek Blacknall, who injured his lower back against the Tar Heels and is listed as “questionable” for Saturday.

Linebacker Muarice Falls (concussion) is also listed as questionable, while center Doug Polochak is “out” for the second straight game with a knee injury.

The Pirates did get a boost from the return of 6-8 sophomore WR Justin Jones and sophomore inside linebacker Kyle Tudor. Both players recovered from injuries to see action for the first time on Saturday and are expected to play again against Houston.

Conference watch

On Monday morning several reports came out stating that the Big East is aggressively looking to expand. In September, East Carolina applied for membership to the Big East, but the school is still exploring all avenues that lead down a BCS path. East Carolina athletic director Terry Holland, who was not at McNeill’s Monday morning press conference because he was in a meeting, issued this statement to the WDN via e-mail.

“East Carolina University continues to aggressively pursue all potential opportunities for automatic qualification beginning with the announced potential alliance between Conference USA and the Mountain West, and extending to conferences with real or perceived vacancies. There has been no change of that status since last week.”