It’s test time for Pirates

Published 5:15 pm Friday, October 7, 2011

UAB's Greg Irvin attempts to bring down East Carolina quarterback Dominique Davis (4) during the second quarter of their NCAA college football game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, in Greenville, N.C. (AP Photo/The Daily Reflector, Rhett Butler)

GREENVILLE — The Pirates return to Conference USA action this week as they travel to Texas to take on an undefeated Houston team that was the trendy pick to win the conference heading into the season.

In an odd way, tonight’s game is a measuring stick matchup for both teams. The Cougars come to the table with a perfect 5-0 (1-0) record, but they have accrued those wins against less than spectacular competition. After edging past UCLA 38-34, the Cougars blew past North Texas 48-23, had to rally to top Louisiana Tech 35-34, shutout Georgia State 56-0 and hung on for their lives to beat UTEP 49-42.

On the other hand, the Pirates (1-3, 1-0) show up at Robertson Stadium having already faced some of the best teams in the country. ECU held halftime leads over then-No. 12 South Carolina and No. 11 Virginia Tech before eventually losing 56-37 and 17-10, respectively. The Pirates had to fight a lot harder than expected to pick up their first victory of the season over C-USA foe UAB, as they won 28-23 despite committing seven turnovers.

In the team’s last time out, ironically, it was a poor first half that put the Pirates behind the eight ball against in-state rival North Carolina as they trailed 28-3 after two quarters. ECU responded by outscoring the Tar Heels 17-7 in the second half but it was too little too late.

Today’s C-USA battle is a great one because it pits two teams against each other that are perceived to be at or around the same level. The big question for ECU is which team will show up today, and how many quarters will it play for. Will Houston face the Pirates team that jumped out to a 24-14 halftime lead over the Gamecocks, or the one that came out for the second half of that game and turned the ball over three times in third quarter to lose lead?

Gauging East Carolina has been extremely tough this year, but when the team plays well it provokes thoughts of a unit that should be able to contend for a conference championship.

However, first things first, and the first task is finding a way to slow down Houston quarterback Case Keanum. The senior stat-racking machine missed most of last season after injuring his knee against UCLA in September, but was granted another year of eligibility and is back to his old tricks.

Keenum enters the game guiding an offense that tallies an FBS-best 610 yards of total offense per contest which is powered by the QB’s 4o1 passing yards per game, which is second in the nation.

On the year, Keenum already has 2,005 passing yards and 14 TD passes as he inches closer to some very impressive historical records. His 16,471 yards of total offense for his career are 440 yards away from breaking Timmy Chang’s (Hawaii) mark of 16,910, while his 121 career TD passes are 14 away from moving past former Texas Tech star Graham Harrell for No. 1 all-time.

The Cougars have 12 receivers that average over 10 yards per catch and are led by Patrick Edwards (25-409) and Tyron Carrier (32-403).

The offense also has talented running backs in Michael Hayes (304 yards), Bryce Beal (239 yards) and Charles Simms (171 yards).

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill is very familiar with Keenum and the Houston offense as he saw a ton of both while he was the defensive coordinator at Texas Tech. Both the Pirates and the Cougars basically run former Red Raiders coach Mike Leach’s offense, but the big question is which team will do a better job of slowing it down.

Blitzing a guy like Keenum is always a risk because it puts a lot of pressure on the defensive backs to cover and tackle. Blitzing Keenum can also be rendered pointless because of how fast he gets rid of the ball. On the flip side, dropping seven or eight players into coverage can be just as risky because sooner or later one of their receivers is going to get open.

The key for the Pirates’ defense is to take the approach of a crafty pitcher that is capable of keeping a batter off balance by throwing all types of pitches in all types of situations.

“Against a quarterback like Case who has seen every look it’s best to be able to blend (coverages),” McNeill said. “You’re not going to be able to fool him but you have to be able to blend your coverages and your front looks and your blitzes and stunts and where they come from. The key word is blend, you can’t give him the same look each snap.”

The Pirates defense appears to be up to the challenge as the unit boosts the No. 23 ranked pass defense in the country. ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said the key is to throw off Keenum’s rhythm.

“A lot of teams don’t pressure him because they are so afraid of missing that tackle out in space,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think they have dictated enough tempo to him but that’s neither here nor there, everyone has their own agenda and their way of doing things. We’ll have a good blend.”

The ECU defense will have to combat the Cougars without starting CB Derek Blacknall (back), LB Daniel Drake (shoulder) and LB Maurice Falls (concussion). Also, LB Justin Dixon will also sit out for the second straight week for what the school called “corrective reasons.”

Keeping up with the Houston offense shouldn’t be too difficult for ECU as long as it can hold on to the ball.

Last season quarterback Dominque Davis led the Pirates to the 16th ranked scoring offense in the country with 36.8 points per game. This year, the team averages 23.8 points per game to rank 91st in the FBS. ECU would have a much higher points per game average if it didn’t commit an FBS-worst 17 turnovers.

Lance Lewis is coming off of a 10-catch, 166-yard performance against UNC and leads the team with 34 receptions for 360 yards and five TDs. Freshman WR Justin Hardy is right behind him with 32 catches for 285 yards and two TDs.

The Pirates have had moments when they have been able to run the ball, but RBs Reggie Bullock (63-318) and Michael Dobson (10-46) are tied with WR Danny Webster for the team-lead in fumbles lost with two each.

Having two backs fumble can severely hamstring the team’s ground attack and is likely the reason that Torrance Hunt has moved ahead of Dobson on the depth chart as the No. 2 back.

On the offensive line, starting RT Grant Harner will be back in action after missing last week’s due to an injury, while starting center Doug Polochak (knee) is still out and wil be replaced by Hugh Parker.