Pirates look to right ship at Memphis
Published 6:52 pm Friday, October 14, 2011
GREENVILLE — Operation Bounce Back begins today at 3:30 p.m. at Memphis as East Carolina looks to rebound from the worst loss of the Ruffin McNeill era last week as the Pirates got pounded by Conference USA rival Houston 56-3.
So far East Carolina (1-4, 1-1) has faced some pretty stiff competition throughout its first five games of the season, but today it will face a Tigers team that has been a cure-all for Conference USA opponents the last few years. Memphis heads into today’s game with a 1-5 (0-2) record after having lost 28-6 to Rice last week and has not won a conference game since 2009. The Tigers only win of the season came over Non-FBS member Austin Peay.
East Carolina’s poor showing against Houston has not derailed the Pirates’ hopes of winning a C-USA East crown, but in order to do that they must come out victorious against the Tigers.
“They’re all must wins, we viewed South Carolina as a must win game, but we need to win this game for the simple fact that it’s in our division,” McNeill said. “One of our goals is to win our division so we can get to the championship game, so by that fact, yeah, we need to win this game.”
For that to happen, the first thing ECU must do is get better play from its offensive line. Against the Cougars, the Pirates allowed nine sacks and rushed for a total of 21 yards.
The unit entered this season as the third-most inexperienced offensive line in the country and it is showing as the Pirates rank 111th in the nation in sacks allowed (3.2 per game) and 120 (last in the FBS) in rushing yards per game with a paltry 69 yards per contest (a number that is brought down by all the sacks).
The Pirates lacked beef up font as they battled Houston without starting senior center Doug Polochak, while sophomore guard Adhem Elsawi was forced out of the game due to a knee injury. How much of a difference their presence would have made is uncertain as the Case Keenum-led Cougars jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead that allowed their defense to tee-off on Pirates QB Dominique Davis early and often.
“They got a big lead on us early and to have a chance to come back and win the game we had to throw the ball around a little bit,” ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “Our tackles played poorly, Dominique did some good things early but then I thought he pressed trying to make a play when things weren’t going well around him. … We lost our poise a little bit. We had some plays go against us and a lot of our guys left their technique at the door and tried to do their own thing, and when you get into a situation like that, that’s the worst thing you can do.”
Davis would end up getting intercepted three times in the first half as he connected on 13 of his 23 pass attempts for 169 yards and no TDs. In the second half, ECU brought in backup QB Rio Johnson (13-21, 94, 1 INT) in search of a spark but had no such luck as the sophomore was sacked six times.
Riley and McNeill both stated that Davis would resume his normal role as starting quarterback.
The offense will be missing some key players today as starting RB Reggie Bullock will be out with a leg injury and replaced by sophomore WR-turned-RB Torrance Hunt. Bullock is ECU’s leading rusher with 324 yards and has a 4.7 yards per carry average.
Hunt got his first significant action of the year in the second half of last week’s game and looked good as he rushed 12 times for 65 yards.
Also sitting out today will be WR Justin Jones who re-aggravated a knee and wrist injury sustained in the preseason.
The Pirates offense will go against a 4-3 Memphis defense that ranks 116th in the nation in total defense. The Tigers are led up front by mammoth DT and NFL prospect Dontari Poe, who stands at 6-5, 350 pounds and is a force up front.
Linebacker Terrence Thomas leads Memphis in tackles with 54, while DE Frank Trotter’s three sacks are a team-high.
Offensively, Memphis will attack behind freshman quarterback Taylor Reed who has started five of the team’s first six games and has hit on 60 percent of his passes for 1,051 yards, five TDs and three interceptions.
Senior RB Billy Foster has been one of the Tigers’ most consistent threats and has rushed for 292 yards and three scores. WR Tennar Rehrer leads the team with 36 receptions for 307 yards and has been the go-to guy on third downs this year.
East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said his team’s poor performance in third down situations last week against Keenum and the Cougars played a big role in the Pirates’ loss.
“There were some key situations where we didn’t get off the field on third down,” Mitchell said. “There were a couple of keys we emphasized and one of them was third downs and we didn’t execute on third down.”
The ECU defense has for the most part done a nice job this year despite its 98th national ranking in total defense, but a strong showing against the Tigers would do a lot for the unit’s morale.
Though the Tigers run a spread offense, Mitchell said he expects them to try and take the air of out the ball early.
“I think they want ball control first and foremost,” Mitchell said. “Then, if things don’t happen ball control-wise then they will go to the passing game.”
Freshman linebacker Jeremy Grove has been outstanding and is third in the nation in tackles per contest after having racked up 66 stops in five games.
The ECU defense will also receive a boost as CB Derek Blacknall is expected to return to action this week, as is ILB Daniel Drake, who is second on the team in tackles with 44.
Sophomore linebacker Justin Dixon will sit out his third straight game for what the school is calling “corrective reasons,” though McNeill did say that Dixon has been doing a lot of the things needed to get back in good graces with the staff.