Pirates defense takes center stage

Published 6:16 pm Friday, October 21, 2011

GREENVILLE — All eyes will be on the Pirates defense today as it looks to show just how far it has come along against a team that exposed just how far away it was last season.

The last time East Carolina (2-4, C-USA) faced Navy (2-4, independent) the Midshipmen opened up the floodgates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with a steady stream of scoring as they accounted for 521 rushing yards in their 76-35 victory.

Navy battered a young, undersized Pirates’ defense that was missing starting defensive ends Justin Dixon, Marke Powell and starting DT Michael Brooks.

This time around, ECU’s defense has changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and is a little bit more seasoned. Though once again, ECU has its fare share of injuries, some added depth, combined with offseason under strength coach Jeff Connors, should have the team more prepared when the rematch kicks off today at 3:30 p.m.

“Jeff Connors has done a great job with these kids, not only adding strength and quickness but mental toughness to this team that we didn’t have last year,” East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “A lot of those kids played last year as young players … adding the 3-4 has put those guys in a better position to finish and make plays.”

The Pirates will look to finish their non-conference schedule by earning its second consecutive win, while Navy enters today’s game trying to bust a four-game losing streak. The Midshipmen have lost a few close games this year and fell 21-20 to Rutgers last week after having an extra point blocked. Special teams has been an issue for Navy as it has missed an extra point or a field goal in five of its six games this season.

After finishing last season dead-last in the FBS in total defense and run defense, the Pirates will get a chance to show just how much progress they’ve made against a team, who like ECU, has a deceiving 2-4 record.

As of now, it’s hard to argue with the statistics. At the halfway point in the season ECU has moved up 55 spots to rank 65th in the nation in total defense, and that’s after having played ranked South Carolina and Virginia Tech teams. Against the run, ECU has allowed 179 yards per game to rank 85th in the nation.

Heading into today’s game Navy has amassed 1,992 rushing yards and averages an FBS third-best 332 yards per game on the ground.

Senior quarterback Kriss Proctor is the team’s leading rusher with 563 yards, which is 61 more that the Pirates have as a team. Opening up that ground attack is senior fullback Alexander Teich, who is second on the team with 477 rushing yards, and is trailed by slotbacks John Howell (229) and Gee Gee Greene (196).

Navy’s offense is unlocked by the threat of Teich up the middle, and that’s where Mitchell said the Pirates must be stout.

“That’s our game plan. We want to make sure that the fullback doesn’t rush for 157 yards like he did last year,” Mitchell said. “You want to make them a one dimensional team. You take away the fullback and then the quarterback is probably the second biggest factor in all this. You want to make the game a perimeter game where more mistakes can happen because of the pitch.”

ECU might have to do that without its leading tackler, freshman inside linebacker Jeremy Grove, who is listed as “questionable” for today’s game with a shoulder injury. Defensive end Antonio Allison (ankle) and ILB Ty Holmes (wrist) are listed as probable, while OLB Chris Baker (knee) and CB Emanuel Davis (concussion) were tabbed as “questionable.”  However, Davis practiced on Wednesday and head coach Ruffin McNeill said that he will likely play.

Expected to rejoin the Pirates in some capacity today is sophomore OLB Justin Dixon, who has missed the last three games for what the school called “corrective reasons.” On Wednesday’ McNeill praised Dixon’s work and attitude during that time and said that he will likely play on special teams against Navy.

The East Carolina offense will also be a bit shorthanded as the team’s leading rusher Reggie Bullock (thigh) is listed as “probable,” along with WR Danny Webster (hip). Wideout Michael Bowman (ankle) was dubbed “questionable” for today, as is RB Michael Dobson (ankle). The East Carolina offensive line is perhaps the unit most affected by injuries as starting center Doug Polochak is out with a knee injury, as is starting left guard Adhem Elsawi.

Polochak has been tough to replace as evident in the team’s loss to Houston where ECU allowed nine sacks. However, Josh Clark, a backup guard and tackle, got the start at center in last week’s 35-17 win over Memphis and did a nice job.

“Josh Clark’s play at center is probably more amazing than what Dominique Davis and Lance Lewis did in such a short amount of time last year,” ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “Center is a hard position to play in this offense – it might be the hardest- and he did a good job.”

Against the Tigers, ECU moved left tackle Jordan Davis (6-3, 280) to his more natural home at left guard in place of Elsawi, and played 6-8, 310-pound Stephen Baker at left tackle. The shuffling appeared to work as the line allowed zero sacks against Memphis and paved the way for RB Torrance Hunt to rush for 98 yards and a score on 16 carries. That effort has allowed Huny, the sophomore wide receiver-turned-running back, to rush past Bullock to the top of the depth chart.

“Hunt will be the starter, but they’re both good,” Riley said. “Bullock’s about 100 percent (healthy) now, he looked good in practice, but Hunt showed us that he needs to play a lot.”

Freshman Alex Owah has not seen any action this year at running back and it might be a while before he does as Riley said he needs to learn to “do things the Pirate way.”

The Pirates offense has accumulated an average of 382 yards of total offense per game to rank 73rd in the country. However, it stands at 92nd in the nation in points scored with 22.2 per game because it has turned the ball over and FBS-worst 23 times (11 INTs, 12 fumbles).

The Navy defense is led by ILB Matt Warrick, who has a team-high 57 tackles, while defensive end Jabaree Tuani leads the team in sacks with two.

The Midshipmen will lineup in a 3-4 defense and play a lot of Tampa Two coverage which forces opposing offenses to nickel and dime their way down the field.

“They don’t make many mistakes, they kind of just sit back and let the offenses make mistakes first,” Riley said. “They tackle well and have a bend but don’t break philosophy … We have to hang on to (the ball) and run well. We have to start fast and hopefully we can make then have to throw the football a lot because I think that can cater to us.”