ECU must keep the chains moving
Published 5:16 pm Friday, October 28, 2011
GREENVILLE — Can the Pirates keep moving the chains? That’s the figurative question East Carolina faces as it heads into battle today against a subpar opponent in Tulane in a game that lacks some of the more intense storylines of weeks past.
The Pirates (3-4, 2-1) opened up the year against then-ranked No. 12 South Carolina and No. 11 Virginia Tech, and simply needed to look at the number that came before the team name for motivation.
After losing those two contests, ECU headed into its Conference USA opener against UAB winless and there wasn’t much need to stoke the fire for that one.
The next week the team’s motivation could be found in facing C-USA preseason favorites Houston on the road, where it got blown out 56-3 by the Cougars.
That performance was bad enough that no player could even think about overlooking Memphis the following week. After topping the Pirates topped the Tigers 35-17, ECU shifted its focus to Navy, and all it needed to do to get fired up for that one was to look at film of last year’s 76-35 beat down by the Midshipmen.
That loss was avenged last weekend in a thrilling 38-35 victory, which leads to today’s matchup with the Green Wave (2-6, 1-3), where there is no ranking or desire for payback. The Pirates simply must sustain the momentum they have built with back-to-back wins and keep the chains moving as they drive towards their goal of winning a Conference USA crown.
Tulane has had its struggles and is in the midst of a regime change as head coach Bob Toledo resigned last Tuesday amidst the fans’ clamoring for his departure. Offensive line coach Mark Hutson was giving the interim tag, and he lost his Green Wave debut 33-17 to a Memphis team that previously had not won a C-USA game in over year.
Despite the Green Waves’ woes, ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said his players did not approach this week with a complacent attitude.
“Not these guys,” McNeill said. “We have a lot ahead of us, we have not accomplished our goals.”
The goal right now is to build on last week’s solid outing in which quarterback Dominique Davis silenced his doubters as he connected on his first 26 passes of the game to set an NCAA record. Davis finished the game hitting on 40 of his 45 pass attempts for 372 yards and two TD passes. Most importantly, he did not throw an interception for the second straight contest.
Davis now averages an FBS 11th best 309 passing yards per game as he has hit on 71.6 percent of his passes this season for 2,013 yards, 14 TDs and 10 interceptions.
As a unit, the ECU offense may have played its best game of the year. The Pirates rushing attack resurfaced as Reggie Bullock ran 26 times for 104 yards and three scores behind a line that now seems to have some continuity. One of the most positive aspects of its performance was the fact that the offense did not turn the ball over for the first time all year.
“That means everything,” ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “We haven’t been stopped much unless we’ve turned it over. That’s been the difference between being a good offense and a great offense. We showed the other night that when we don’t turn it over we can be a great offense. That was huge.”
The offensive line’s development has also been huge for the Pirates, and it will receive a big boost today with the return of senior center Doug Polochak, who is expected to start after missing some time with a knee injury.
With injuries to Polochak and LG Adhem Elsawi (knee), Riley has had to mix and match along the line, but he now feels like he has found the right combination.
The absence of Elsawi has allowed the 6-3, 280-pound Jordan Davis to move from left tackle to his more natural position of left guard, making room for the 6-8, 310-pound senior Steven Baker to play tackle. The right side of the line has been consistent with RG Will Simmons and RT Grant Harner making every start this season. As now, the line appears to be settled as Riley confirmed that the starting jobs on the line are theirs to lose.
“(The line changes) were difficult at first (for the players), but give those guys credit, they’ve bounced back,” Riley said. “You can see the continuity and you can see us making less mistakes. You saw in that (game-winning) drive (versus Navy) that these guys were really physical, we were pounding them.”
Also deserving credit is a Pirates defense that answered the call against a Navy team that rushed for 521 yards against them last season by holding the Midshipmen to 420 total yards last Saturday.
“I don’t know if the win itself allows you to say ‘we’ve arrived’ but it tells you that you’re going in the right direction,” ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said.
Entering today’s game, the Pirates have the 32nd ranked pass defense in the country and stand 71st in the nation in total defense, which is up 49 spots from last year.
Though the sack numbers don’t necessarily show it – ECU’s 1.4 sacks per game ranks 91st in the FBS – Mitchell said the unit’s ability to pressure a quarterback from anywhere on the field in the new 3-4 defense is having an affect on opposing quarterbacks.
“When you put on film and you see quarterbacks go down from a corner blitz it makes the quarterback nervous and it makes the coordinator have to adjust, and that’s what we want,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to dictate tempo, whether it’s a hurry or a guy has hands in his face that’s as good as a sack.”
The ECU defense will face a veteran quarterback in Ryan Griffin (141-231, 1,754, 10 TDs, 6 INTs), who has the most starts behind center than any other C-USA player not named Case Keenum.
The Green Wave offense is led by running back Orleans Darkwa, who leads his team in rushing yards (517), receptions (26) and touchdowns (8).
“He’s the guy, he’s their leading rusher and receiver,” Mitchell said. “You have to account for that guy … He has the ability to take it the distance on any play.”