Going for a ride?

Published 7:49 pm Monday, October 31, 2011

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill (center) and his Pirates prepare for a clash with Southern Miss in a battle for the Conference USA East division lead. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

GREENVILLE — Normally, Ruffin McNeill doesn’t mind being chauffeured around town, but this week he would much prefer to take the driver’s seat. That’s the position the East Carolina coach is hoping that he and his team will be in after their Conference USA East showdown with Southern Miss this Saturday.
Over the weekend, both the Pirates (4-4, 3-1) and the No. 24 Golden Eagles (7-1, 3-1) benefited from strong second half play as ECU coasted past Tulane 35-13 and USM topped UTEP 31-13. Those respective victories preserved each team’s one-loss conference record to set up a mega-matchup in which the winner control’s its own destiny during the march for a C-USA East crown.
“If you’re able to drive your own car that’s always a positive,” McNeill said. “You don’t mind having GPS tell you where to go, but if you can tell yourself it’s always a lot better.”
The Eagles come to town having earned their first national ranking since 2004 thanks to a dangerously balanced offensive attack led by senior quarterback Austin Davis and a solid defense that’s guided by DE Cordarro Law.
Southern Miss uses a host of running backs to average and FBS-18th best 215 rushing yards per game, while the crafty Davis is tallying 254 passing yards per contest to rank 38th in the nation. That combined effort has led to the Eagles producing 36.2 points per game, which the second highest total in the conference behind Houston.
The Pirates’ retooled defense continues to show that the move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 was the right one as it came up strong against Tulane holding the Green Wave to a mere 132 yards passing, while sacking quarterback Ryan Griffin four times and forcing two turnovers. Thanks to performances like that, East Carolina now has the 20th ranked pass defense in the nation.
Also potentially playing a big factor in Saturday’s matchup will be the Pirates’ special teams. East Carolina’s punt return defense ranks 115th, while the school is dead-last in net punting with an average of 30.6 yards per attempt.
McNeill’s frustration with the punting game showed as he yanked starter Ben Ryan after he shanked an 11-yard punt in the first half against Tulane in favor of Aussie Phil McNaughton.
“I go after (kickers) the same as anybody else,” McNeill said. “(Special teams coach) Clay (McGuire) has met with Ben … I expect Ben to be one of the best punters in the league, anything less than that and he will get challenged just like (QB Dominique Davis, (RG) Will Simmons, (LB) Jeremy Grove …I challenge those guys the same as anyone else on the team.”
Ryan, who is averaging 39 yards per punt and has booted the ball over 50 yards five times this season, is still listed at the top of the depth chart above McNaughton and Trent Tignor who have an “or” between their names.
While Ryan may be headed towards the doghouse, he might be passing by Justin Dixon who appears to be headed in the opposite direction. Dixon made his way out onto the field and back into his linebacker spot for a brief appearance on Saturday and appears to doing all the right things get back into the good graces of his coaches and teammates.
The sophomore has not played on defense since the third game of the season against UAB as he was bench for  what the school called “corrective reasons.” However, after getting on the field in a special teams role against Navy, Dixon made a brief appearance against Tulane in the second quarter.
“I tell our kids exactly what I expect, I don’t pull any punches because that’s what I expect from them. I love Justin, but I love Justin enough to tell him that I love the team more; Justin understands that,” McNeill said. “He’s went through the proper procedures and development between myself and Cary Godette, our director of administration. He met with Coach (Brian) Mitchell (defensive coordinator) and our defensive staff and he’s gone through the process. … He’s done a good job and I expect him to grow and learn from it.”
East Carolina has several athletes going through the process of trying to heal themselves in time for Saturday’s game. Wide receiver Justin Hardy (knee), WR Mike Price (concussion), OLB Marke Powell (lower back), DE Robert Huckabee (concussion) and DB Cody Lyon (concussion) are all listed as “questionable,” while RB Reggie Bullock (thigh), OL Adhem Elsawi (knee) and WR Justin Jones are all “out” this weekend.