ECU ready to fight for first place

Published 6:03 pm Friday, November 4, 2011

East Carolina WR Lance Lewis and the Pirates will play Southern Miss today with the winner taking the lead in the Conference USA East Division. (AP Photo)

GREENVILLE — Two teams will enter Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium today, but only one will leave with a Conference USA East Division lead as East Carolina and Southern Miss are set to slug it out at 4 p.m. for the right to sit behind the steering wheel.
The Pirates (4-4, 3-1) have rebounded nicely from their 56-3 thrashing at the hands  Houston in their fifth game of the season, and since that point, have ripped off three straight wins to head into today’s game with some momentum.
The Golden Eagles (7-1, 3-1), who are ranked No. 24 in the USA Today Poll, got tripped up by Marshall 26-20 in the Week 2, but have been perfect since as they have won six straight, with the last one being a 31-13 victory over UTEP.
The strength of Southern Miss so far has been a balanced offensive attack that has been able to withstand the loss of leading rusher Kendrick Hardy thanks to the stellar play of freshman Jamal Woodyard, sophomore Jeremy Hester and junior Tracy Lampley.
That group has helped the Eagles produce 215.5 rushing yards per game, which is the 18th best total in the nation.
Southern Miss has also been able to get the job done in the air, as senior QB Austin Davis has completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 2,014 yards, 17 TDs and 8 interceptions as the team averages an FBS 38th- best 254 passing yards per game.
USM’s capability to successfully run or pass on just about any down and distance presents a challenging obstacle to the ECU defense.
“One sets up the other, you’re sitting there defending the run but they have the ability to check from the sideline and put their guys in the best situation based on looks,” East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “That’s something that I think we progressed from coming from the Houston game. This team is very similar to Houston as far as explosiveness, play-calling and things of that nature because they have so much versatility in their scheme.”
The beefy 5-8, 202-pound Woodyard, who has earned the nickname “Fatback” has excelled in the absence of Hardy and is tallying 6.9 yards per carry and is second on the team with 418 yards and three touchdowns.
The Pirates will counter with run defense that allows and average of 186.8 yards per game, which ranks 88th in the FBS. Nose guard Michael Brooks, who is seventh on the team in tackles with 35, said that his unit must halt the Eagles’ ground game.
“It’s very important to stop the run, we need to get these guys one dimensional,” Brooks said. “Houston was a real good showing of what can happen if you don’t stop one. We learned from our mistakes and we’re going to go out there and try to make them one dimensional.”
When the Eagles do go to the air, wide receivers Kevin Bold, who has 38 catches for 404 yards and 5 TDs, and Ryan Balentine, who has hauled in 33 passes for 468 yards and 5 scores, have been Davis’ top targets.
In ECU’s 34-13 victory over Tulane last Saturday, the Pirates defense came up big as it was able to hold the Green Wave to 134 rushing yards, while sacking quarterback Ryan Griffin four times and limited him to 132 passing yards.
The Pirates have been stellar against the pass this year as they have held teams to 192.1 yards per game, which ranks 20th in the nation.
East Carolina has been led on defense by freshman MLB Jeremy Grove, who has team-high 82 tackles, while sophomore DE Derrell Johnson’s has a team-high three sacks and sophomore safety Damon Magazu leads the team with three interceptions.
Offensively, the Pirates will face a rigid USM defense that under new coordinator Dan Disch surrenders 333.9 yards a game to place 28th in the FBS in total defense.
Disch employs a complex 4-2-5 defense that gives spread offenses trouble because it has five DBs on the field at all times and is capable of playing man on one side and zone on the other.
“They pose problems because you have to be able to read it. They can play different coverages on different sides,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “They do some neat things defensively. They can jump from man to zone concepts with the same personnel. They are well schooled. The corners and safeties are very good at disguising.”
The Pirates will have to attack that defense without leading rusher Reggie Bullock (thigh), WR Justin Jones (WR) and guard Adhem Elsawi (knee). Wideout Justin Hardy, the team’s second-leading receiver, is listed as “questionable” due to a knee injury, as is WR Mike Price (concussion) and OLB Marke Powell.
With Bullock out, sophomore Torrance Hunt will continue to resume his duties as top ball carrier. So far this season the WR turned RB has done a nice job as he has averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
Center Doug Polochak returned to action last week after missing four games with a knee injury, but his playing status was still up in the air as of Wednesday as McNeill said, “I hope he is (available), he’s still battling that thing a little bit.”
The East Carolina offensive line will battle a solid USM D-line led by star defensive end Cardarro Law, who has five of the team’s 14 sacks.
“He’s different because he can bring speed but also has some power,” ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. “He’s an excellent player and definitely one of the better D-ends in the conference.”
Special teams figures to play a critical role today for the Pirates, who last week yanked punter Ben Ryan after he produced punts of 24 and 11 yards against Tulane. Aussie punter Phil McNaughton took over from there and booted three balls for an average of 41.7 yards. Ryan, a senior, is averaging 39.9 yards per punt.
As of Wednesday, McNeill had not decided on a punter for today’s game and said that he is not afraid to play McNaughton, who has only three career punts, in such a big game.
“I don’t see any risk, they have both had great practices,” McNeill said. “Phil got right in the middle of it (last week) with no planning and his first one went 51 yards.”