A change in focus

Published 7:09 pm Monday, November 7, 2011

After losing its Conference USA East Division with Southern Miss on Saturday, East Carolina now turns its focus away from winning the division to trying to become bowl eligible for the sixth straight season. (WDN Photo/Brian Haines)

A Conference USA East Division title may be out of the reach for East Carolina but bowl eligibility isn’t, and that’s what the Pirates (4-5, 3-2) will be focusing on as they head into the final stretch of the season.
East Carolina had a chance to take the C-USA East Division lead this Saturday but had two interceptions brought back for scores, a punt returned for a touchdown and a punt blocked and returned for a TD by Southern Miss as it fell 48-28 to the Golden Eagles (8-1, 4-1), who now have sole possession of first place.
“The four non-defensive touchdowns killed us, it hurt us badly,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “The first (interception), the ball bounced off of Joe (Womack’s) hands and ricocheted off of a defender’s shoulder pads and into another defender.
“The punt return, … We tried to directional punt away from (USM return man Tracey Lampely who scored on 60-yard punt return). (Punter) Philip (McNaughton) hung it up; it didn’t hit the ground, we wanted it to roll.
“On the (punt block) Will (Smith) went down, our snapper, and we had to put (Charlie) Coggins in as the backup guy … The guys tried to cover to react to the last return and (USM) blocked it on us. Philip got it off well and Coggins was not a problem on that snap it but they blocked it on us.”
McNeill and the Pirates want to move on from that loss as quickly as possible, which means that UTEP (4-5, 1-4) will now receive the team’s full attention as ECU treks towards bowl eligibility.
“The next step is UTEP. We’re going to bounce back and finish strong, that’s one of the things we talked about all season: finishing strong as a team and becoming bowl eligible,” McNeill said. “When you have a setback you want to make sure you keep the team tight. We did that after the Houston loss and we will do it again after this loss.”
In order to become bowl eligible, the Pirates must win at least two of their last three games. After hitting the road to face UTEP, ECU will come back home to take on reigning C-USA champs UCF (4-5, 2-3), before playing the regular season finale on the road against Marshall (4-5, 3-2).
The quest for bowl eligibility will be greatly hampered by the loss of star WR Lance Lewis, who missed the USM game and will not play against UTEP because of a foot injury.
The 6-3, 209-pound Lewis, whose 60 catches for 600 yards and eight TDs are all team-highs, was a preseason all-conference selection and the Pirates’ best red zone threat.
“Not having Lance is like not having (former ECU star) Dwayne (Harris), it’s a guy the defense has to focus on,” McNeill said. “With Lance, he saw doubles every game and sometimes doubles and triple (coverage) with a ’backer buzzing out. That takes that element away.”
With Lewis out, ECU not only lacks a long ball threat but a big target for QB Dominique Davis to throw to when he is inside the 20. Senior Andrew Bodenheimer is 6-3 and has decent hands, but he only has two touchdowns in his career. At 6-2, junior Dayon Arrington has some height, but he only weighs 195 pounds and enters this week with a mere two receptions on the season. Sophomore H-Back Zico Pasut is 6-3, 234 pounds, but unproven in the passing game as he has only one career reception.
Then there is sophomore Justin Jones, who at 6-8, 264 pounds has potential to be a game-changer, but has battled through injuries all year long. Jones hurt his knee in the preseason and his wrist some time after that and has only played in three games this year. Jones, who has one catch on the season, played against USM but cast issues kept him from being a viable threat in the passing game.
“We thought he was ok with a soft cast but right before the game the officials came in and we had to re-pad it,” McNeill said. “We went from having a soft cast where he could (flex his hand) to a buffed pad that didn’t allow much movement. We tried to get him on some blocking things but he could not (move his hand). After he is reexamined this week we might be able to get him a soft cast where he can move both his hands.”
When asked about the possibility of a medical redshirt for Jones McNeill said, “I would like for it to be, but I don’t know.”
Other injured Pirates are LG Adhem Elsawi (knee), RB Reggie Bullock (thigh) and DB Detric Allen (hand), who are all listed as “out” for Saturday, while center Doug Polochak is “doubtful.” Linebacker Marke Powell (back) and RT Grant Harner (ankle) are in the “questionable” category, while WR Mike Price (concussion) and DE Robert Huckabee (concussion) are both “probable” for this weekend.