ECU eyeing bowl eligibility

Published 4:49 pm Friday, November 11, 2011

GREENVILLE — The winner of tonight’s game between East Carolina and UTEP won’t clinch bowl eligibility, but will take a giant leap towards doing so while the loser will have zero margin for error the rest of the season.
The Pirates and the Miners both have matching 4-5 records and feel like they deserve to play a 13th game this year but the truth is whichever team loses tonight’s contest is in serious jeopardy of not playing beyond their Nov. 26 season finale.
East Carolina (3-2, C-USA) lost control of its own destiny in the hunt for a Conference USA East crown when it fell to Southern Miss (8-1, 4-1) 48-28 last Saturday. However, whether or not ECU earns a bowl bid is still in its own hands but the Pirates must win at least two of their final three games to do so.
“The next step is UTEP. We’re going to bounce back and finish strong,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “That’s one of the things we’ve talked about all year. We want to finish strong as a team, finish strong within our division and become bowl eligible.”
After tonight, ECU will host reigning C-USA champions UCF (4-5, 2-3) in its final home game before hitting the road to take on Marshall (4-5, 3-2).
A week ago at this time things looked a little more optimistic for the Pirates as they stood tied atop the C-USA East Division with the Golden Eagles heading into their showdown. However, a disastrous first half in in which ECU allowed two interceptions to be returned for scores on top of having a punt returned for a touchdown and another blocked and brought back for a score allowed the Eagles to fly past the Pirates.
On Monday, McNeill said he would not allow his team to dwell on the loss.
“I like our effort. I think we’re a team that plays very hard. We’ve made some mistakes and shot ourselves in the foot. All five of our losses are to teams that, at one point of the season, have been ranked in a top 25 poll. Against those teams you can’t have mishaps, and we have,” McNeill said. “We know we have three games left. There is a lot of season remaining. There are a lot of things we have on the line. We want to make sure we’re bowl eligible and finish strong. There are three battles left and we’re looking forward to them.”
In order for the Pirates to bounce back they must not turn the ball over. After scoring the first touchdown of the game against Southern Miss, ECU looked to take a 14-0 lead on its second possession when Dominique Davis was intercepted near the end zone by Jamie Collins, who dashed 97 yards for a score. Instead of taking a two TD lead, the game was tied and all momentum was lost.
At -12, the Pirates have the worst turnover margin in the conference, while their 27 giveaways is the second-most in the nation.
The punting situation came to a head last week as McNeill benched senior Ben Ryan and gave Aussie junior Phil McNaughton his first start of his career against the Golden Eagles. McNaughton responded by putting too much air under a rugby-style kick on his first attempt, which lead to a 60-yard return for a score, while his second attempt was blocked. He would finish the game punting 6 times for a 37.2 average.
McNaughton’s less than spectacle debut set up a fight for the top of the depth chart this week, which appears to have been won by Ryan who is averaging 39.5 yards per punt.
“After today (Wednesday) I feel like Ben may have taken it over, but I have to watch the film,” McNeill said.
McNeill said the ability to hang the ball in the air is a key factor when evaluating his punters.
“You would like to have hang time and placement. We like to directional kick and pit them in a corner that way we can determine the return,” McNeill said. “But hang time is important. You would like to have both distance and hang time, but if you would have to sacrifice one for the other it would be distance for hang time.”
Once again the Pirates will be without some key players on offense as leading rusher Reggie Bullock is out with a thigh injury and leading receiver Lance Lewis will miss today’s game with a foot injury.
Sophomore RB Torrance Hunt will continue to get the lion’s share of the carries, while sophomore Reese Wiggins, who turned a screen pass into a 72-yard TD against USM, will start in Lewis’ spot.
Injuries have also affected the offensive line as center Doug Polochak (knee) is listed as doubtful and RT Grant Harner, who has started every game this season, is in jeopardy of seeing that streak snapped by an ankle injury.
If Polochak can’t go, expect Josh Clark to get the nod at center, while 6-6, 302-pound freshman Drew Gentry would start if Harner can’t.
UTEP runs a 4-3 defense that is a bit undersized up front as its D-line averages 267 pounds per player. The Miners rank ninth in the conference in total defense as it allows 453.8 yards per game. DeShawn Grayson leads the team in tackles with 60, while Horace Miller has recorded a team-high five sacks.
The Miners’ secondary is a sturdy one that plays a high amount of man defense and is led by CB Travaun Nixon who has three interceptions.
Defensively, the Pirates will look to stop a UTEP offense that is extremely versatile and can shift between a spread and under-center schemes.
“They have multiple offense within one,” ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “They’re going to have a power run game, they’re going to have the zone read aspect of it as well.  It’s very rare that you are going to see the quarterback under center and run the stretch play … then have the ability to go empty (no backs) and throw a different challenge at you right there.”
The Miners are led by quarterback Nick Lamasion (1,495, 11 TDs, 9 INTs) who on top of having a solid arm also some mobility. Mike Edwards is the team’s top receiver with 36 catches for 559 yards, while Joe Banyard has rushed for a team-high 550 yards.