Pirates on choppy water

Published 6:21 pm Monday, November 14, 2011

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill (left) talks with wide receiver Lance Lewis during a practice earlier this year. Lewis was out with a foot injury Saturday when the Pirates fell 22-17 to UTEP. (WDN Photo)

GREENVILLE — The Pirates are sailing on some choppy waters these days as their 22-17 loss to UTEP over the weekend was their second defeat in a row and means they have to win their final two games of the season to become bowl eligible.
That will not be an easy task for East Carolina (4-6, 3-3) as it must first take on defending Conference USA champions UCF (4-6, 2-4) at home on Saturday night, then hit the road to battle Marshall (4-6, 3-3), who is the only team that has been able to beat C-USA East leaders Southern Miss (9-1, 5-1) so far this season.
“We know what’s in front of us,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “We know we have to win these games.”
Injuries and costly mistakes have made it increasingly difficult for this team to progress. On Saturday, quarterback Dominique Davis threw two interceptions, one of which was brought back for a touchdown and the other came on the final drive of the game.
On the season, Davis has completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,737 yards and 18 touchdowns, but has been intercepted 15 times. A year ago, Davis threw 37 touchdown passes and finished the season with only 16 picks.
In fairness to Davis, he has played a large chunk of the season behind an oft-injured line without leading rusher Reggie Bullock (thigh), while star receiver Lance Lewis has missed the past two games with a foot injury.
McNeill said the combination of the amount of pressure Davis puts on himself to make plays along with the instability around him has forced the senior QB into some uncharacteristic mistakes.
“I think he probably puts too much pressure on himself thinking that he’s got to carry the whole team; which he doesn’t,” McNeill said. “He just has to make the secure throw and the routine throw.”
Last year it was a slew of injuries on the defensive side of the ball that helped send that unit into a tailspin. This year, it’s the offense that has had to figure out how to play without key athletes each week.
Offensive line and running back are the two positions that have been bit the hardest by the injury bug as LG Adhem Elsawi, C Doug Polochak, OL Drew Gentry and RT Grant Harner have all missed significant time up front, while RB Bullock has been battling a thigh injury since the early portion of the season. Bullock’s injury left sophomore wide receiver turned running back Torrance Hunt, along with sophomore Michal Dobson as the only viable run options.
“Last year offensively we had one starter out for one game and that was (OL) Corey Dowless against Rice. Every other game we had the same starting lineup,” McNeill said. “This year, we have not started the same offensive unit for two games in a row. … The continuity starts up front … when you lose that unit it affects the rest of them; the protection, the run game.”
The run game will be even more limited than it has been as McNeill announced on Monday that redshirt freshman RB Alex Owah has been suspended for violating team rules and that Dobson will likely not play against UCF due to a concussion.
“Alex Owah has been suspended for the remainder of the year due to violation of team rules,” McNeill said. “And we will evaluate his status in January after the season.”
Owah’s suspension and Dobson’s concussion leaves Hunt and H-back Zico Pasut as the only RBs on the roster this Saturday. Pasut, who is really more of a blocking back/tight end, has one career carry for four yards.
McNeill said he will not take a red shirt off of anyone, but did say he will play freshman WR Danny Webster at running back to try to give that unit another playmaker.
“The red shirt running back is Chris Hairston but he’s had knee surgery and won’t be back until the spring. He’d be a guy if he was healthy but there are no other young people that can do it,” McNeil said. “We can use Danny Webster a little bit, we have a plan for using him in the backfield.”
Aside from Dobson, Lewis and Polochak and Elsawi, who are all listed as “questionable” for Saturday’s game, the Pirates will be without (DB) Detric Allen (hand) and LB Brandon Williams (knee), while Harner (ankle) and Bullock are both listed as “doubtful” for Saturday.