Pirates still in the hunt

Published 6:42 pm Monday, November 21, 2011

East Carolina’s Dominique Davis (4) is tackled by Central Florida’s Kemal Ishmael (18) in the first half of an Saturday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville. (AP Photo/The Daily Reflector, Scott Davis)

GREENVILLE — When Damon Magazu stepped in front of Blake Bortles’ pass late in the fourth quarter Saturday the sophomore safety’s interception not only preserved the Pirates 38-31 victory over Conference USA rival Central Florida, but also kept alive the team’s hopes of playing in a bowl game.
For that to happen, East Carolina (5-6, 4-3) must head into Marshall this weekend and take down a Thundering Herd team whose matching 5-6 (4-3) record has it in the same predicament as the Pirates.
Conference USA has six primary bowl tie-ins and one secondary tie-in. So far, Houston, Southern Miss and SMU have all clinched bowl births, while ECU, Marshall and UTEP are all one win away.
“Marshall has the same sights that we do, they’re playing for a bowl game and bowl eligibility,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said.
The Pirates have been to a school-record five straight bowl games and McNeill said his focus isn’t on the possibility of that streak coming to an end, but rather the opportunity to extend it.
“I’m looking at it as getting ready to play a tough Marshall team and getting ready to prepare for a bowl game,” McNeill said. “I don’t look at it as (potentially) stopping a streak, but look to continue it. We know we have a tough test in Marshall. They’ll be ready to go; we will be to.”
The Pirates were ready to go this past Saturday as they remarkably out-rushed a run-heavy UCF team despite featuring a depleted backfield. ECU’s leading rusher Reggie Bullock missed his third straight game due to a thigh injury, while Michael Dobson was used sparingly after sustaining a concussion the week before in the team’s loss to UTEP.
That left offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley with sophomore WR turned RB Torrance Hunt and TE/FB Zico Pasut, who had only one career carry heading into the game, as the only backfield options.
It was expected that Hunt would get the bulk of the work against the Knights, but ECU pounded the ball with Pasut and injected quarterback Dominique Davis into the running game to make up the difference.
By the end of the game, Davis led the team in carries as he ran 12 times for 73 yards, while Pasut tallied 38 yards on 11 attempts.
Hunt, who would score the game-winning touchdown on a 56-yard run with 2:10 left in the fourth quarter, had the least amount of carries with nine, but racked up a game-high 100 rushing yards.
McNeill said the lack of attempts for Hunt was an effort to keep him from wearing down late in the game.
“I think it paid off for us, the last run Torrance was still fresh. He was able to take it, go downhill and make one cut (and score),” McNeill said.
The defense also looked fresh, which is a stark contrast to last year at this team when teams were pounding away at the unit. Defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell’s group did a fantastic job limiting the Knights rushing attack. UCF ran the ball 45 times, but only tallied 115 yards. The East Carolina pass defense, which ranks 17th in the nation, held the Knights’ quarterback tandem of Jeff Godfrey and Bortles to completing only 18 of their 30 pass attempts for 198 yards while picking off each QB once. ECU also racked up four sacks.
“Each week they have gotten better and better. They really rely on one another and they hold each other accountable,” McNeill said. “At the end we had bad field position (after a UCF 72-yard kickoff return put it at the ECU 14-yard line before Magazu’s interception) but there was no way we were going to lose the game.
“It’s something you have to feel from the sideline but there was no way we were going to lose the game and the defense made sure of that.”
In 2010 the ECU defense was a youthful group that endured some key injuries en route to finishing last or near last in every major statistical category in the FBS. It was that performance that led the Pirates to change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. On Monday, McNeill said he was happy to see the unit bounce back from a disastrous 2010 season.
“I think that’s were patience comes in. (The defense) was a maligned group, there’s no hiding that. I’ve never been around a group that was as maligned as that group; coaches and players,” McNeill said. “They’ve done a good job of staying the course and believing in one another, which is the key.
“We’ve been patient, and understanding that it takes personnel. You have to have personnel, you have to coach them up, but you have to have guys that can make plays. … Those guys have done a nice job adapting to the new scheme.”
It wasn’t all sunshine during the Pirates win over Central Florida as they lost preseason all-conference WR Lance Lewis to a knee injury on the offense’s first possession of the game. Lewis, who leads the team in receptions (60), receiving yards (600) and touchdowns (8), has missed the previous two games due to a foot injury and worked to get back on the field, but hurt his knee blocking on a screen pass. However, if the Pirates do make a bowl game McNeill said there is a possibility Lewis could be back for it.
That will not be the case for freshman WR Danny Webster, who left Saturday’s game after sustaining a knee injury in the second quarter and will be out for the remainder of the season. Webster, a Havelock native, is third on the team with 43 receptions and 418 yards.
Also out for Saturday’s game against Marshall will be ILB Brandon Williams (knee), OLB Jake Geary (leg), and DB Detric Allen (hand). Bullock is listed as doubtful, while ILB Kyle Tudor (ankle), DB Lamar Ivey (concussion) and RT Grant Harner (ankle) are all listed as questionable.