Win and in for Pirates

Published 3:43 pm Friday, November 25, 2011

East Carolina wide receiver Lance Lewis celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Navy in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011, in Annapolis, Md. East Carolina won 38-35. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

GREENVILLE — There may not be a playoff system in college football, but for East Carolina and Marshall today’s game is as close as it gets.
The scenario is simple. Both the Pirates and the Thundering Herd bring a 5-6 (4-3 Conference USA) record into today’s season finale, which means the winner will spend the next month or so preparing for a bowl game while the loser will spend that time dwelling on missed opportunities.
“We know Marshall has the same goals in sight that we do,” East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “They’re also playing for a bowl game. It’ll be a battle.”
Hit hard with a slew of injuries, especially on the offensive side of the ball, the Pirates have built their offense around smoke and mirrors all season as ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley has had to make points out of miracles each week.
Heading into today’s game at Marshall, ECU will be without preseason all-conference selection WR Lance Lewis, who leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns with 60, 600 and eight, respectively.
The Pirates will also be without leading rusher Reggie Bullock (428 yards) and freshman standout WR Danny Webster (43 rec., 418 yards).
Starting right tackle Grant Harner is listed as questionable, which means Adhem Elsawi, who started out the year at left guard before he missed a few games due to injury, will play in place of Harner for the second straight contest.
It seems like each week another player comes off the shelf, but another one goes back on it making it extremely tough Riley’s group to build the much-needed continuity it takes to make the Air Raid offense fly.
What the unit lacks in rhythm it makes up for in heart and hard work, which McNeill said not only holds true for the offense, but the entire team.
“They’re resilient, they play extremely hard. That’s one thing in coaching, it’s hard to get a unit or a group to play hard every game whether you’re down or up,” McNeill said. “When things aren’t gong so well you have a tendency to see guys loaf; not play as hard. That hasn’t happen to this team, and that’s the first thing that comes to my mind (when I think of this team).”
The mass amount of injuries has made it possible for other players to step up and into the spotlight. Wide receiver turned running back Torrance Hunt is one of those guys, along with LT Stephen Baker and WR Reese Wiggins.
With Bullock out, and sophomore RB Michael Dobson recovering from a concussion, Hunt rushed for 100 yards on nine carries against a stellar UCF defense last Saturday, which includes his game-winning 56-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
Wiggins has made major contributions in place of Lewis as he had six catches for 123 yards and two scores during ECU’s 38-31 victory over the Knights that helped keep the team’s bowl hopes alive.
McNeill said Wiggins, a sophomore, has grown a lot since last season.
“He has a great mentality right now. He’s believing in himself and working hard,” McNeill said. “The key is doing the little things. He’s putting in the extra work with (strength) coach (Jeff) Connors and doing additional film study to better understand coverages and routes.”
If the Pirates want to play a 13th game this season they key will be for quarterback Dominique Davis and the rest of the unit to not turn the ball over. ECU leads the nation in turnovers lost with 31 and if the team has another two-plus turnover outing it will severally hurt its bowl eligibility chances.
If the Pirates want to keep their turnovers down and their production up they must slow down Marshall’s sack master Vinny Curry. A 6-4, 263-pound senior defensive end, Curry has racked up 11 sacks so far this season and 20 tackles for a loss.
“He’s definitely the headline guy and deservedly so, he makes a lot of plays,” Riley said. “A great D-lineman can make a defense a lot better … He plays all over the field so it will have to be blocking by committee.”
East Carolina’s defense came up huge last week as safety Damon Magazu grabbed his team-leading fourth interception to seal the Pirates’ victory over the Knights. The defense had a stellar outing as it held UCF to 112 yards on 42 attempts and racked up four sacks.
The Marshall offense features two quarterbacks, but may be minus one as A.J. Graham is expected to be out due to a shoulder injury, leaving Rakeem Cato and freshman Blake Frohnapfel available for today’s game.
Cato has started seven of the team’s 11 games and has completed 55 percent of his passes for 1,492 yards, 11 TDs and 10 interceptions, while Frohnapfel was redshirted all season and may see his first action of the year today.
ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said the key to being successful today is to come up strong on third down and limit big plays.
“We have to get off the field on third. If you get them in a third-and-long execute the call and make them execute at a high level to beat what you just called,” Mitchell said. “Secondly, we have to control big plays. We can’t let the their wide receivers get behind us. We can’t let a five yard run be a 20-yard run. We have to make sure we tackle in space and don’t let their wide receivers make big plays.”