Pirates seek driver’s seat

Published 8:46 pm Wednesday, October 3, 2012

East Carolina WR Justin Jones and the Pirates are set to clash with Central Florida in a key Conference USA game tonight in Orlando. (ECU photo/Rob Goldberg)

GREENVILLE — Can you say driver’s seat? That’s the position East Carolina is looking to climb into as it travels to Orlando to take on Central Florida in a game that will have major Conference USA implications.
Tonight, the Pirates (3-2) can take a big step towards a Conference USA East Division title, and bowl eligibility, but first they must get past a talented Knights (2-2) team that heads into its conference opener as 11.5-point favorites.
With a 2-0 conference record, a third win would put the Pirates, who have already topped defending league champs Southern Miss, in great position to capture the East crown.
The remainder of ECU’s Conference USA schedule does not feature a team with a winning record, as Memphis, UAB, Houston, Tulane and Marshall are a combined 3-18, with Marshall accounting for two of those wins.
When asked about the importance of tonight’s game Pirates head coach Ruffin McNeill, while not exactly downplaying it, gave the more political response of,  “(A win) would be fantastic for us. We know we have a challenge in UCF, they’ve been tested.” However, make no mistake about it, a win tonight would be huge.
In order to achieve that, the Pirates offense must continue to build on the balanced effort it put forth during Saturday’s 28-18 win over UTEP in which it tallied a season-high 475 yards of total offense.
Greatly aiding in that was the rushing of JUCO transfer Vintavious Cooper, who averaged 6.6 yards per carry for 151 yards and a touchdown.
As a team, ECU ran for 217 yards, which was the most since Nov. 15, 2009 when it topped Tulane 44-17.
“It’s huge. It makes you multi-dimensional and makes you hard to defend,” ECU offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said of the ground game. “(Defenses) really have to dictate what they want to stop and it makes it a lot easier on the quarterback and everybody else.”
Also making things a little easier for the offense was the fact that it did not allow a single sack one week after sophomore QB Shane Carden sustained seven of them during the team’s 27-6 loss to North Carolina.
The Pirates wanted to see their young passer get rid of the ball faster and play less hesitant and he did just that as he connected on 28 of his 40 pass attempts for 258 yards and a score, while rushing for 63 yards and two touchdowns.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Pirates’ QB as he threw three interceptions.
“It’s just not one of those things where you can flip the switch and go from hesitant to just cutting it loose,” Riley said. “It’s a gradual process.”
Defensively, the Pirates are in the process of building a strong unit as it held UTEP to 3-of-12 on third downs while forcing four turnovers.
That defense will face a tough task in the Knights, who have a tremendously balanced team that is deep at both the wide receiver and running back positions.
Sophomore Storm Johnson, a transfer running back from Miami, rushed for 93 yards on 15 attempts in the Knights’ 21-16 loss to Missouri last week. The RB spot will be bolstered by the return of starter Latavious Murray, who missed the last three games with a shoulder injury.
At wideout, UCF has a plethora of dangerous receivers led by 6-2, 201-pound sophomore J.J. Worton (17-246) and 5-10 senior Quincy McDuffie (14-142). McDuffie, along with WR Ranell Hall, also form an electric tandem in the return game.
Triggering the offense will sophomore QB Blake Bortles who has completed 87 of his 130 attempts for 935 yards and nine TDs, but has also been picked five times in four games.
With 10 sacks by 10 different players, ECU has shown it can blitz from all angles and will look to confuse Bortles and get after him early and often.
“That’s always our game plan,” ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “We want to effect the O-line by giving them different looks and different fronts, and then its how can we change up the coverages and the pressure to effect the quarterback.”
UCF features two former QBs at wide receiver in Jeff Godfrey and Rob Calabrese and will put them all out on the field with Bortles as part of their Wild Knight package, something ECU must be on the lookout for.
“You have to account for them,” Mitchell said. “You have to be able to know that they have dual capabilities. They have done it nine times in the past three games.”