ECU looks to heal wounds vs. Houston

Published 6:48 pm Friday, November 2, 2012

East Carolina WR Jabril Solomon (above) and the Pirates look to rebound from their loss to Navy today when they host Houston at noon. (ECU Photo/Rob Goldberg)

GREENVILLE — The wounds from Navy’s 56-28 gashing of the Pirates may still be fresh, but a bowl eligibility-clinching victory over Houston today would go a long way to soothe them.
After get caught off guard (and out of position) by a Midshipmen triple-option attack that accumulated 512 rushing yards, East Carolina (5-4, 4-1) returns to action today at noon inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium against a familiar Conference USA foe whose offense is one the Pirates are more accustomed to defending.
Though the Cougars’ shotgun spread scheme is a complete contrast from Navy’s under-center option attack, the key for ECU this week remains the same as it was last week: stop the run.
There’s no doubt Houston, who averages a Conference USA second-best 340 passing yards per game, will be looking to sling the ball today but it’s running back Charles Sims that has the Pirates most concerned.
Sims, a 2011 all-C-USA first-teamer, leads the league with a 116 rushing yards per game and has accounted for 12 points per contest, which is also tops in the conference.
The versatile 6-0, 213-pound junior has good hands and has caught 33 passes this season and tallied 163 all-purpose yards per game, which is the 16th-highest total in the FBS.
“We have to account for Sims,” ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell said. “He’s dynamic in the run game and he’s very explosive in the pass game. He gets out in space and he can make guys miss.”
Gone from Houston is record-setting QB Case Keenum and popular coach Kevin Sumlin, who is now coaching at Texas A&M, but the Cougars’ offense is still menacing and totals 512 yards per contest.
Replacing Keenum is no easy feat, but redshirt sophomore quarterback David Piland is doing his best to fill his Nikes by throwing for 304 yards per contest.
“He’s an athletic individual who can make the proper reads and go through his progressions,” Mitchell said. “He can command that offense the way it should be commanded. He’s a guy you have to account for not only for his passing but for his scramble ability.”
The Pirates will catch a bit of a break today as Cougars’ leading receiver freshman Dewayne Peace (42-458) was suspended from the team indefinitely for violating team rules.
The Cougars still boast plenty of weapons and Mitchell said it is imperative that the defense mixes up its approach when trying to stop their high-powered attack.
“You have to have a combination of blitz three drop eight, blitz four drop seven, blitz five drop six,” Mitchell said. “You have to change up the dots on him.”
The Pirates will counter with an offense that fluttered at times versus Navy as sophomore QB Shane Carden completed 19 of his 29 attempts for 194 yards, one TD and one interception.
Standout WR Justin Hardy (67-780, 9 TDs) was slowed down by the Mids and totaled six receptions for 31 yards and score.
It’s no secret that defenses are going to focus on Hardy every Saturday, which places a greater emphasis on a supporting cast that has failed to step up on a consistent basis this season.
Week after week ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill vows to get 6-8 junior WR Justin Jones more touches but it just doesn’t ever seem to happen. Maybe today will be the day.
While the receiving corps has been up and down, junior RB Vintavious Cooper (129-751) has been flying high of late and recorded his second straight 100-yard rushing game versus Navy.
The Pirates offense will face an aggressive 4-3 Houston defense that likes to get after the quarterback and is led by 6-0, 223-pound senior SLB Philip Steward, who’s second in the league with 84 tackles and first in sacks with eight.
When former QB Dominique Davis was running the Pirates’ offense ECU would welcome the blitz. However, with Carden, a first-year starter, at the helm the ability to handle pressure will be a big factor.
“They blitz about 60 percent of the time or more,” ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I think Shane has become more comfortable with the blitz and recognizing it. … I think Shane is becoming that guy that is looking forward to them doing that.”
When Carden goes to the air he must account for senior CB D.J. Hayden at all times. Hayden, the 2011 C-USA Defensive Newcomer of the Year, has picked off four passes this year and brought back two for touchdowns.