Pirates looking for run resurgence at Connecticut

Published 6:00 pm Friday, September 22, 2017

STORRS, Conn. — Hurricane Irma forced the American Athletic Conference to rearrange its schedule. East Carolina was slated to be idle this weekend, but instead will be traveling to Connecticut for a Sunday afternoon meeting with the Huskies.

ECU has had a lot of things it can control go wrong this season. Finally, something it can’t control fell in its favor as the Pirates open the conference stretch with a winnable game instead of resting for a week before hosting division-favorite South Florida.

Now, though, they continue to focus on the things they can change. Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert was 30-of-40 passing for 455 yards and three touchdowns against UConn last weekend. The former ECU signal caller heaved scoring bombs of 30, 42 and 73 yards.

The Pirates will pray to get similar production from Thomas Sirk and his cast of receivers, which has proven explosive even in light of the 0-3 start. However, after weeks of appearing to run in sand against stingy fronts, ECU’s offense will try to find something on the ground. That will be the key to sustaining offensive pressure instead of seeing fleeting bursts like they did a week ago against Virginia Tech.

It starts with Sirk’s mobility and how that will force the Huskies to adjust.

“I think it’s big,” offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. “… It just changes the defense. The backside ends can’t come down on the run game like they normally do. Linebackers have to be careful getting down and not being able to catch up with the quarterback. Safeties start playing it different in case the quarterback keeps the football. It changes the dynamics big time.”

Being able to run the football is important to the strides head coach Scottie Montgomery wants to see made on first downs.

“You’ve got so many ways to be good on first down so that you don’t get to third down a lot,” Montgomery said. “Then, when you do get there, it’s some manageable third-and-4s.”

Of course, Sirk can’t handle the ground offense on his own. ECU’s running back corps has been outgained 908-252 through three games. Derrell Scott had the starting role when the Pirates opened the season against James Madison. He found little success. The coaches made it a point to give more carries to Clemson transfer Tyshon Dye, who has since taken over as the team’s rushing leader with just 105 yards.

Perhaps gaining some footing with running the ball is the key to correcting many of ECU’s shortcomings. The defense has been gashed for over 1,900 yards in just three games partially because opponents have averaged five more minutes of possession. Running the ball better will help control the clock.

More importantly, it will allow the Pirate receivers to sustain their playmaking abilities. ECU was able to strike for two touchdowns — including a 76-yard aerial connection between Gardner Minshew and Trevon Brown — in the first quarter against Virginia Tech, but it proved unsustainable.

“It’s tough when you don’t have a run game. That’s something we have to establish and get better at,” said former Washington quarterback and senior Pirate receiver Jimmy Williams. “I’m not going to sit here and lie and say things go on the same without our run game. It’s tough on the receivers to get open when you have more guys out there covering.”

Kick off in Connecticut is scheduled for noon on Sunday.