ECU still has hopes for spot in Conference USA title game
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- East Carolina doesn't have the do-or-die situation it had last season when it played Marshall in the regular-season finale, but the Pirates have some pretty high stakes.
Mathematically, at least.
When ECU (7-4, 6-1) welcomes the Thundering Herd (5-6, 4-3) to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at 2 p.m. Friday, it still has a chance to win Conference USA's East Division. The ultimate odds are long, even with a Pirate victory, as 6-1 Central Florida hosts 2-5 Alabama-Birmingham at noon Saturday.
The Knights own the tiebreaker on the strength of a 40-20 win over the Pirates on Oct. 4. The East winner will face Tulsa for the league championship on Dec. 1, almost certainly at Tulsa.
Regardless, the Pirates are heading to a bowl game, something they were denied last year in a 34-27 double-overtime loss to the Herd in Huntington. Coach Ruffin McNeil downplays that aspect.
"I wouldn't say that. We just need to play well this week," McNeil said Monday at his weekly press conference on the Greenville, N.C., campus. "That is all the motivation that we will need. Sure our team knows how the game ended last year, but I don't plan on using last year's outcome as incentive or motivation this week."
The Pirates are coming off a 28-23 win over Tulane, a testing game that wasn't as close as the score indicates. The Green Wave scored a touchdown with 1:22 left, but ECU recovered the onside kick and ran the clock out.
It was a big day for the Pirates' defense, which gave up just two touchdowns and held Tulane to 9 yards rushing. Five sacks for minus-38 yards figured into that number, as the Pirates forced Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin to throw 57 times, completing 36 for 293 yards. The 302 total yards was ECU's second-least allowed, and was the fifth sub-400-yard effort.
Not Alabama-like, certainly, but it has been good enough for the Pirates' success. McNeil, a former defensive coordinator at Nevada-Las Vegas, Fresno State and Texas Tech, was pleased.
"I thought all four sides of the football team contributed in the win," McNeil said. "I feel that our sideline was as active and into the game as they could be. We knew the importance of generating our own excitement in a large [and empty] NFL stadium like the Superdome."
The Pirates don't have to manufacture their excitement at home, as they average a league-leading 47,152, just short of the 50,000 capacity. Senior day, with 14 listed on the roster, will generate some more emotion.
McNeil and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, both disciples of the Texas Tech-style spread offense, has broken in a new quarterback, Shane Carden. That wasn't easy after Dominique Davis, now with the Atlanta Falcons, rewrote the Pirates' passing record book in just two years.
With a strong second-half performance in the Pirates' second game against South Carolina, Harden took over the starting job from the now-departed Rio Johnson and has thrown for 2,399 yards and 18 touchdowns. Sophomore Justin Hardy leads the team with 67 catches for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns, while steady Andrew Bodenheimer (28-241, two TDs) has caught a pass in 31 consecutive games.
Vintavious Cooper, a product of the Mississippi junior college ranks, has accepted the rushing load nicely. The 5-foot-9, 189-pound native of Homerville, Ga., is 21 rushing yards from 1,000 for the season, and he had 348 yards over the last three games. His 87-yard performance at Tulane ended his three-game streak of 100-yard games, the first from an ECU back in nine years.
He also has 22 receptions for 10.2 yards per catch, and six TDs in either manner.
Defensively, the Pirates have been exposed at times, most recently against Navy. The Midshipmen ran for 512 yards in a 56-28 romp, and South Carolina rung up 528 in an early-season 48-10 rout. UCF wasn't exactly kind, outscoring the Pirates 40-6 after Carden's 76-yard pass to Hardy gave ECU an early 14-0 lead.
The Pirates play a 3-4 defense, with 6-1, 327-pound Terry Williams among the nose tackles. Inside linebacker Jeremy Grove and free safety Damon Magazu lead the team with 65 tackles apiece, but outside linebacker Derrell Johnson has been the most disruptive. The 6-2, 261-pound junior leads with 41/2 sacks and nine tackles for loss.
Michael Barbour, the man who blasted 57- and 58-yard field goals last year in Huntington, is gone, but the Pirates are making do with Warren Harvey. The sophomore from Greenville has hit 12 of 17 field goals, with a long of 54 yards, and has hit all 38 extra points.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.