ECU has found balance on offense
HUNTINGTON - With a new quarterback and a capable new running back, East Carolina is straying from its Texas Tech-type "Air Raid" roots of head coach Ruffin McNeil and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.
Not far, mind you, but balance is the buzzword in Greenville, N.C.
In 2009 and 2010, Marshall and the rest of Conference USA had to cope with Dominique Davis, the former Boston College player who overhauled the passing section of the ECU record book. Davis threw for 3,225 yards and 25 touchdowns last year and 62 TDs in his 25-game career.
With both teams fighting for one bowl bid in last year's Herd-ECU game, Davis tied the game with 14 seconds left in regulation. He wasn't finally silenced all until an all-out blitz chased him all the way to the midfield "M" logo, forcing him into an interception.
That ended a season in which the Pirates threw 494 passes and ran 397 times, about a 55-45 pass-run ratio. Factor in 30 sacks and that was more like 59-41.
With sophomore Shane Carden at the controls and junior-college transfer Vintavious Cooper in the backfield, the ratio is nearly 50-50 - 397 pass attempts and 391 rushes.
The Pirates' depth chart still lists two outside receiver positions and two on the inside, but they're not always the four-wide attack that dominated McNeil's first two seasons.
"They're committed to be a balanced attack," said Chris Rippon, Marshall's defensive coordinator. "They're keeping the foundation of the offense, four wide receivers - or three wide receivers and a big, big, big tight end who wants to be a wide receiver."
The Thundering Herd (5-6 4-3 Conference USA) will face that balanced attack when it takes on the Pirates (7-4, 6-1) on Friday at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C. Kickoff time is 2 p.m., with the game airing on CBS Sports Network (Suddenlink 512).
After a 2011 season in which you would be hard-pressed to name the Pirates' leading rusher (Torrance Hunt), Cooper has become a force. The 5-foot-9, 189-pound junior from Homverville, Ga., broke out with 151 yards against Texas-El Paso, and has followed that up with three other 100-yard games and two games of 96 and 87.
He will enter the Marshall game 22 yards short of a 1,000-yard season, which should be a given - the Herd defense has given that much up on a single carry in six of 11 games.
"He'll go between the tackles, take the linebackers head-on," Carden said. "And he'll shift, he'll make you miss. It's hard to describe, he does a lot things well. He's a smart kid and that's what's great about him."
While Cooper emerged after getting 28 carries in the first four games, the 6-2, 218-pound Carden started the season wearing a headset on the sidelines. He battled Rio Johnson for the starting job all through spring and the preseason, coming up second.
That changed when he entered in the second half of a forgettable loss to South Carolina. After going 12 of 18 for 140 yards in that half, he started the next game and hasn't given it up. Johnson left the program Nov. 9, perhaps spurred by what Carden called the best game of his career.
Carden threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 30 yards on six carries in that game, the Pirates' 48-28 romp over Houston, an opponent that later fell 44-41 to Marshall. That made ECU bowl eligible, avenged a 56-3 Cougar rout in 2011 and gave Carden the added thrill of beating his hometown team.
In his 101/2 games, Carden has completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 2,399 yards and 18 touchdowns, with just nine interceptions. He is fifth in Conference USA in passing yardage (218.1) and third in pass efficiency rating (139.8).
He also has helped the Pirates rank third in the league in third-down conversions (44 percent), behind only Marshall (53.9) and Central Florida (46.2).
Carden's indisputable top target is Justin Hardy, whose 67 receptions, 875 yards and 10 touchdowns easily outpace the Nos. 2 and 3 targets, combined. The Pirates do have six others with 20-plus receptions, including that "big, big, big" tight end, 6-8, 258-pound Justin Jones, who caught all three ECU TD passes last year against Marshall.
"The most impressive thing, to me, is what he does on third down, the way he keeps the play alive," Rippon said of Carden. "He's not a runner. They'll call some called runs here and there, but the way he keeps the play alive, they're making a lot of good plays.
"We're excited about going down there, but it is a new guy."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.