Not how you start, but how you finish; Pirates hit the home stretch

AAC Pirates ready to take on a tough slate in 2014

AAC Pirates ready to take on a tough slate in 2014

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The home stretch is upon the Pirates as they head into their final trio of regular season games. Coming off a disheartening loss at Cincinnati, the Pirates now must fight for the league title. A home – road – home slate couldn’t be anything but perfect for ECU as the regular season will finish with a clash with former C-USA rival and defending AAC champion UCF. This HAD to be by design…what a story book script, very reminiscent of the way that C-USA East seemed to finish with ECU-Marshall for the all the beans. The Pirates will likely be hovering at around the top-25 (or in the votes) and have EVERYTHING to play for ahead of them still.

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Let’s finish this thing:

November 22nd, tba, vs. Tulane

Tulane Coach Curtis Johnson is doing a heck-of-a-job turning around the Green Wave program.

Tulane Coach Curtis Johnson is doing a heck-of-a-job turning around the Green Wave.

Disheartened and angry, the Pirates come home with a 7-2 overall mark and carry a 4-1 AAC mark into a clash with Tulane. The same Tulane who stunned the Pirates in 2013, pulling out a 36-33 triple overtime win in a game where the Pirates O rolled up 233 yards more in offense then the Green Wave, yet found a way to lose (see, infamous 99-yard pick 6). In fact, if you can stomach it, here is that game seen through the Tulane eyes.

Tulane will be an improved team and is trending – finally – in a positive direction under head coach Curtis Johnson – a guy who Coach McNeill has said over and again would elevate Tulane (and he sounded pleased after their spring game). Though they lost their bowl game last season in a nail-biter to Louisiana Lafayette, the Green Wave are indeed improving rapidly and mostly due to a very good defense and Johnson mining Louisiana for hidden gems. Their offense, unfortunately for them, was not so good…though. Not by any stretch. And, the best part of their offense – running back combo Orleans Darkwa and Ryan Grant – have left the building.

Nick Montana (yes, he’s that guy’s boy) wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t great either and now will likely have to shoulder more of the load…that is, if he can retain his job. Whether for motivation or because he got outplayed in the spring, the senior incumbent is currently No. 3 on the depth chart behind two underclassman. While it is likely Montana will start the season, this could signal that a quick hook will be in the wings. Whoever is taking snaps, it will be behind a new center a the starter from a year ago is gone (along with his 39 career starts) along with a guard leaving a big gap in the middle of an already iffy OL. Which, if there is a theme for our defensive front this season, it could be playing teams that are trying to rebuild offensive lines, which means the Pirates should be able to dictate what the Green Wave O can do. While they will be improved – and yes, they did score 36 points last year against the Pirates – it won’t be to the extent that they roll up points, especially in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

On the other side of the ball, Carden and the O should fare well against the Tulane D, given that they are looking to replace 6 defensive starters, including four in their front 7 – a strength a year ago – along with an inside backer and a safety (can you say…test the middle). With a favorable match up, our new guards vs their new DTs (though the projected starters are huge), the Pirates O should be able to run at a full clip, meaning a lot of points. The Tulane secondary will be pretty good, particularly at corner, but it shouldn’t be enough.

And finally, and a pretty big point here, that damn kicker – Cairo Santos (and his 100% season a year ago) is gone. Congrats on the Lou Groza award…clap, clap, clap…now please leave. Guy was automatic…glad he is gone.

At home, having lost a year ago to this team…not a chance the Pirates lose and I think it will possibly be ugly. Let’s go with 49-21 Pirates.

November 28th, tba, at Tulsa

Pirate D will wreak havoc - again - on Tulsa's QB and offense.

Pirate D will wreak havoc – again – on Tulsa’s QB and offense.

If there is a trap game (which I really do not like the term) on this schedule, it is the penultimate regular season game – a road trip to Tulsa. The Pirates could be sitting at 8-2 and 5-1 in the league when they hit the road for this long road game. To boot, it is a short week game, with the Pirates having to play a Friday night game. And…the following Thursday, looms a national TV clash with UCF to close out the regular season and perhaps decide the AAC champion. Now, if ever there will be a week that the coaches need to really get a grip of the kids…it will be the Tulsa road trip.

Looking at Tulsa, who entertains the Pirates in their regular-season finale, it is hard to believe that the team the Pirates destroyed 58-24 a year ago, ACTUALLY was expected to win the C-USA title in 2013. Instead, as we all know, they went a dismal 3-9 with a horrid offense and a so-so defense. The offense probably won’t be much better. The best part of that bad offense, was excellent back Trey Watts...who is now gone to the St. Louis Rams (and thank God…he was a tough mutha who also was a beast catching the ball). Rising sophomore QB Dane Evans will likely be better (he must be having nightmares still about the ECU game in 2013), but with little proven talent around him in an offense that’s success is predicated on skill players making small catches and breaking them into big plays (something they could not do a year ago), it won’t get better. And, add to the misery, gone are three of the starting OLs. Tulsa’s O is likely to regress from a year ago, though we should all recall that Tulsa hung in with the Pirates until half-time.

Flipping to the defense, Tulsa was a pretty opportunistic D, particularly in the secondary, but aside from LB Shawn Jackson…they really struggled to slow anyone down on the ground. But they do return 10 starters so they will improve and they were decent last year. They do return all four down lineman, but those guys got pushed around and ran by a lot (they did rack up sacks but at the cost of poor gap control.) Now they are faced with trying to replace Jackson at the 2nd level where they have senior linebackers returning (none the caliber of Jackson). The secondary will be good, but with a soft middle and Pirates able to run the ball more, it is not a good match-up for the Golden Hurricanes…it really isn’t.

It should be a case where there is not enough offense vs. the ECU defense and not enough defense against the Pirates offense. Will it be the type of blowout last year? Not likely…and I think the trap effect will happen to some degree. Look for ECU to come out with a 42-31 type win.

December 4th, 7:30 pm, vs UCF (ESPN)

UCF earned it...so they are currently 'The Man' that ECU needs to beat, to be.

UCF earned it…so they are currently ‘The Man’ that ECU needs to beat, to be.

So, here it is. An 9-2 (6-1) Pirates team going for it all at home on a Thursday night in December, welcoming defending AAC Champion, defending BCS Fiesta Bowl Champion, and heated rival Central Florida for a game that IMO will determine the AAC championship. Central Florida having knocked off Cincinnati (who will also have a 2nd loss in league) leaves this as a game that affords the Pirates a chance to control its own destiny.

As much as I hate to say it, you have to give UCF respek going into this game. Queue Ric Flair (go to the :34 mark) and hear the words, baby, ‘To be the man, you have to beat the man.” And, in the AAC, UCF is currently the man (though ECU certainly has best hair). Watching them win the Fiesta Bowl last season was like experiencing 1991 all over again when Virginia Tech was invited to the Big East. A team we were even with took off. Déjà vu… a team ECU traditionally dominated, gets the invite to a BCS league and whammo! There they are collecting the big check…tough pill to swallow. But, props to them…they did it.

Now, ECU has the opportunity to at least take the AAC title. Sure, there will not be a BCS game (sorry, unless we are undefeated, the new model excludes us), but we can make a statement if we do not pull a Marshall in this regular-season finale.

A year ago, UCF went 12-1 en route to that BCS win, dropping only a 3-point contest to South Carolina. And, even though their offense was hit hard via the losses of quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson, their defense is going to be GOOD…as in 9 starters back good. The other thing UCF has going for them is that their recruiting has taken a big jump…just look at this year’s class (14 3 stars, 4 4 stars…you see the trend). Some of that bump is from the AAC but I suspect that more importantly, UCF is finding a way to get a number of the iffy Florida kids on the roster (not saying anything, but…gotta wonder if they are UNC’ing it at all down there).  Nonetheless…they should have a stellar defense and depth enough to have a decent offense. If you want to see that defense…here are the UCF highlights from a year ago. And, their spring game 2014 highlights.

The Pirates will enjoy the home field advantage though and that should buoy the team a bit in this all-important game. UCF is rebuilding its offense and will have to not only replace all-everything QB and RB, but will also have to replace 3 All-AAC linemen. The wide receiving corps is very good – led by Rannell Hall, but you would think UCF will want to run the ball and doing so behind a completely rebuilt line will be tough (though the line will not be green given this will be the last game of the season for them). If you have to run with a rebuilt OL, though, UCF has a good candidate to do well at in bulldozer like William Stanback, a running keg type of back. And, of course, for the UCF offense, it is comes down to who is in the Knights pivot. Justin Holman – Bortles back-up last year – is the expected heir though there is also 4-star QB true freshman Tyler Harris (early enrollee) could also be the man if he gets the playbook down. The Orlando Sentinel did a nice breakdown of the UCF QB situation here.

The ECU defense should fare well in this one with a staunch run stopping front and a secondary that will hopefully not have to run with these great receivers very long per snap. If that UCF offensive line protects well, it could be a very different story as the receivers are game breakers there. Further, in this one, the defense MUST force a turnover or two…it is imperative that our O need not be perfect to win.

Overall, though, this game comes down to ECU vs that defense. With everything on the line, it is unimaginable to expect that ECU QB Shane Carden and All-America WR Justin Hardy do not rise to the occasion and put on a one last awe inspiring night in their final home game ever. The question is can the rest of the case pick it up for this game. Starting with the Pirates OL, the UCF front is going to be among the best ECU faces all season. They are big, fast, and cause a ton of pressure on the backfield. It will be a battle and if our OLs cannot pass protect and cannot handle mano-a-mano assignments, it could be a tough day for the O. The linebackers – led by 1st team All-ACC MLB Terrance Plummer – are fast and can cover…and, here is the worst part…their secondary is pretty stellar as well. Now…having said all of that, the UCF D over-achieved, benefited from some good fortune at times and may not be drastically better…and maybe last year’s fortune is balanced by less good bounces this year. But, no mistaking here, this is going to be a battle of ECU O v UCF D and will take a mistake free effort from the Pirates…meaning NO TURNOVERS and no stupid plays.

One last thing to consider about UCF…last year, UCF was 7-1 in one possession games. Credit Bortles for a lot of that. This means that as good as they are/were, they were not THAT much better than the competition. It is reasonable to expect them not to be able to sustain that…which bodes well for the Pirates in a home game with a lot at stake. To better put that 12-1 record in context, along with the impressive wins over Penn State, Louisville and Baylor, the Knights got pretty damn lucky, too, against the likes of Memphis where UCF got two fumbles in the last 3 minutes of the game. Then there was the Temple game (where UCF scored 10 points in the final minute and some change to win) and mustered a goal line stand to hold off Houston and had to rally in the 4th quarter to beat a hapless USF team - all of this with that offense. So, there season could have been very, very different. Now, they have inexperience at the miracle positions (QB and RB). BTW, that contextual data was lifted from here: pretty nice work on the league.

Even with a stellar D, I think ECU will be jacked and ready for this game. It will be a war and low-scoring relative to the season for the Pirates, but I have ECU edging the Knights in the neighborhood of 28-24 and winning the league title with an overall mark of 10-2 and 7-1 in the AAC and off to a pretty good bowl game.

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Well…there you have it. Optimistic…yes. Possible…very much so. Special players do not come along often and having two is even less frequent. The Pirates have two and a pretty good cast around them. This has real potential to be a special season for ECU, barring injuries.

So, let me have it, let me hear it. Share your thoughts…love to hear them all.

Go Pirates! Storm the AAC!

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ECU in control, but faces its most pivotal game of the year on the road

AAC Pirates ready to take on a tough slate in 2014

AAC Pirates ready to take on a tough slate in 2014

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So, at the halfway mark, ECU could be standing pretty at 5-1 overall, 2-0 in the league and maybe even ranked. In the 3rd quarter of the season, the Pirates will host the biggest brand name in the league and then must go on the road to Philly (a trap maybe?) and then on to Cincinnati for a game that really may be, to this point in the season, the MOST pivotal contest on the slate.

Take stock at this point. Where do you has us by mid-season? 2-4, 3-3, 6-0? Please share with me on that.

So let’s take a look.

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October 23rd, 7 pm vs Connecticut (ESPNU)

Days long gone by: UConn is not even a shell of the program that once took on Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Days long gone by: UConn is not even a shell of the program that once took on Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Thursday night under the lights in Dowdy-Ficklen on national TV, hosting the biggest brand in our new league. It will be a wonderful setting for the Pirates who return home after spoiling USF’s homecoming in a big fashion. Sitting at 5-1 overall and 2-0 in the AAC, the Pirates will no doubt be jacked up to be on TV in front of what should be a sold out stadium.

So what type of team will Connecticut bring into the Pirates’ cove?

Well, if the Huskies were even a shade of the team that somehow managed to find its way to a Fiesta Bowl clash with Oklahoma in 2011, I would be worried, but instead the UConn football team has fallen hard and fast since that lopsided BCS bowl loss and the departure of Randy Edsall to Maryland. Since that loss, the Huskies are on their third coach (if you count an interim stint by T.J. Weist following two quick years under former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni). Now, former Notre Dame DC Bob Diaco will see what he can do at the basketball-above-all school.

A year ago, the Huskies struggled mightily, finishing 3-9 overall and 3-5 in AAC play. The hope for the Huskies is that there may be some carryover effect from winning those three games late in the season. The reality is that their defense was horrible and their offense, not so good. This season, they will be breaking in a new QB and will be doing so behind a less than stellar O-line. Diaco did a great job defensively at Notre Dame, but did so with Notre Dame caliber players…which he will not see the likes of on his current team. The Pirates offense – which will have the better part of two weeks to prepare – should score in buckets and at home, jacked up for a night game with friends a plenty in the stands…I just don’t see how UConn has a chance. Though D is the new coach’s hallmark, it will take time. Like USF, the Huskies are switching to a 3-4 scheme which the Pirates know very, very well. And with very little experience returning up front for UConn, the Pirates OL should have no problem giving Carden time and the Pirate backs space to attack the 2nd level. This SHOULD be a night for Carden and crew to inflict their will. Of note, the Huskies defensive strength is their secondary, but even so, if Carden has time and with the ECU weapons hacking away underneath and outside in the intermediate routes, they would have to be more than good to make a difference.

Offensively, the Huskies played several different QBs and though it appears that RS-SO Casey Cochrane (who directed the team to all 3 of its wins) will be the guy, it probably won’t matter much as the Huskies have to replace 4 OL starters…ouch! This bodes poorly for whomever sits behind center, not to mention, the match-up heaven it will be for the Pirates front 7 looking to top last year’s top-10 finish in sacks produced. If they try to pound it with their experienced running backs, it will be exactly what the ECU front wants…run-stopping is the Pirates D’s wheelhouse, having been a top-10 team against the run in 2013.

Diaco may be the guy who turns it around at UConn…but not this year in regards to ECU. This should be another game where the Pirates O rings up an opponent. Let’s say the Huskies hold them under 50…how about 48-21?

November 1st, tbd at Temple 

Temple QB P.J. Walker is a gamer...and ECU sometimes lets young QBs look like All-Americans.

Temple QB P.J. Walker is a gamer…and ECU sometimes lets young QBs look like All-Americans.

Context is everything. So before we break Temple down, it is important to note that the Owls were 2-10 last year. You don’t go from that to league contender in one off-season, even if you want to badly. Having said that, the Pirates – who would be coming in on an offensive roll boasting a 6-1 mark overall and a 3-0 AAC tally – should be wary for a few reasons, none of which can’t be overcome via preparation.

First, road games are tough enough, but when you can expect to play in a near-empty house, it makes it harder, particularly when a week earlier you were playing in a packed, raucous stadium. The Linc – where the Philadelphia Eagles play – will seem cavernous to our kids and it could be demotivating, even though at this point in the season the Pirates would likely be ranked or damn near close to it (based on how USC, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech are fairing) which should be enough to carry them. Second, though the Owls – who were a ridiculously young team in 2013, were dismal in the W-L column, they finished playing good football – though they lost most of the games down the stretch – actually leading in most games before succumbing to youthful mistakes. This stretch included a 39-36 loss to AAC and Fiesta Bowl champion UCF – which needed a field goal in the end to win it. And third…the Pirates historically have found a way to stumble in the least expected places.

On paper, this one might be entertaining for a quarter or two (largely due to a young QB that can ball in PJ Walker), but the Owls really should not present much of an obstacle for the Pirates’ offense not to roll for a third-straight week. The Owls’s defensive line is being retooled and young guys (freshmen and sophomores) will be counted on and the secondary is a complete rebuild. The linebacking corps is solid, but against ECU’s attack, will be scattered trying to support the run and help out the secondary. The Owls D will be fast and athletic though and could surprise…but shouldn’t be able to keep pace with the offense.

On the other side of the ball, like the previous two games, the Pirates staunch front 7 will face a team that has an OL that is mediocre at best. Their is nice speed at the skill positions, though the receiving corps leaves a lot to be desired. It is a match-up situation for Temple…one that they will lose. The Pirates front 7 against a team that will struggle to block them…it favors the Pirates in every way. And with the Temple receivers struggling, it makes matters worse. Finally, the Owls will be coming off a tough game at UCF the previous week and may be pretty bumped and bruised from that contest.

The Pirates will have to overcome complacency and because it is one of those road trips that will be uncomfortable for ECU, I am blaring the horn on this one…it will be uglier and not as nice as we would all like. I am thinking something like 35-17…Pirates.

November 13th, 7 pm at Cincinnati (ESPN2)

This game at Cincy has the potential to be a fireworks affair...with huge AAC implications.

This game at Cincy has the potential to be a fireworks affair…with huge AAC implications.

And now, at 7-1 and 4-0 in the AAC, the Pirates travel to Cincinnati for what will be the biggest game on the slate to-date. Forget the OOC games, this is the game the Pirates learn all about that well-discussed “step up” in play in the AAC. I hear all of the Pirates fans now…”but we have dominated Cincy over the years.’ That was dad’s Cincinnati…not the post-CUSA Cincy. Yes, the Pirates own a 12-5 all-time lead in the series, but, the last three times the teams have played, it was all Cincinnati, and two of those losses were via blowouts. Of course, the counter-caveat here is that the 2003 and 2004 losses come under former coach John Thompson who led the Pirates to their worst-ever back-to-back seasons in the history of the program. Cincy can be impressive, see their highlights here.

For most pundits out there, the Pirates and the Bearcats should be of the same ilk in 2014 which makes this game a huge test and a must-win game for the Pirates. Being on the road and having come off a series of – let’s be honest – lesser teams, ECU could find themselves stunned early by a Cincy team that will have a lot of strengths and a few holes – just like the Pirates. They say that the home team should get at least 3 points and as much as 7 for being the home team, so the Pirates stand to struggle in this one guys.

Now, as a preseason guess, the one advantage that ECU has going in, is that the offense is a known quantity whereas the Bearcats’ O is largely speculative. Where the Pirates have bona fide stars at the QB and WR positions, a pretty solid OL (assuming that two JUCO All-America’s prove their worth in filling in the two open jobs), the Bearcats are banking on potential. Anyone following the AAC has heard again and again about potential starting QB Gunner Kiel. He was a 5-star recruit out of high school who committed to Indiana, then to LSU, and eventually signed with Notre Dame and then transferred to Cincy. If he is the starter going into this game, it means he was everything that the hype said and our Pirate D will be in for a long night, particularly facing a precision passer in a traditional pro-passing attack. Ughhh in terms of strength on weakness. HOWEVER…Kiel hasn’t taken a meaningful snap since high school… 3 years ago. While the OL returns 3 starters, there are questions about who will fill the gaps. Speed and athleticism mark the Bearcats’ skill positions, with a host of receivers who got the ball last year. In some ways, they are a mirror of ECU’s offense, just a slightly lesser model of it…so far. I think the defensive front will get to the quarterback, but there is worry to be had in terms of the deep ball and home run plays on our secondary.

The setting will be amazing. Another Thursday night, nationally televised game and a real likelihood that both teams will be sporting 7-1 records coming in. It has the makings. This one may really come down to who wants it the most as well as who makes fewer mistakes. Special teams – something that Cincy was woeful at and ECU certainly not spectacular (minus kick return units) – could have a say in it. Still, using last year as a barometer (Cincy did win 9 games), there are a couple of glaring losses that can perhaps give an ECU fan some slither of comparison. Cincy lost to a dreadful USF team and was crushed by the same North Carolina team that the Pirates took to the woodshed.

Defensively, the Pirates will need that vaunted front 7 to show up in spades and shake up the QB. If the Pirates can force the Bearcats to try to run for victory, it will be a success for the D. Otherwise, if the Bearcats are passing the ball, our secondary could really take a beating.This one may come down to game planning – that is, whose defensive game plan is best.

Looking at the Bearcats defensively, the Pirates OL will benefit from the Bearcats potentially being a bit soft up the middle. New defensive tackles and inside backers as well as at safety match up well with ECU’s OL weakness at guard (on paper). The Pirates run game has always been a keep-em-honest component of the O, being able to run up the middle some is an important ingredient for the offense AND with the passing game reliant on the IWRs, the softness over the middle could be a real advantage for Justin Hardy, Bryce Williams, Davon Grayson, and Isaiah Jones in the attack. This is an important match-up because Cincy will be very fast and very good on the edges and outside…meaning that there probably will not be the kind of open space ECU’s receivers like to work in. Dink and dunk will have to be dink and slam dunk in this one if the Pirates hope to win.

If the Pirates were home for this one…I would go Pirates, but on the road, under pressure of a rolling record…this will be the toe-stubber for the Pirates. It will be close though…34-38 Cincy.

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With the home-stretch approaching, I see the Pirates sitting at 7-2 and 4-1 in the AAC. The final three games will tell the tale for ECU’s first season in the league with the Pirates getting home games for two of its league foes. The final quarter of the regular season schedule begins with a home tilt with Tulane (echoes of a blown game a year ago), followed by a road trip to Tulsa, and then a home clash with defending AAC champion and rival Central Florida in a game that could determine the league champion.

Check me out for that post.

Cheers!

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Call to Action: If now is not the time for pro-active marketing, it never will be

Capn Carden for Heisman!

Capn Carden for Heisman!

Ok…this may sound absolutely nuts, but I have been thinking about this a lot. Having talked to every player that has come into the doors since Coach Ruffin McNeill arrived, I am more convinced than ever that at least on the recruiting front, the ECU head man is onto something. He engenders immense loyalty among players. The kids (and the all important mommas at home) gravitate to this man. So, not only is the talent level creeping up, so is the intensity in which these boys buy-in to the program. That intensity is showing on the field. In short, I think the program is really in a growth mode in terms of elevation of play and the ability to start “re-loading” rather than rebuilding every few years.

With this in mind, maybe it is time to kick it all up a level.

I cannot remember a time when ECU was in position to really tout itself like this moment. Even with Chris Johnson in the fold, he was more of a late find by the NFL. We all knew what he had, but outside of Greenville…meh, not so much.

On the cusp of the 2014-15 season, we have on our roster, legitimately, two All-America candidates. TWO…QB Shane Carden and WR Justin Hardy. And, in Carden, we have what should be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Being on the outside looking in at the so-called Power 5 conferences, having a true Heisman candidate and making the world aware of him are two very different things.

So, I propose our Athletics Department bite the bullet and mount a massive Carden for Heisman campaign. Look, Oregon spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 on its “Joey Heisman” campaign in 2001 for outstanding QB Joey Harrington. At the time, Harrington was leading Oregon to some 25 wins out of 28 games (something like that), which was getting the Pac 12 school some notice. But not the amount of press that FOLLOWED the Heisman campaign. Oregon went from “up and comer” to the premier destination for much of the talent in the west. They “blew up” if you will into the crazy-clad, fast-paced, top-5 program they have been for some time now.

People laughed, but this billboard in NYC may have been instrumental in Oregon's climb to prominence.

People laughed, but this billboard in NYC may have been instrumental in Oregon’s climb to prominence.

Captain Carden...loves his team, his school...and guess what? He is one of the best QBs in the country.

Captain Carden…loves his team, his school…and guess what? He is one of the best QBs in the country.

Back to ECU, in Carden you have a guy who truly embodies the Heisman mission, why not tout him to the extent possible. Sure, there will be detractors…fear instills that in those who want to keep the status quo. Why not be in people’s faces about it some. Why not a 10-story likeness near Madison Square Garden? Why not billboards and electronic media blasts, heralding the most likeable Heisman candidate in years. Not a guy with rolled up 20s in a bar bathroom…not a guy with suspect values and perhaps too frisky hands…just a good ‘ole All-American kid from a wholesome state like Texas – which also provides a credible backdrop for a storied football youth. He is poised. Loves his team. Puts in the time to promote the Pirates everywhere he goes. It seems a scripted story that is also, by-the-by, true. Instead of a the all-me moniker of Johnny Football, what about the team-oriented, team first moniker of Captain Carden…a moniker that isn’t bestowed from the outside in, but rather from the inside out.

The kid is on every possible post-season award list, so there is low-level awareness which is needed (here he is listed as a top-10 Heisman candidate among seniors)…let’s just kick it up to the stratosphere some. WHY NOT?

If he tanks…which he will not…but if he does, so what? He has earned the right already to be in the big discussion. In the new league, he will have national TV exposure which might grow in ratings if there was a campaign out there. People might tune in “just to see.”

I really believe now is the time for us to spend some of our money on putting the message out. Not only for Carden for Heisman, but also for All-America and for Hardy as well…

Hopefully our future will provide several more of these types of players, but for now, the iron is hot…we should strike it now.

IMO, it would be money well spent with tangible returns.

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Opportunity for another in-state first headlines 2nd leg of the 2014 schedule

AAC Pirates ready to take on a tough slate in 2014

AAC Pirates ready to take on a tough slate in 2014

So, in my purple world, the Pirates head into the 2nd quarter of their schedule carrying a 2-1 record and coming off an impressive win at Virginia Tech. The win would be a big-time confidence booster for ECU as they come home to face North Carolina, SMU and then head back out on the road to face South Florida. The first of this three game set, provides an opportunity for the Pirates to post back-to-back wins against North Carolina for the first-time ever. The SMU game will be the Pirates first-ever in the AAC and the South Florida game will rekindle a rivalry – sort of – from CUSA days gone by.

Let’s soldier on, shall we. And, as always, please let me know your thoughts…cause that is the best part.

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September 20th, tbd vs. North Carolina

Justin Hardy had a field day against UNC in 2013. Back-to-back anyone?

Justin Hardy had a field day against UNC in 2013. Back-to-back anyone?

An emotionally spent, but 2-1 Pirate team will somehow have to find some gas left in the tank for this sure-to-be-oversold return home to Dowdy-Ficklen featuring a visit from in-state nemesis North Carolina. Few teams stir the passion that the Tar Heels do, particularly when they visit ECU (something that is begrudged by the team and fans alike at UNC-CH). If you want to see what UNC may have this year, here is their complete spring game. Really…nothing to see here, move along.

After back-to-back, emotional, physical games at USC and Virginia Tech, the Pirates will have to count on running on pure emotions for this game. Last season, the Pirates had a defining win in a whistle-to-whistle thrashing of UNC-CH, 55-31, in a game at their place where the score was even closer than the actual game. Shane Carden completely owned an over-matched UNC defense and the Pirates D dominated the home team, yielding the balance of UNC-CH’s points with reserves playing much of the game at the end.

The win for the Pirates was against a North Carolina team that later would find itself and close out the season on a 6-1 tear under the direction of a new starting QB in Marquise Williams, a rising junior, culminating with an impressive 39-17 win over fellow AAC member Cincinnati in the home game like Belk Bowl. This game is going to be personal for the Tar Heels, who were thoroughly embarrassed a year ago. Don’t kid yourself, there is a reason why their schedule has a two-week prep time for this contest. It may be (and of course your UNC friends would never admit it) one of the most desired wins of the season for them. With all of the crow the UNC fans have had to eat over the past few years with the unprecedented cheating scandal, the debacle in Keenan a year ago was blisteringly painful for their fanbase. Despite this game being a week before they play a critical road game at ACC power Clemson, UNC-CH will be amped up and ready for this game.

New UNC-CH OC Seth Litrell was impressive at Indiana a year ago, mentoring an offense that finished 9th in the nation. If UNC showed an Achilles Heal in the winning stretch last year, it was in its lack of effectiveness running the football (they finished 84th). Will Litrell try to emphasize that or keep Williams in the air? The Tar Heels need to replace two all-ACC linemen, losing their left tackle (uh oh…protection) and their center (key to the calls). So what does this mean for the Pirates’ defense? While Williams was impressive at QB, he had to do it all for them, throwing and running the ball and was effective at it. But with film on him now and go-to tight end Eric Ebron now in the NFL, there is a chance that the ECU defense will be able to key on Williams and pin the ears back and go after him. UNC-CH will have talented skill guys…always do, but again the ECU defense will play a progressively less talented OL then the previous two weeks and should be able to bottle up the running attack again. The question is on the ECU secondary…can they hold up against talented skill guys like the long-bodied, athletic Quinshad Davis, the all-ACC WR? The Pirates D won’t get rolled by this UNC-CH offense, but won’t likely completely stifle them either.

So again, the ECU offense will have to out perform Williams and crew from UNC-CH. A year ago, the Pirates had absolutely no problem shredding the UNC-CH 4-2-5 defensive scheme, which has been hinted to be a complicated scheme for players to master. This may explain why a defense with so much steady talent coming in year over year, struggled the last two seasons. Even in the closing stretch last season, Duke rolled them for 461 yards. Now, with two key defensive backs gone in Tre Boston and Jabari Price and of course, the graduation of defensive lineman and all-ACC performer Kareem Martin, will be welcomed by Shane Carden, everyone knows that UNC-CH will come into Dowdy-Ficklen with a good defense, particularly at linebacker. The match-up underneath, IMO, forces Carden to work the outside first, which may not be his preferred route of dissection, where the Pirates usually carve first underneath with Justin Hardy, Isaiah Jones, and Bryce Williams. The bigger point of emphasis for ECU will come from running backs. Breon Allen and crew must show up and find ways to get to the second level so that the UNC-CH LBs cannot get a jump on pass routes and must play straight up. Still, it is hard to imagine the Pirate O not moving the ball a lot against the Tar Heels. Maybe not to the tune of 600+ yards and 55 points, but I would expect this game to see ECU put 28 to 35 on the scoreboard offensively.

If the Pirates defense can check the NC running game, the Pirates win this game, not handily, not comfortably, but win it. The home atmosphere will help buoy a surely-tired ECU team. But that said, there will be no measure of fatigue that will keep ECU from being up for this game. Pirates continue to achieve firsts in this series…this time winning 2 in a row. Let’s say, for kicks, 28-27.

October 4th, tbd vs. SMU

SMU hasn't had a whole lot to celebrate lately. Pirates should make it worse for their old CUSA foe.

SMU hasn’t had a whole lot to celebrate lately. Pirates should make it worse for their old CUSA foe.

Following a much-needed bye week, the Pirates (now 3-1) will be jacked up for their first league game in the American Athletic Conference (AAC), playing a former C-USA foe in the Mustangs from Southern Methodist. It will be a crazy atmosphere in Dowdy-Ficklen because if Pirate fans know nothing else, they know how to wear a chip. The first AAC opponent represents an opportunity to release a whole lot of angst that has been building since the Pirates were shunned by the Big East many years ago. And in the new league – which feature UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston among the former rivals, the Pirates couldn’t ask for a better match up following a brutal, toll-taking OOC slate.

A middle of the pack team a year ago (5th place finish), SMU will have to endure the rigors of a long distance road game against a Pirate team with two weeks to prepare for them. The Mustangs -in typical June Jones fashion – roll up a lot of offense, but also, unfortunately for them, give up a ton of offense and that latter point is the one that presents a scary situation for the Mustangs. Offensively, ECU will be equipped to put up a lot of offensive and points on a defense that gave up a whopping 412 yards per game. They do return 8 defensive starters, but even if they have greatly improved, they are not likely to be able to contain a seasoned O like the Pirates.

But this game, is in the hands of the defense and the match-up on paper is clearly with the Pirates. The Mustangs are returning only 5 starters. Starting with quarterback, Matt Burcham got a good amount of snaps a year ago, but was not the machine that starter Garrett Gilbert was. Gilbert is gone and now Burham has to establish his effectiveness and he will have to do it without two 1,000 yard receivers, both graduated. They do have dangerous WR Darius Joseph (808 yards receiving and 5 TDs), but the other wide outs are unknown. And, up front, they need to replace two guards on the line. This is a good match-up for an ECU front 7 that by this point in the season should be well established and seasoned by fire. It doesn’t seem likely that SMU will be able to run effectively against he ECU D and with a rebuild at the skill positions in progress, the expectations that the Mustangs will out score the ECU O is not reasonable. Unless the Pirates really are out of sync on offense, this one should be an AAC-opening victory.

I think it is close for  two quarters and then the Pirates pull away for a Homecoming victory, something like 55-24.

October 11th, tbd at USF

Pirates are an ugly 0-4 against USF...but times have changed for both teams.

Pirates are an ugly 0-4 against USF…but times have changed for both teams.

Fresh off its first-ever AAC league win, the Pirates will be rolling at 4-1 overall and 1-0 in the league when they head to Florida to take on an old nemesis in the South Florida Bulls. Here, my friends, is one that REALLY concerns me. First, as a program, the Pirates are an Ofer against the team that lured former beloved coach Skip Holtz away from ECU. That is in zero wins for us, 4 wins for them and save a 48-47 loss to them in 2003, the games have not been close at all.

In fairness, we are a different program now and our talent level is higher. They, too, are a different program, down-trending of late, though 2nd year coach Willie Taggert may shake them out of their funk somewhat this year. On paper, this should be a game where the Pirates roll to a big win on the road. But, it concerns me nonetheless. The Bulls 2013 highlights…if you want to see them.

From a paper perspective, let’s be honest, South Florida was dreadful a year ago going 2-10 on the field. Yes, they had a new coaching staff installing their schemes and recruiting trend was down as Holtz faired poorly before he was shown the door…and we are seeing now, that maybe fate was kind to us with Holtz. So, it seems a massive jump that they would be able to right the ship quickly to the point that they would beat the Pirates, but historically, this is the very type of game ECU loses in an otherwise stellar season. Could USF be our Marshall? Our UAB? Our WTF loss in 2015?

From a scheduling perspective, our players should note that we are USF”s homecoming choice in 2014…hmmm, nice blackboard material there. The Bulls take a week off via a bye ahead of our clash, so they will have a full two weeks to prepare – although they may need it to heal up some after a tussle with Wisconsin before the bye. The Pirates should be focused and rolling by this game and with an attitude to match, looking to finally get a W against a program that cut to the front of the BCS line without paying its dues not long ago. As anyone might guess, they were a young team in 2013 – well at least from a depth chart perspective – losing only 3 starters on O and 3 on D. The QB was a frosh last year (Mike White) who was one of a bevy of QBs who got a shot – he finished the season as the starter. This year it will either be White again – signaling that the Bulls are willing to make a slow climb back – or Penn State transfer Steven Bench, who showed promise in the spring. It probably won’t matter much for one of the worst offenses in the league last year – perhaps the country. The offensive line was woeful and now the offense – that was truly inept a year ago – has to go back at it with most likely a true freshman at running back. Our defensive front should feast on this opponent, but lest we forget, somehow…somehow, this USF team figured out some way to beat Cincinnati last season. This is why I worry about this being our bonehead game of the season.

Defensively, graduation hit the Bulls hard on the defensive line which bodes well for ECU. If our offensive line can mandhandle a defensive front, Carden and crew will roll and roll and roll. And even if the Bulls leftovers and rising players can grasp the 3-4 defense (the Bulls are installing it), the Pirates have plenty of know how to work against the scheme. Again, on paper, this is a mismatch that heavily tilts towards the Pirates.

Let’s say that…we don’t pull a Tulane…Pirates roll 56-14.

 *******

So, if this is accurate, the Pirates hit the half-way mark at 5-1 and 2-0 in the AAC. Not out of the realm of possibilities. And, if they have a good showing in that early USC game, by this point, the Pirates should be getting some love in the rankings…maybe even crack the top-25, depending on how the OOC foes are faring. Ahead lies a home Thursday night game on national TV against UConn, followed by a road game at Temple (I will be at that one if anyone wants to tailgate) and then another nationally-televised game at Cincinnati in what may be the most pivotal game of the 2014 season for ECU, IMO.

Check back to read about those.

Go Pirates, Go!

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Really? Oh no he didn’t try to predict ECU’s first AAC season

AAC Pirates ready to take on a tough slate in 2014

AAC Pirates ready to take on a tough slate in 2014

Fall camp will be here before you know it this seemingly fast summer – August 3rd, I believe. My friends and I are planning the opportune time to get together and watch some Pirate football games – live. FYI for anyone interested, will definitely be at the Linc in Philly for the November 1st game against Temple. Excited that we now play a team in my area (I live north of Philly)…will definitely be at any games played in Philly and at Connecticut (and Navy when they come aboard). So, if you are going to be at the Temple game, give me a shout…love to get together with Pirates. Will also be in Greenville for the Cheaters game on Sept. 20th…looking forward to being back in G-town.

Anyway, been thinking a lot about the schedule and thought I might take a stab at sharing thoughts about it…and offer my thoughts on outcomes. Love to hear your thoughts on this. Where do we agree? Where am I am getting puffed up on Purple Kool-aid? Did I miss an easy one? Let’s discuss.

I am breaking this into four (4) posts, 3 games at a time (so you have to check back for each installment):

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August 30th, 8 p.m. vs. North Carolina Central (ESPNews)

NC Central’s new coach Jerry Mack (at the ripe old age of 33) probably would prefer not to start his coaching tenure with a visit to ECU where his Eagles will be massive underdogs as the Pirates open the season at home under the lights with their eyes set on lofty goals. This one will be a game decided in the trenches and new offensive guards or no, the Pirates will heavily out man the Eagles on both sides of the line of scrimmage not only in the first string, but also down the depth chart.

Adrian Wilkins is a dynamic play-maker who must be respected by ECU.

Adrian Wilkins is a dynamic play-maker who must be respected by ECU.

The Eagles from the MEAC are not devoid of talent at the skills positions on offense. With a gunslinger of a QB set to start his career there (after a gaudy stint at JUCO) and a highly touted hybrid tight end in the fold, the Eagles will almost assuredly try to attack the Pirates via the air. Mack is familiar with the Pirates, having served on staff at Memphis for a stint and knows that if the Pirates are to have an initial soft spot in the defense, it will be the secondary. Via the air, the Eagles could hope to put up some points early. Further, they will hope that their dynamic return man, Adrian Wilkins, can catch the ECU kick coverage teams sleeping. He was the only man in the NCAA last year to return five – yes that is a whopping 5 – kicks for a TD last season. He took 3 to the house on kickoffs and chipped in 2 more via the punt. Small school or no, you have to take note of that because special teams is one place where depth is only insurance, not a deal breaker on the field. One man can hurt you.

ECU represents the biggest prize on the schedule and it if you are going to be a giant killer, it is best to take your swing in the opener when the big guy is still getting his faculties together and in the Pirates’ case it come in the form of two new guards on the OL and a secondary though with talented athletes will nonetheless be first-timers at the collegiate level. Special teams are a cluster f*** in openers too where NCCU has their best playmaker. It could make for some early tension and concerns. Then, you throw in the fact that the players – try as they may to resist the temptation – will almost certainly be looking ahead to the September 6th game at Williams Bryce Stadium lock-up with the South Carolina Gamecocks, you have the makings of an Appy State cold-cocking of Michigan years ago.

A large stretch as NCCU is nothing like that Appalachian State team. And, with a frosh coach, a team that will have absolutely no depth to hang with the Pirates and an ECU team that has been near dominant at home in recent years…it is a s-t-retch for anyone calling for a shocker. While their offense may be able to punch in a TD or two via the air and maybe they get Wilkinson loose on a kick return, it is almost nil that their defense will be able to come close to containing the Pirates offense in this game.

Let’s call it like it should be (and if it ain’t we is in big trouble this year friends). Pirates should roll in this game…and hopefully to the point that back-ups get ample time. I am going in the neighborhood of the Pirates by 31+ and hitting the half-century mark. Shane Carden should make this a personal statement game, telling college football that he plans to make himself a part of the Heisman discussion.

September 6th, 7 p.m. at South Carolina (airs on ESPN2/ESPNU)

Despite facing the likes of Jadeveon Clowney (who is gone to the NFL), Shane Carden won the starting job that day in 2012.

Despite facing the likes of Jadeveon Clowney (who is gone to the NFL), Shane Carden won the starting job that day in 2012.

And then, there is this game. Rut-Roh Scooby. After romping to a rousing 1-0 start to the season, the Pirates will wake up on Sunday, August 31st, having gone from overwhelming favorites against NCCU to overwhelming underdogs on the road at South Carolina. The Gamecocks will likely be a pre-season Top-10 team and the Pirates will probably not have learned much about themselves against NCCU. It is going to be a very tall-task for ECU even with some of the positives that the Carden-led offense brings to Williams Brice Stadium. If you really want to see what they may have, here is the complete South Carolina spring game.

The good news is in the set-up for this game. First, it is early in the season, which is when you want to play a team like South Carolina. Second, there is absolutely no way in freaking hell that South Carolina will not be looking past ECU to a looming home battle against fellow SEC power Georgia. Third, ECU will be able to game plan and practice some for South Carolina during August camp and NCCU week while South Carolina, with an opening date game with visiting Texas A&M will have no such luxury. Finally, ECU’s history with South Carolina is one where the Pirates – regardless of the games we got thrashed – believe that they can play with and beat USC any time they clash. This is classic set-up that ECU has run many times in the past successfully. Still, it is a vaunted South Carolina team.

While the Gamecocks are settled at QB with Dylan Thompson getting his turn now that stud QB Connor Shaw has left the building, the offense is by no means assured it is in good hands as Thompson is getting the reigns fully for the first time and has a quality tight end and a top SEC wide receiver at his disposal. In his action to-date, Thompson has not proven to be the marksman that Shaw was, creating opportunity for the Pirates young secondary if the ECU defensive front can put pressure on him. And this, friends, is the rub when you play USC. That friggin’ offensive line is good…real good…try 3 Outland Trophy watch list good. Yep, both tackles and a guard are locked in and loaded for the Gamecocks. Add to that a center who is listed among the best candidates for the Remington Award and we are looking at a veteran and machine-like OL.  And, unfortunately, even if Thompson is off the mark, we can expect to face a game plan that carries a heavy dose of ground and pound with and that is where this game is likely to be determined. We can expect primary running back Mike Davis (who hit 100 yards 7 times last year) to get a lot of totes.  Hopefully this early in the season, he will be hesitant coming off a injuries a year ago. The only good thing here is that it should be strength on strength which would – on paper – probably be what we want. But in this game, I would almost prefer that USC try to beat us in the air. Our defensive front – win or lose – will not only learn a lot about itself in this on, but also will grow a lot.

So, if South Carolina grinds it out, they will also be doing so to try and slow down the ECU offense which will almost certainly look to make it a track meet. What will they face? Well, let’s start with what is NOT at South Carolina. How about two 1st Team All-America defensive linemen. Shane’s gotta like that. Obviously seeing defensive end Jadeveon Clowney leaving early for the NFL was a welcomed site for any team that plays USC, but for ECU, the bigger relief is in the departure of defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles (the Gamecocks top sack master with 9 1/2 last season). With two new OGs in place this season, catching a break in an early big game in the interior is a big deal for Carden, Breon Allen, and the two newbies who will flank the center. With the Gamecocks certainly looking to reload up front, a peek at the secondary brings more optimism for Carden and crew. The Gamecocks need to replenish at corner – both corners. While the linebacking corps will be good and will support against the ECU short passing game, the fact that USC needs to find two corners helps the Pirates immensely as the O has a bevy of proven receivers inside and outside to stretch, test, and put pressure on the USC secondary…if the OL can hold up and give Allen some slashing lanes to keep the Gamecocks honest schematically.

If the ECU offense has a game on its schedule to be a statement game, it is this one. The O will HAVE TO WIN THIS ONE. That OL for South Carolina will make life hard on the defensive front and I expect that USC with that line will dictate the pace of the game…that is, they are looking to win a 28-14 type of game…they do not want to get into a 45-44 type of game…it doesn’t suit their set-up this season. Carden and crew will need to show that they are who we think they are. This means a fast start…we need to put pressure on that defense of the game and jump on South Carolina early. They are going to grind down the defense and score. Equally important to Carden’s ability to distribute the ball, protect it and move the chains, will be All-America candidate Justin Hardy’s game. Not so much in the pass receiving aspect…he will get his catches or he will help others get open. No, moreso in the punt return game…South Carolina struggled in the punting game last year and ECU will need to exploit return opportunities.

While we won’t know a whole lot more about ourselves after the NCCU game, we WILL know what SC has after their opener against A&M, so we should be ready either way. There is a lot hanging on this game for ECU, win or lose. We need to be in this game, make USC uncomfortable, give them a scare at worst. I think we do that, but I think we fall short…something in the area of a 31-28 loss where we lead going deep into the game, but wear down in the stretch.

September 13th, noon at Virginia Tech (airs on ABC/ESPN/ESPN2)

What could have been: Montese Overton cannot believe he was not able to hold on to a sure Pick 6 that would have put Virginia Tech away in 2013.

What could have been: Montese Overton cannot believe he was not able to hold on to a sure Pick 6 that would have put Virginia Tech away in 2013.

So, after a valiant effort comes up short in Columbia, SC, our 1-1 Pirates are rewarded with a second-consecutive road trip into the teeth of another vaunted P5 team…one we are intimately familiar with. We will be beat up defensively (hopefully nicks and bruises only) and emotionally spent but having to get up for another big OOC game. See Virginia Tech highlights here and note that there are scant few from the ECU game. If you really want to see what they may have, here is the complete Virginia Tech spring game.

I am not one who usually expects a carry over effect from a previous year’s game, but I see an exception for this one. A year ago, the Pirates defense clamped down on the Hokies’ offense, but the Pirates O vaporized after an impressive scoring drive on the first possession of the game, providing only 31 yards of offense in the 2nd half. The defense, getting no help from the offense, still had an opportunity to win the game, but bungled away two – yes two – pick 6 opportunities and fell to the visiting Hokies 15-10. That loss hurt and is still stinging for the ECU D, most of which saw action in that game.

The ECU Defense – especially up front where there is a ton of experience – will be up for this game. There are several favorables for this math up. First, the Hokies are breaking in a new QB who – if ECU’s D repeats its performance from a year ago – will have to win with his arm. While the Tech OL has experience, it will not be anything akin to the SC line and the lessons learned there (noting that the last time ECU faced an unsettled Virginia Tech line, the Pirates won). And, the expectation in Blacksburg is that Hokies’ Offensive Coordinator Scot Loeffler wants to run the football. Running the ball has not been great at Tech the last couple of seasons as their top back Trey Edmunds was steady, but not spectacular and their change of pace guy J.C. Coleman struggled to stay healthy and their line was not adept at opening holes. If the rah-rah out of Blacksburg is true, they are counting heavily on a new QB (to be named later), a highly-touted-but-nonetheless-true-freshman running back and RS freshman tight end to be the thrust of Loeffler’s offense. No offense to the talents of the three guys, but if you are hanging your offense on a guys this young or green, you gotta like the chances. It is almost assured that the Pirates – this early in the schedule – will see a pound-it offense which is what is desired in this one. Unlike the SC game, the ECU D will perform better against the run in this one. The Hokies are bringing in a former Texas Tech QB – Michael Brewer who was in line for the TT starting job at one point – and if he wins the job, it may signal a shift, but the Pirates should load up to stop the run and take their chances on a newbie QB having to win over the top.

Flipping the script to the Pirates O…any issues they may have faced at SC a week earlier, the Virginia Tech Defense has an even bigger rebuild going on having to replace 5 starters from its front 7. This is good news for Carden who, if given time, won’t allow a flop like a year ago. Expect the ECU offense to be steady this time around, putting a lot of pressure on the Tech linebackers and secondary. While the Virginia Tech D will be a fast one…really fast, it is a beatable D this time around, especially this early in the schedule and considering that Bud Foster (DC extraordinaire) will not have the luxury to prep much for ECU ahead of game week. The Hokies will be coming off a game at Ohio State. To make things tougher on Tech, they also will be heading into a crucial ACC match up the following week against visiting Georgia Tech. This is a recipe for a trap game for the Hokies and with ECU offensive talent and defense geared to stop the run, it would be no shocker if the Pirates close the deal this time, on the Hokies home turf. I am sure the Hokies D will shake out to be outstanding…they always are, but the timing works for ECU in this one and I think the ECU offense can dictate the pace of this game.

In the OOC slate (not counting NCCU), this is the one I think presents the best match up for the Pirates. I am thinking the Pirates take a closer than the score win in this one, something like 35-21.

*******

So, the Pirates hit the first quarter turn at 2-1 overall eagerly awaiting successive home dates with North Carolina and SMU, followed by a road trip to South Florida in the second quarter of the season. Check out the next post for thoughts on those games.

Cheers!

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Looking for the soft spots in the American Athletic Conference

Ok…July 1 has come and gone and now ECU’s athletics programs are officially part of the American Athletic Conference (AAC) – or the American, as the league prefers it. Most of us are probably aware that several early predictions, including the league’s football coaches, put the football team squarely in the hunt for the 2014-15 championship, but what about the other sports at ECU? How do we stack up?

For ECU to make a first-year impact, Pirate baseball - with stars like Garrett Brooks - needs to hit the ground running in the AAC.

For ECU to make a first-year impact, Pirate baseball – with stars like Garrett Brooks – needs to hit the ground running in the AAC.

Is there potential for us to storm the American like Central Florida did last year? Love or hate UCF, they definitely carpe diem-ed the hell out of the day, so to speak (and, yes, I know that the Latin translation isn’t really “seize,” but close enough) in their inaugural season in the new league. Check this, UCF finished first or second in the following sports: football, baseball, men’s soccer, women’s soccer, softball, and volleyball. Not a bad haul including the cherry on top, of course, was winning the league’s last guaranteed BCS bowl slot, beating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

So, can the Pirates do the same in 2014-15. Not so sure, but here are my thoughts on the sports that matter, leaving football off the table since I am about to go blog ballistic on the sport in the coming weeks. It is important to note, here also, that departing Louisville dominated much of the league in pretty much every sport. Those titles will be even within more reach of the Pirates heading in.

In summary, and with the disclaimer that I was not able to do a real in-depth analysis of what each team has returning in each sport, it seems to me that our best opportunities to make a big splash in the new league – other than in Football – lies with the baseball team, women’s cagers, women footballers, and golf and maybe some individual noise in track & field.

Here is my perspective:

Men’s & Women’s Cross Country

On the men’s side, it seems that the AAC – minus Louisville – is a pretty well-distributed league, with team edge going to Cincinnati. On the women’s side, however, the AAC is SMU central with Connecticut cleaning up what’s left over. Anything can happen, but it seems that ECU will have to first strive to be in the mid-pack mix while they adjust to the league nuances before the coaches can start to build for this higher-level of competition. The Pirates men and women both competed well and were middle of the pack programs in the regional, but the AAC is a much more competitive league. Familiarity with SMU may help on the women’s side.

Women’s Soccer

Rising senior Kendall Frey will help keep the Pirate ladies focused for 2015 in the AAC.

Rising senior Kendall Frey will help keep the Pirate ladies focused for 2015 in the AAC.

The Pirates return much of their offensive firepower and their goalkeeper so they should be competitive, but it is highly unlikely that they will be able to displace UCF, which ran away with the league last season. The Knights return their top-4 scorers – who wer stellar. They will be breaking in a new goalie, so perhaps the GAA creates an opportunity, but with UConn and USF in the league, it will be tough for ECU – a true step up in competition. However, I would put ECU in the mix for 2nd through 4th place, which is a nice spot to be in during the first year.

Women’s Volleyball

The good news for ECU in this sport is that new coach Julie Torbett has had a major impact on a program that has never really established any kind of consistent success. Last season, a large step was made – albeit minor compared to the opposition in this league – with the Pirates going 10-8 OOC (though they finished 13-19 overall). The team loses 5 seniors, but has a young core that emerged some last season. HOWEVER, the likelihood of ECU making a run at a title in this league in volleyball is almost certainly nil. With Louisville out of the picture, the league looks to be owned by SMU and UCF (ughhh).

Men’s & Women’s Swimming & Diving

Fortunately for all of the AAC, Louisville has left the building, taking with it, the men’s and women’s swimming and diving titles. On the diving front, the competition is with SMU, Connecticut and Cincinnati for both men and women. In the lanes, it appears that the same three schools, the Mustangs, the Huskies, and the Bearcats stack up as the top competition. Looking at ECU’s best times in similar events, compared to the AAC’s championship times, the Pirates appear to be middle of the pack on an individual comparison basis. However, you swim to the level of the league and if that is the case, the Pirates – who have enjoyed success in the water and from the platform – should be able to rise to the occasion. Louisville was so dominant that it stands to reason that ECU may find itself in the upper echelon if you compare top times to top times in the AAC, sans the Cardinals.

Women’s Basketball

With a star like Jada Payne, the Pirates should be able to push for a top spot in the AAC.

With a star like Jada Payne, the Pirates should be able to push for a top spot in the AAC.

No way in hell I would pick against a team like UConn that went 40-0 last season – unfreakingbelievable. HOWEVER, the Huskies lose about 50% of their offense and defense with the graduation of two key starters from a year ago. The bad news is that the three starters returning are lights out and will easily compete to repeat. They are the likely champs again. Now, the good news is that ECU brings in a senior-laden team that won 22 games a year ago – no slouch either. The Pirates – along with USF – should be in the hunt for a top spot in the league in year 1. Should be interesting to see how we recruit now that we have joined a league with marquee basketball.

Men’s Basketball

Coach Lebo will access to more talent than ever on the recruiting trail.

Coach Lebo will have access to more talent than ever on the recruiting trail.

When Temple and UCF are the bottom feeders of the league, it says a whole lot. The national champs coming out of the AAC (UConn) and Memphis and Cincy, definitely gives us the exposure, but chances are, the Pirates will be yearning for CUSA schedule next year. It is a virtual impossibility that Jeff Lebo (great coach and will get us there) will guide the team to even sniffing the top-tier or mid-tier of the league in 2014-15, but the exposure should allow Lebo all the story lines he needs to fast upgrade the talent with the Pirates. We should be taking the “don’t finish last” mantra to get us through the coming season.

Men’s Tennis

While the ECU tennis team rocked all last season, doing incredibly well, there are two big concerns for the team going into AAC play. First, how do you replace stalwart Joran Vliegen? 2) The Florida teams and Memphis sort of hold control of this league. South Florida and Memphis, particularly are talented and throw in UCF, too. Also, when you lose Vliegen, you lose a guy who not only was nationally ranked and known, he was near unbeatable at #1 in the lineup going 32-8 last season. Looking down the roster, there are some nice players, but certainly not this caliber guy. At best, the Pirates could feel good about finishing in the middle of the pack.

Women’s Tennis

A middle of the pack CUSA team losing its most productive player and several other seniors, doesn’t make for a whole lot of optimism going into the new league. Expect the bottom of the pile for a while as we get after a higher level of talent.

Women’s Golf

With virtually the full roster back, save all-CUSA golfer Fanny Wolte, so the Pirates should have a solid team. The league is tough, but with experience, perhaps ECU can be solid. New courses withstanding, the AAC will be a tough league even once the Pirates know the lay of the land.With league champ Louisville gone, the top of the league looks like SMU, Memphis and of course UCF. UCF particularly will be strong. At best, the Pirates can hope to be similar to how they were in CUSA.

Men’s Golf

Six…that’s a number. Six collegiate All-America selections, 10 all-Region selections and the 2nd seeded SMU team made it to the national team quarterfinals. This is a tough league – given that there are a so many warm-weather schools in the league. Now, CUSA also was no pushover league, but ECU was not really a factor in CUSA a year ago finishing 8th in the league. The Pirates will have to over achieve to make any kind of noise in the AAC in 2014-15.

Men’s & Women’s Outdoor Track & Field

Tynita Butts put ECU in the spotlight in 2014...can the Pirates keep it rollin' in the AAC?

Tynita Butts put ECU in the spotlight in ’14…can the Pirates keep it rollin’ in  AAC?

The speed is at Houston and SMU, the distance at Connecticut, and thank goodness that Louisville is out of the house when it comes to track. The good news for the Pirates is that the track team as always held its own and as it has grown (it used to be primarily sprinters), the accolades have streamed in. There is a proud tradition in Greenville when it comes to track. Unfortunately, the AAC is chock full of talent with the Cougars and Mustangs – and you can kick in UCF – producing beaucoup sprinters. The long distance runners in the northeast are also pretty impressive. ECU, which is coming off a prolific year itsel in the CUSA final go round, will need to continue to expand its programs to be a top-tier program in the new league. If only Tynita Butts had another year remaining…gonna miss her.

Softball

In the AAC, softball will likely be dominated by Central Florida. Boasting a ridiculously talented and young team (they return everyone from the regular season champion team) that made it to the regional finals a year ago. In contrast, our Pirates lose 7 seniors including 6 of the team’s top 7 offensive production providers. Both primary pitchers return for what should be the strength of the team this year. Looking at the rest of the league, South Florida, Memphis, and Houston will be the teams that the Pirates must master in order to thrive in the new league. The Pirates should come in able to compete in the middle of the pack (like 4-6) but will have to see some young talent really peak to contend with the Florida teams, who are cranking on softball 365 days a year. It would be a nice start in the league to finish in that 3 or 4 position in this league.

Baseball

Godwin impact to be seen.

Godwin impact to be seen.

I don’t think the hire of former Pirate catcher Cliff Godwin can be overstated in any manner. With this hire, ECU is on the fast-track back to Super-Regional-knocking-on-the-door-to-Omaha status. He is not only an injection of powerful energy into a program that has started to list a little, but also a true rising star in the collegiate coaching ranks. The man has been at ECU less than a few weeks and has already stunned college baseball gurus by gaining a commitment from D.H. Conley star Bryant Packard who was widely expected to go to North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia. Whether or not the kid ever makes it to ECU (if his draft stock keeps rising) is less important than the message sent and heard by Godwin – we are going to get the best players coming back to ECU.

The Pirates should come in to the league as a top-3   team along with Houston and Central Florida. I expect that Godwin will energize the returning roster, fill with top quality players, and have this baseball team in the thick of it from the jump – year won.

Houston loses their top pitcher and hitter, but have a lot of talent back (plus they are a big JUCO team) and UCF is a young team (and they host the league tourney in 2015) with most of their talent coming back, so expectations for the Pirates are to be in the top 3 and represent the AAC in a Regional. Certainly, among those three, ECU could finish at the top.

 

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Stars, stars everywhere…how many will find their way to East Carolina? NSD nears

I know that with the latest poaching of some of our recruits (e.g., QB John Wolford already to Wake and QB Shawn Stankavage and WR Markell Boston taking looks at other schools), there has been some murmuring amongst the Pirate diehards about our “inability” to recruit and bring in the big star prospects. Folks are worrying about the future of the program, not seeing a flood of higher-caliber players flowing in.

I started looking back at the years and a couple of things stood out to me. First, if you go back a decade or so ago, we as fans would spend a great deal of time talking about the battle for a 3-star guys. I remember when we landed WR Iverick Harris (never panned out) in 2002, RB Norman Whitley (never got a real chance) in 2006, and RB Jon Williams (pretty decent player) in 2007, it was as if we had brought in a 5-star guy. There was jubilation all over the web and some crowing about getting these guys. All 3-star guys at a time in history where we might land 3 maybe 4 of that ilk a season.

Now, along that same continuum, we managed to land 4-star WR Jamar Bryant from Hargrave (marginally successful) and 4-star DE Marcus Hands (injury plagued) – neither of whom really made a mark at ECU. Later, Justin Dixon, another 4-star guy came in through the backdoor and of course, he never really panned out either as injuries riddled his career.

Yet, if you look at the 2008 season…you remember…the year we knocked off ranked Virginia Tech and ranked West Virginia in back-to-back games en route to a C-USA Championship, we saw a change occur in the recruiting wars. That year the recruiting class, like most of the previous, had three, 3-star commits. But, on NSD 2009, we saw an uptick. We landed seven 3-star guys. In 2010, eleven more 3-star kids. In 2011, eight 3-star guys, followed by 11 more 3-star performers and then in 2013, six more 3-star guys. My point, is that the momentum from 2008 season, has elevated recruiting at ECU. Three-star guys have become the norm for the class and so of course, we as fans look at the next step…the 4-star guys.

But, time is needed for that next step. This year, we have 10 of the 3-star guys committed so far. To say that Ruff and crew are not recruiting well, flies in the face of history and our trend, at least from a “star system” ratings criteria. We are trending up and the 10 wins this past season combined with the high-profile players returning – particularly on offense – should position us for a lot of TV appearances in our inaugural AAC season, putting our program in the homes of some talent rich areas including, Maryland/DC, New Jersey, eastern New York, and southeastern Pennsylvania where there are a lot of players who might start to call ECU a destination of choice. And, we should have a highly competitive product to put on the field, increasing the bump from recent successes on the field.

What is the secret sauce in landing the 4-star guys for ECU? Not sure there is anything more we can do, except to keep pursuing them, looking for the kids who have that pioneer mindset…the ones who would rather take a risk to become a star leader at ECU, then to join a pack of stars at an Alabama or a Florida State. Many of those guys wouldn’t thrive at ECU anyways. They are all on the professional track – as we have seen over there in Cheater Hill – which wouldn’t fare well at ECU, IMO. No, what we need is to do what this staff has done since it got here…sniff out the hidden talent. Yes, it will uncover some gems that get stolen away by the bigger, brand name programs, but overall, it nets hungry, chip-on-the-shoulder talent that can come in and put together a 10-win season, or a bowl victory, or a conference championship…and these are the things that feed back into the recruiting cycle. Win and it all works out.

I thought it was an interesting point that the star system definitely indicates a few things in re: to ECU: 1) We are trending up and up since 2008, 2) This staff has increased our recruiting success, 3) 4-stars ain’t always the primary indicator for success that a lot of people think it is.

Looking forward to meeting and learning more about the guys who put pen to paper on NSD for the Pirates.

Go Pirates, Go!

 

 

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