Ok…I have already rambled on about the significance of the win over UNC last weekend and in doing so, expressed the opinion that this team should handle Middle Tennessee State this weekend. But, it should be underscored that MTSU is a dangerous team and one that could be that team that disrupts the Pirates while on their way to a good season. There is reason for caution and for the optimism.
Let’s start with some general thoughts on why the Pirates might roll in Murfreesboro.
First, the matchups line up well for ECU, starting with the MTSU offense vs. the Pirates defense. In watching MTSU (3-2), it is clear that they are going to try to run the ball first to set up the pass and with good reason: they have two very good backs, both physical and both heady. Reggie Whatley is more of the quick, slasher and Jordan Parker it the downhill banger and both are very good. Quarterback Logan Kilgore is sufficient on called runs as well. Whatley is the one I worry about in this matchup because if he can slice into open space, he can really hurt a defense. And, Coach Rick Stockstill will not abandon the run should it not take off early in the matchup which will put pressure on our defense as we try to take away the run. The positive in this is that the Pirates boast the nation’s 5th best rushing defense and will seek to force Kilgore to win with his arm. The MTSU offensive line does not appear overly physical (has yielded 6 sacks so far) and even in the wins, didn’t appear to stay on their blocks very long. Whatley, particularly, doesn’t need a lot as he finds the open lanes pretty well, but physically, our defensive line matches up pretty well and it could be a long night for the MTSU running game.
If the Pirates are able to put the clamps on the running game (which they have done consistently through the season, holding UNC and Virginia Tech to sub 100 yards on the ground), then it will come down to Kilgore versus ECU’s suspect defensive secondary. So far this season, Kilgore (who is a veteran and has a strong arm) has not shown a whole lot in the passing game, mostly due to accuracy and decision-making. In the BYU game, he threw an INT, but also benefited from a couple of dropped INTs because he has a tendency to throw into double-coverage. He is not an improviser either. He has thrown for 250+ yards in just one game and that was in a lopsided loss to UNC, whose secondary, as we have seen close up, is horrid. Against BYU, whose defensive front is very good but whose secondary is not very fast, Kilgore struggled. As porous as the ECU secondary has been, speed is not a concern, particularly outside on the corners.
Overall, the MTSU O vs ECU D heavily favors ECU and that is before depth is considered, where it would be a good bet that ECU’s defensive depth up front might be greater than MTSU’s OL depth. ECU is among the tops nationally, also, in pressuring the QB which could put Kilgore under pressure to make faster decisions and with accuracy and decision-making concerns, that could benefit the Pirates. When Kilgore is on, he has some very athletic and physical receivers to go to so there is opportunities to make gains in the air (seems everyone we plays has), but the question is can the MTSU offense go to the air for long drives? The ECU defense hasn’t yielded a running play over 15 yards all season, so Kilgore will have to be sharp and that has been an issue for him so far this season.
Flipping over to ECU’s O vs MTSU’s D, the matchup, again, appears favorable for ECU. Notwithstanding the fact that Tyrone Nix is an awesome Defensive Coordinator and you can see the MTSU defense already starting to adopt his persona, particular at linebacker (T.T. Barber is a legit backer), they are not quite a Nix defense yet and it is evident in a couple of places that really benefit the Pirates. The defense is first and foremost…slow. They appear to be pretty sound tacklers and are opportunistic and have a couple of linebackers that are beasts, but their defensive line is not physical and they do not apply a lot of pressure. Stats are stats, but this defense has stopped no one all season. Western Carolina went over 300 yards in total offense, a horrid Memphis team went over 350 yards and everyone else has hung 400 plus yards on the D. Moreover, the pass defense has been nonexistent…where even dropping 7 back, they have not been able to shut down teams in the air. They have been able to average about 2.5 sacks per game, but with the number of passing plays ran against them has been 36+ per game (with the exception of BYU) so that number has not really made a difference overall. With little to no pressure on the quarterback – particularly Shane Carden – it is hard to envision the offense not rolling. On top of that, with the Pirates running game cranking up, if they do prove effective in slowing the passing attack, Tay Cooper and crew should find quite a bit of space out there and we can go offensively to the quick passing as a run game. Moreover, in the BYU game, the Cougars up-tempo offense really started to wear out the MTSU defense and with the Pirates having one of the fastest paced offenses in the country, it does not bode well for MTSU.
What about Special Teams?
MTSU is dangerous in the return game. Whatley is scary here…he really is. If he gets space, he can hurt us…bad. Fortunately, we have kick-off guy who generally does not allow for returns and a very good coverage unit. But it is something to watch. Staying with kickoffs, MTSU’s kicker will give Danny Webster and Lance Ray opportunities for returns and the Pirates have made some teams pay in the return game already. In the punting game, they have a rugby-style lefty at punter who can kick and they cover well so Justin Hardy will have his work cut out for him. The Pirates punting and field goal units are solid if not very good, but let’s call this one even.
So why be cautious?
Here’s why. MTSU, despite deficits, has a history of finding ways to win. Rick Stockstill is a very good coach, particularly, in decision making offensively. Further, this team is playing home in what it has surely circled as a prime test of their C-USA worthiness and will be up, very up for this game. They are a team that punches hard early in games and if ECU is not up from the first whistle, mother mo may tuck in with MTSU and a team with attitude and early success can start to roll. The Pirates pride themselves on starting fast and have done so in every game so far this season, but it will take a knock-out artists approach – as they did in Chapel Hill – you can’t let anyone off the ropes…you start fast and bury them. Otherwise, a team like MTSU, if allowed to hang around, has the moxie to find a way to win.
The Pirates will need to come in equally jacked to play a team they haven’t played before, on the road, in a hostile environment against an upstart-minded team. This is a test more on mental fortitude of this team than the physical and Xs and Os, where the Pirates hold a decisive advantage.
What say you guys? Fear? Concern? Worry? Let me know!