This is going to probably sound crazy given three straight games where a fair case could be made that the Pirates played to the level of their opponents. In wins over a now SMU (0-7), USF (3-5), and UConn (1-6), while the No. 23 (Playoff Committee Ranking) Pirates won each game by double-digit margins, the intensity and execution has not been on par with the first 3 wins of the season.
There are reasons for this, not the least of which is that by mid-season the poorer-performing teams start to play looser with nothing to loose, and the better teams by this point in the season, have a body of work for the teams later on the schedule to game plan for…to match strengths against weaknesses. And, there is another reason for this, IMO, which is the pressure quotient.
With each game ECU puts in the W column, the pressure for the next week goes up.These kids are not immune to knowing what each week means…where the margin of error narrows and the big prize eludes with a single misstep. This team is talented enough to win out but they are not showing it presently.
What they are showing, so far, is grit. They find a way to win where in the past, this program has had a knack for succumbing to that pressure sooner rather than later. Whether or not that game awaits this team or not, the pressure is palpable which makes it tough to play when conditions are not stellar.
Still…I have an entirely different feel for this weekend’s game against an athletic 4-3 Temple Owls team. Maybe it is because I live just north of the city and hear some about their program or maybe it is just the fact that with the longer week to prep, I expect ECU to come out with something to prove. Regardless, I think ECU will roll this weekend and here is why.
First and foremost, my reasoning is based on the fact that this Temple team is reeling internally. There is a lot of angst within the program right now and it is bubbling out, largely with ridicule from the fan base over Coach Matt Rhule’s decision-making and overall assessment of his team. We all know that like it or not, the pulse of the fanbase sometimes translates into real tension within the program. There is tension around P.J. Walker’s status as the starter at QB, there are issues on the offensive line where the Owls really have basically abandoned the run, there are grumblings over play calling…a litany of issues AND then there is the fact that in the region…people really don’t care about Owls football. You get scant analysis of the program other than from this guy who does a pretty good job given the topic and the interest around him. And, what you do get amounts to a printed version of “Meh…ho hum…”
If we bring 5,000 to 7,000 fans to the Linc (Lincoln Financial), it truly will sound like a home game for the Pirates who will have to contend with its own demons when it comes to playing on the road in a cavernous environment. A relative sea of Purple and Gold could truly tip this game for the Pirates early. But, that remains to be seen. Safe to say, Temple and ECU will both feel equally comfortable or uncomfortable on Saturday in terms of the setting.
Offensively, after a promising start to the season, the Owls have tumbled decisively (averaging around 350 ypg) to the bottom of college football in terms of production. Defensively, the athleticism on the team has kept the Owls in games…but the D looks to be getting tired…After thumping Tulsa, the Owls D has posted two less than exciting efforts in losses to Houston and UCF. They gave up 439 yards and 31 points to the Cougars and then followed that performance up with yielding 466 yards and 34 points to Central Florida. While defense is certainly capable for Temple, the pressure created by a turnover prone O (6 picks in those two losses), is too much for this group to overcome.
IMO, neither Houston nor UCF have the offensive power the Pirates have, so I would not expect Temple – which has a good defense – to shut us down at all, particularly following a long week where Coach Ruff has surely been pushing the kids to get back on track, particularly offensively. While I do believe that UCF has a better defense then ECU, the Pirates should be able to game plan to create some INT opportunities. As long as we spy Walker and keep him in the pocket, the Owls will likely once again be forced to try to pass to win, so if Coach Rick Smith has got the secondary in the right place this weekend (ala the 2nd half of the UConn game), This game should well be in ECU’s control. Temple has weapons on offense along with Walker, they just don’t seem to use those weapons well. They have a big-talented tight end (a former 5-star prepster who transferred in from Florida) who is rarely used in the passing game. They have a pair of backs (Thomas and Harper) who if used in tandem in a power running formation could probably do some damage, but the two are rarely on the field together. Fitzpatrick looks like a pretty good receiver but has only 6 catches in the last two games. And, overall, their play calling appears to be a bit predictable.
Further, though it is a big game next for the Pirates, traveling to a high-output O at Cincinnati, that game is after another bye week, so Coach Ruff surely should get the kids’ attention for the here and now for the Owls.
I was very worried about this game this season…circling it as a strong potential for a heartbreaking “WTF” game, but do not have the sense right now. ECU would greatly benefit by getting out quick on this team and to do so, we need to be able to run the ball with some authority and to be sure to take downfield shots (which might be limited with Trevon Brown sidelined) — maybe put some pressure on their freshman corner. Also, could see Bryce Williams being a huge factor in this game as well as Breon Allen in the receiving game, up the seams on this defense. My big pause for concern in this game is whether or not our secondary is positioned to give our defensive line just another half-second to disrupt. Last week, against UConn, the AAC officials sent a big message that if you come out from the opening whistle and just maul the receivers – like that is just how you play – you will get away with it. We need to do the mauling more than we do. Our kids need to beat up the receiver before he gets into his route. This forces the QB to hold the ball just a smidge longer. If we can do that, We will get to the QB…something we have not done enough of this season. Walker is a talent, but as such, he also presses some times too much and forces throws…he’s thrown 9 INTs against 11 TDs…not the number you want, but can our D take advantage of it? So far, our coverage has not been stellar.
Over the years, I have noted that one way to prepare yourself for an ECU game is to watch very closely the first offensive and defensive drives of each half. For whatever reason, we typically portend the two quarters that lie ahead quite eerily by those first drives. It is uncanny, IMO. So, as I settle in at the Linc this weekend, I will set my expectations by how we come out. This weekend, I expect to see a fired up, purposeful team on the field for ECU.
Love to hear thoughts from you all.