Whoever plays quarterback for East Carolina on Saturday could become a footnote in Football Bowl Subdivision history as the guy who threw the ball to Zay Jones for the career receptions record.
The mark is currently held by Justin “Deuce” Hardy, who had 387 catches in a Pirate career that wrapped up in 2014. Hardy, who is in his second season with the Atlanta Falcons, is expected to make an appearance at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as the Pirates (3-7, 1-5 AAC) host Navy at 4 p.m.
Jones goes into the game with 380 career receptions.
Both Philip Nelson and Gardner Minshew have had success delivering to Jones this season. ECU coach Scottie Montgomery noted that Minshew took the No. 1 snaps in practice on Tuesday.
“Right now, Gardner practiced (Tuesday),” Montgomery said Wednesday morning. “Philip (Nelson) did not practice. … We’ll evaluate it kind of more at the end of the week. Right now, Gardner is the one that’s practicing so we’d probably be saying that we’re leaning toward him right now but not making the call on him being the guy just yet.”
Nelson was limited in practice the week prior to a 45-24 loss at Tulsa because of a shoulder ailment and Minshew came in late in the first half.
“He’s had some discomfort in his shoulder,” Montgomery said of Nelson. “It’s coming from usage but it’s also coming from some hits that he may have taken earlier in the year. He does have some discomfort.”
Breakdown on pick sixes
Nelson and Minshew each threw passes that were intercepted for touchdowns by Southern Methodist’s Horace Richardson last week in a 55-31 loss to the Mustangs.
Montgomery said the first pick six, which was returned 70 yards, should have been a productive play for the Pirates.
“You’ve got to give him credit for catching the ball but that’s pretty much where it ends,” Montgomery said. “Definitely a mental error and breakdown in execution by our receivers. That should have been a two for one block out there. We should have had a big play on that. They were actually under-aligned on that play. The kid shot the gap. They brought the (strongside linebacker) pressure and the kid just shot the gap from the corner position. We should have had at least one guy on him, if not two.
“The next player coming was a safety over the top at 17 yards so we were in a really good position. It was a correct read by the quarterback. They didn’t protect him outside.
“What he’s doing, he’s setting the block up so that the DB will come to the spot of where he is. If he goes underneath, it may move the block point for the blocking receiver. You want him to set where he was. That should have been an easy kick-out. We don’t want that ball to come back into the interior where everybody from the inside is running toward them. We want that ball to stay on the exterior.”
Minshew missed Jones on the second pick six on a 4th-and-9 at the SMU 33 on ECU’s first series of the second half.
“It was ball placement on that one,” Montgomery said. “Zay was fine there. He slipped a little because he saw the ball flight and was trying to redirect in the opposite direction. That ball should have been right in his immediate center. That would have been an easy first down. Zay got a hand on that ball.
“If he doesn’t tip it, they’re getting the ball at the 33, not that big of a deal but he tips it, trying to get his hands on it right there at the last second and the defensive back — talk about being in the right place at the right time — he just happened to be beat and with outside leverage, which you never in that situation on a fourth down are going to see a guy giving you the interior to make all those plays on the inside. He tipped the ball and the guy’s outside leverage, he catches it. The rest is kind of history.”
Navy has owned series
Navy leads the series with ECU, 4-1, outscoring the Pirates, 240-145.
“We’re really, really excited to be able to go against this team because the history between Navy and ECU hasn’t really gone our way as of recent but we want to do something that hasn’t been done and that’s kind of what we’re pushing right now,” Montgomery said. “We’re practicing hard. I like our defensive game plan. The biggest deal in this game plan is that our second guy that gets there — the first guy could potentially get cut blocked but the second guy that gets there in our scheme, I won’t really get too much into it, has to be able to tackle the guy where he is.
“That means we’re going to have to do a better job of tackling below the waist line, cut tackling, not tackling up around the shoulders so they fall forward two or three yards. This is a team that will use four downs so if you give them a 3-yard gain every time, it’s going to be a long, slow death. We’re going to have to create some situations to make sure that we get there with the second guys. There’s been a lot of energy placed around that and understanding. This isn’t one of those games where we’re going to have to learn 55 different formations and get aligned to them. We’re just going to have to be really, really sound on the few formations that we get and tackle well.”
Keenan Reynolds has left
Then-senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds ran for 142 yards and five touchdowns in Navy’s 45-21 win over the Pirates in Annapolis last year. There was some thought that the offense might not be as productive without Reynolds, who is now on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad as a receiver. That hasn’t been the case. The Midshipmen are 7-2 overall and lead the West Division of the American Athletic Conference at 5-1 after a 42-40 home win over Tulsa last week.
Navy leads the AAC in rushing at 309.6 yards per game.
Current senior quarterback Will Worth is averaging 101.7 yards rushing and has scored 18 touchdowns. He adds 127.3 yards passing per game in a run-heavy option offense. He has thrown for seven scores and has been picked off only three times. He has completed 61.2 percent of his passes.
Worth saw limited action prior to this season, including a late game appearance in a 35-7 loss to Duke in Durham as a freshman in 2013 when Montgomery was coaching wide receivers for the Blue Devils.
“When you choose to go to Navy, you’re a certain type of person and great character is one of the things I would say that they have in just about all of their kids,” Montgomery said. “When you go there, there’s only one system. You’re in one system. Whether you’re on the No. 1 field or the No. 3 field, everybody is running the system, system, system. … You can get good at it before you actually hit the field.
“The young man they’re using now at quarterback is different than Reynolds, a lot different than Reynolds. He may not be as quick as he is but he’s as tough if not tougher. He runs so hard — those yards that Reynolds made through the air or running with a quick move, now they’re picking up those yards by a guy running over people and running through tackles. They’re moving really, really efficiently.
“They’re not top in the offense in the country or top in defense in the country but what they are top in is discipline. Their penalties are almost none. They average about 18 yards per game. A lot of people say, ‘Well, how do they do it?’ That’s how they do it. The type of people that they bring in has a direct correlation to the type of player that you get on the field.”
The Midshipmen are averaging 18.4 yards per game in penalties. After drawing nine flags for 84 yards last week, the Pirates are averaging 48.3 yards per game in walk-offs.
“We did send in penalties (to the league office) once again,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t necessarily agree with a few of them. True penalties that we had in that game, in my opinion — not saying that the calls were wrong, but in my opinion would have been around five. Right now, we’re averaging (5.5) penalties a game. … That’s something that we’ve gotten better at, but we’re still not where I want to be.”
The Pirates averaged 7.4 penalties per game last year.
Navy’s ball-control style can consume time.
“The keys this week comes down to possessions,” Montgomery said. “It’s all about who can steal a possession. If there’s a place where we can steal a possession, whether it be a turnover or a turnover on downs by them, that will be really, really good for us.
“The flip side of it is, offensively each possession matters. I look at Notre Dame (28-27 loss at Annapolis on Nov. 5) — I think they may have gotten only six or seven total possessions in that game. So it’s going to come down to one of those types of games. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s another really, really tight game for Navy because they’ve been in some tight games this year and it’s come down to the way people protected their possessions and protected the way that they play.”
Navy is 5-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season.,
“I think a really critical key in this game is first-down production for us and first-down production for them,” Montgomery said. “First downs are going to be critical downs in this game. A lot of people talk about third down. This week we’re putting a lot of thought into the way first down happens because third down for them is third down and fourth down. That’s kind of the way that it is for them. For us, we have to be great on first down.”