East Carolina’s defensive improvement has corresponded to the program’s overall progress as the Pirates prepare for their first postseason game since the 2014 season against Boston College on Monday at 2:30 p.m. in the Military Bowl in Annapolis.
The Pirates were atrocious in 2017, yielding 45.0 points per game. ECU allowed 35.4 contest in Blake Harrell’s first season as defensive coordinator in 2020.
That figure is down to 26.3 this season as the Pirates have gone 7-5 overall and 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference.
Among those who have noticed is second-year Boston College coach Jeff Hafley.
“I like their scheme,” Hafley said earlier this week. “They do a lot. A lot of different coverages, a lot of different pressures, so they throw a lot at you. I think they’re really well-coached on defense.
“I’m impressed watching them, the way they run to the ball, how hard they play and the variety of things that they do.”
Linebacker Bruce Bivens has 22 solo stops and 35 assists to lead the Pirates with 57 tackles. Corner Ja’Quan McMillan has been in on 56 tackles and has five interceptions. Linebacker Myles Berry has been involved on 53 stops. Safety Warren Saba has four picks, including two in ECU’s last game on Nov. 26 against No. 4 Cincinnati.
The BC offense that the Pirates will face has Phil Jurkovec at quarterback. Jurkovek completed just three of 11 passes for 19 yards in a 41-10 home loss to Wake Forest in the Eagles’ last game on Nov. 27, but he had 11 keepers for 66 yards.
The quarterback reportedly was struggling with a hand injury that kept him out for six games this season.
Jurkovec can fling it as his 310 passing yards and two touchdowns in a 41-30 win at Georgia Tech on Nov. 13 would attest.
Jurkovek threw for 2,558 yards and 17 TDs with five picks in 2020. His numbers for 2021 are down in comparison (915 yards, 7 TDs, 4 picks) with the time out for injury.
Dennis Grosel, has played extensively as the Eagles’ trigger man, throwing for 1,216 yards with six scores and seven interceptions. .
Jurkovek was trying to strengthen his body in the time before the bowl game as he lost some weight while out of action.
The Pirates will present some challenges for BC, which comes in at 6-6 overall after going 2-6 in the ACC.
“They’re just very athletic,” Jurkovek said of ECU. “They jump into multiple fronts and coverages. They have variation with a lot of what they do.
“It makes it tough to game plan somewhat. They might come out and play a lot of different ways to start out with. We have to be ready for everything.”
BC run game
Some analysts feel BC’s ground game, which has averaged 4.1 yards per rush, will be productive against the Pirates.
A lot of that potential for running the ball will depend on the status of All-ACC offensive linemen Alec Lindstrom and Zion Johnson.
Hafley has evaded questions about whether the blocking stalwarts will play in the bowl game.
The Eagles will be younger and less experienced up front if either or both should opt out.
Tyler Snead fan
Hafley has become a fan of ECU receiver Tyler Snead as he has watched tape of ECU. The versatile Snead has 67 catches for 855 yards and four TDs this season. He has also run the ball five times. Snead also has completed three of five passes for 102 yards and a pair of scores.
“22 (Snead’s number),” Hafley said. “I actually showed the guys (Sunday) on defense. You’ve just got to be aware. You can’t worry about his passing the whole game or you’ll never stop him. If you start worrying about him throwing the ball, you won’t stop him from catching it.
“He’s a good player. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a punt returner, kick returner. They throw him the ball. They motion him. They move him around. He throws the ball. Just a great college football player.”
Dec. 27 history
ECU has played just one game in its bowl history on Dec. 27, the galleryfurniture.com bowl at the Astrodome in Houston in 2000.
That matchup featured quarterbacks David Garrard for the Pirates and Kliff Kingsbury for Texas Tech. Former ECU player and later coach, Ruffin McNeill, was on the Red Raiders’ defensive staff.
Keith Stokes had a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown as the Pirates took a 34-0 lead and eventually won, 40-27.
Current Mississippi State coach Mike Leach was guiding Texas Tech. Steve Logan was directing ECU.
Logan said the Pirates were very focused in Houston as they wanted to atone for a 28-14 loss to Texas Christian in the Mobile Bowl the previous season.
Kingsbury currently coaches the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL. His team is 10-4 going into Week 16.
The winter season officially arrived Tuesday.
The advance forecast was calling for a 50 percent chance of rain in Annapolis on Monday with a high of 46.
That compares to partly sunny skies and 70 degrees in Greenville on the afternoon of the bowl.
Dooley wants more consistency
Football season has not gone this far into basketball season in years.
The Pirates are 9-3 in hoops after a 68-67 home win over Southern Miss on Tuesday, a game in which ECU went from 11 points up to nine points down before making a decisive late run.
“We’re either playing ‘A’ or ‘F’ basketball,” coach Joe Dooley told the Pirate radio network. “We’ve got to get it to some points where we play a little ‘C’ basketball.”
Baseball shines in classroom
Speaking of grades, the ECU baseball team, ranked No. 8 in the preseason by Collegiate Baseball, has had another super semester academically.
The Pirates posted a 3.54 grade point average for the fall with five players making 4.0s.
ECU coach Cliff Godwin was an Academic All-American as a player for the Pirates and has instilled a culture that includes exceptional performance in the collegiate part of college baseball.