GREENVILLE — In a short
week after a late night and
a 52-38 season-opening win over feisty Old
Dominion last Saturday, East Carolina did a good job of
recovering and focusing forward in its Conference USA opener on Thursday
night at home against new league member Florida Atlantic.
"It was a great challenge
for our team," said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill, who improved to 21-19 with
the Pirates. "We planned on this from practice in fall camp for the
short week. ... They played great on all four sides of the ball:
offense, defense, special teams and sidelines."
The Pirates took care of
the basics and executed well enough to move to 1-0 in the league
"All wins are big, but
winning the first one in conference is very big," McNeill said.
The defense made progress
and the offense showed better balance.
"The defense gave us some
short fields," said ECU quarterback Shane Carden. "If we keep the
offense and defense on the same page, this team can do some good
It was a game of segments
and ECU won most of them.
The Pirates showed marked
improvement in the abbreviated week. But how good has the competition
ODU is on the upper end of
the spectrum in the Football Championship Subdivision. FAU (0-2) is
obviously on the lower rungs in the Football Bowl Subdivision. There is
some overlap in competitive level between the two classifications
despite the disparity in scholarships.
There is no question that
the Pirates face their biggest challenge thus far when Virginia Tech
visits Sept. 14. The Hokies provide an indirect measuring stick to the
very best in the college game, having lost their opener 35-10 to
Alabama, the two-time defending Bowl Championship Series winner and
current No. 1.
The Hokies' score with the
Tide was deceptive, considering Alabama managed fewer total yards,
Special teams play,
normally a strong point for Frank Beamer teams, was a factor as Virginia
Tech surrendered two scores on special teams returns. The Hokies yielded
another score on an interception return.
The good news in terms of
the Pirates' preparation is that the short week for FAU becomes a long
week leading into the Virginia Tech game. ECU will have two extra days
from a regular practice week to fine tune for the Hokies, who host
Western Carolina on Saturday.
There was more good news
Here's a look at some of
the segments that added up to
a 31-13 ECU win.
Too many flags
ECU averaged 4.2 penalties
per game last season but had seven against FAU. No doubt McNeill will
reinforce the concept of playing smart in the practices ahead as that is
one of the cornerstones of his philosophy. Winning the turnover battle
is another of his points of emphasis and ECU came out on top there with
three takeaways trumping two lost fumbles. The Pirates totaled 44 return
yards and 10 points on picks by Maurice Falls and Josh Hawkins.
The Pirates were 5 of 6 on
scoring opportunities in the red zone.
Carden was not as prolific
as in the season opener but he was accurate and effective as the running
game became more productive.
Carden completed 17 of 25
for 191 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Vintavious Cooper netted
95 yards rushing on 20 carries and had five catches for 49 yards, all
Brandon Williams and Zeek
Bigger each had nine tackles to lead the defense.
East Carolina came out in
black pants, uniforms and helmets for the start of its last run through
Conference USA. It was a new look and there was a new anthem to
accompany the Pirates' entrance into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Smoke
billowed and ECU emerged from the Murphy Center to the strains of "Back
in Black" by AC/DC.
"Purple Haze" by Jimi
Hendrix had been the standard since the Steve Logan coaching era but ECU
wasn't wearing purple for the nationally-televised contest on Fox Sports
The fans were certainly on
board for the blackout as better than 90 percent appeared to be wearing
"Loved the blackout,"
Carden said. "Loved the fans. Great atmosphere. Great for the players."
The obvious game plan for
the Owls was to address ECU's passing game after Carden broke his own
school record with 447 yards through the air on a school record 46
completions against Old Dominion just five nights beforehand.
The Owls used man coverage
early on and ECU responded by utilizing Cooper on the first two snaps.
Cooper had four carries for 23 yards on the Pirates' first possession
and the passing game revved up on the initial series as Carden completed
4 of 5 for 59 yards with a third down conversion for 13 yards to Justin
Hardy. Carden finished the drive with a 17-yard score to true freshman
ECU overcame an illegal
procedure penalty and an intentional grounding call after winning the
toss and electing to receive. Lance Ray returned the kick to the 19 and
the Pirates' efforts at offensive balance took over from there.
Carden said ECU tries to
respond to what the defense is giving.
Florida Atlantic managed
just 21 total yards on its first two possessions but a sack of Carden
and a 20-yard punt return by Robert Lohnes set up a field goal by the
Owls that cut ECU's lead to 7-3.
Better tackling needed
The Pirates have been in
position to make some plays defensively but have not made tackles. It
was a recurring problem against ODU and its quarterback, Taylor Heinicke,
last week. It was a factor again on Thursday night. Owls quarterback
Jaquez Johnson escaped the clutches of converging Pirates to run for 14
yards on a 3rd-and-17 in the second quarter. The scramble set up a
46-yard field goal by Mitch Anderson and cut ECU's lead to 7-6.
Ray had a 90-yard kickoff
return for a score in ECU's 2012 season opener against Appalachian State
and seemingly disappeared the remainder of the year.
Ray reappeared on an
85-yard kickoff return after the Owls second field goal, setting up a
1st-and-10 at the FAU 12-yard line. Cooper had an 11-yard burst for
1st-and-goal at the one. An incomplete pass and a rush for no gain
preceded a timeout.
Carden hit Justin Hardy
for his first touchdown of the season off of play action for a 14-6 lead
on Warren Harvey's conversion kick with 10:34 left in the half.
... And a turnover
Falls picked off a Johnson
pass in the flat and made an 18-yard return on the first play following
Hardy's first scoring grab of the season. Carden engineered a quick
12-yard drive, perceptively checking off to a draw to Cooper that
produced a touchdown on a 7-yard run with 9:13 left in the half.
The C-USA officiating crew
lost back judge Javarro Edwards for a period due to an injury before
Hardy lost a fumble at the FAU 46. The replay showed the Owls defender
led with his helmet to Hardy's head on the fumble-causing hit, which is
supposed to result in ejection. There was no call on the play but C-USA
officiating supervisor Gerald Alston's jaw dropped when he watched the
video in the press box. The possession led to the first missed field
goal from Anderson from 37 yards.
The attempt hit the left
upright and bounced back. Perhaps justice was served.
Anderson missed again from
40 yards with 7:34 to play.
Officials miss, II
After an interception
return by Hawkins to the FAU 5-yard line on the Owls' first series of
the second half, ECU had to settle for a 22-yard field goal by Harvey
for a 24-6 lead.
Two plays before Harvey's
chip shot, Hardy snatched a fade pass with his huge right hand and went
to the turf with the ball. He appeared to be bouncing to his feet when
the ball came out. There was discussion among the officials with the
line judge appearing to indicate a catch.
An official behind the
play prevailed, even running to referee Ken Antee to politic for his
incomplete call before Antee went to converse with the review booth.
Hardy controlled the ball
to the ground.
The ruling on the field
stood. The replay on the big screen told fans differently. Antee's
announcement was met with a chorus of boos.
Strike two for the zebras.
The Owls added some
respectability to the final score as William Dukes caught a 2-yard
scoring pass from Greg Hankerson on a fade with 1:03 left. The Owls went
64 yards in 11 plays against ECU reserves. The Pirates put Justin Dixon,
Terry Williams and Lee Pegues in on the defensive front after FAU had
driven into goal-to-go position. Their presence shut down the middle and
forced the Owls to go up top from close range.
Dukes appeared to be
bobbling the ball as he went out of bounds. No replay was shown on the
big board and the TD was a long way from impacting the outcome.
An ACC crew may be coming
in for the Virginia Tech game. That is often a contract provision when a
BCS team goes on the road against a non-BCS program.
Raven Leach gets NFL started
Just after ECU's defense
held the Owls on downs at the Pirate 34 late in the third quarter, it
was announced in the press box that former ECU standout Vonta Leach had
scored the first touchdown of the NFL season for the Baltimore Ravens
against the Denver Broncos. Leach finished his Pirate career in 2003 as
a running back after starting out at ECU as an linebacker.
Leach was an unsung hero
on Baltimore's Super Bowl champions last season.
Hairston gets six
East Carolina running back
Chris Hairston has been injured at some critical points early in his
career but the sophomore from Winston-Salem got his first touchdown from
four yards out to extend the lead to 31-6. Coincidentally, Miami of
Florida beat the Owls 31-6 in the season opener for both teams.
A lot of reserves saw
action in the late stages on Thursday night. ECU backup quarterback Cody
Keith went in for his first snaps on the college level in the fourth
quarter. He first two throws were dropped.
Keith got a completion to
Cory Hunter later in the final frame but a big gain was nullified by a
Keith finished with
completions on 3 of 5 attempts for 11 yards.
Meager crowd, relatively
A crowd of 37,533 was
announced for the game, the smallest at an ECU home game since the
defeated Houston 38-32 for the C-USA
championship on Dec. 5, 2009 before a gathering of
33,048, which probably did not include the season ticket base.
There were a lot of empty
seats in the corners and the upper deck on Thursday night.
The crowd had thinned
considerably by game's end, understandable on a work/school night with
people feeling the need to get home at a reasonable hour.
View box score and statistics on ecupirates.com
Read game recap on ecupirates.com