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View from the 'ville
Thursday, June 29, 2006

By Al Myatt

Date with Midshipmen edging closer


It's been seven months since East Carolina played a football game and it's just a little more than two months before the Pirates will open the 2006 season at Navy.

Pro-rating that span to the regular season duration between Saturday kickoffs and it's like a Thursday in regard to ECU's pending trip to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

That said, it's not too early to take a look at what lies ahead for ECU, starting with that first game with the Midshipmen on Sept. 2.

The Pirates have never played Navy. The first thing a team has to get past when playing a service academy is those sections of uniformed support personnel whose mindset is strongly influenced by their military training. Game day is like a combat operation.

Quite simply, the opposition is defined as the enemy and that will be ECU's role that first Saturday in 2006.

The flip side to that scenario is that very few players who think they have a shot at a pro career ever enroll at the service academies. The postgraduate military commitment precludes immediate entry to the next level of sports competition.

Roger Staubach, David Robinson and Napoleon McCallum were exceptions, but generally the service teams' physical talent is not on the same level as their mental intensity.

ECU has fared well against Army, leading that series 8-0. Mention that to a Navy fan and they may even buy you a drink Labor Day weekend.

The particular challenge that Navy presents under current coach Paul Johnson is defending the option offense. The Pirates will have to be disciplined and play their assignments defensively. The option is predicated on taking advantage of the defenders who commit too quickly in their efforts to make plays.

Navy rang up 51 points and junior slot back Reggie Campbell scored five touchdowns in a Poinsettia Bowl win over Colorado State in San Diego last season. That gave the Middies four wins in their last five games and an 8-4 season. There are eight starters back on offense and nine returning on defense as Navy takes aim on a fourth straight bowl trip.

The biggest personnel loss on paper is quarterback Lamar Owens, a void which Brian Hampton is listed to fill on the most recent depth chart. Navy is coming off an exceptional season with Owens quickly overcoming his inexperience. He had thrown just six college passes before stepping into the starting job last season.

He overcame any stage fright to run for 880 yards and 11 touchdowns while throwing for 1,299 yards and six scores.

Navy's spring practice was hindered by injuries and a downpour during the spring game. There were as many as 19 players out of action at one point but only slot back John Forbes, who is sidelined with a knee injury, is not expected to be back against ECU.

"The conditions were tough and we had a lot of guys hurt, so you can't make too much out of what happened," Johnson said. "We were doing a lot of mixing and matching."

One preseason publication has Navy ranked No. 42 nationally. Only two of Navy's opponents are ranked higher than the Midshipmen as Notre Dame was No. 2 and Rutgers was 38th.

Of the other foes on the Middies' slate, defending Conference USA Champion Tulsa was ranked 54th, while East Carolina is 68th, Connecticut 69th, Stanford 74th, Air Force 91st, Duke 98th, Army 102nd, Eastern Michigan 107th and Temple 119th.

Navy competes as a Division I-A independent and will play the three other schools in that category — Notre Dame, Army and Temple.

Wins over Air Force and Army last season brought the Commander in Chief's trophy to Annapolis. The Middies program definitely has momentum and a schedule that won't overpower its talent. Navy's strength of schedule was No. 100 in last season's Sagarin ratings. ECU's 5-6 mark came against a strength of schedule that was rated No. 82.

One potential matchup that may favor the Pirates is their passing game. ECU quarterback James Pinkney is hopefully poised for a breakout senior season starting against a Navy defense that was No. 66 nationally against the pass. The Middies allowed an average of 227.8 yards per game passing and 19 touchdowns.

Navy was also No. 66 against the run, allowing 154.6 yards per game on the ground.

Both programs compiled similar numbers last season in terms of scoring defense. Navy allowed an average of 26.1 points per game and ECU gave up 28.8.

The matchup that may send a bit of a shudder through the Pirate Nation when surveying the Sept. 2 encounter on paper is Navy's ground game against ECU's rush defense.

The Middies ran for 318.7 yards per game in 2006. That was No. 1 among 117 Division I-A teams.

The Pirates ranked No. 112 against the run as opponents averaged 217.6 yards per game on the ground.

Be assured that ECU defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is working on that. The coming weeks provide time to prepare for a severe test.

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

Dig into Al Myatt's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 12:30:24 AM


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