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View from the 'ville
Thursday, November 15, 2007

By Al Myatt

Eyes of Pirate Nation turn to Texas

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

A staunch East Carolina supporter once told me his two favorite teams were the Pirates and whoever was playing (North) Carolina. That might change this weekend as ECU takes a much-needed and long-awaited break on the gridiron.

After playing 11 games on 11 straight Saturdays, the Pirates have a chance to get some rest and catch their breath this weekend. There's no matchup against a national power, no plane trip to meet a far-flung Conference USA foe and no emotionally-draining turf war with another state rival.

That doesn't mean the Pirates won't have a rooting interest as they catch a respite from the popping of pads. A 26-7 upset at the hands of Marshall last week helped transform the Pirate Nation into Southern Methodist fans this Saturday.

After one week in which ECU was in control of its own fate in the Conference USA East Division race and produced a 56-40 win over Memphis with an astounding 301yards rushing from Chris Johnson, the Pirates again need a helping hand to have a shot at those elusive C-USA rings.

Central Florida, which plays at SMU on Saturday, is now in the driver's seat in the division race with a 5-1 league record. ECU is 5-2 and hosts Tulane on Nov. 24. UCF will wind up the regular season at home against Texas-El Paso on Nov. 24.

The Pirates have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Knights by virtue of a 52-38 win over UCF in Greenville on Oct. 6, but ECU needs for George O'Leary's program to stumble once in its remaining two games for the Pirates to land a berth in the C-USA championship game on Dec. 1.

That's providing the Pirates can take care of business in their regular-season finale with the Green Wave.

ECU was in a similar position just a few weeks ago. After the Pirates lost their league opener to Southern Miss 28-21 on Sept. 15, ECU needed the Golden Eagles to lose twice. Rice, UCF and then Memphis last week helped knock USM out of title contention as the Pirates put together a 5-game winning streak in C-USA games.

But ECU went into chilly Huntington, West Virginia, and got stunned by the Thundering Herd. That made the Mustangs the team du jour for Pirate fans this open date. "E-C-U" cheers can easily be adapted to "S-M-U" for the occasion. Instead of "Purple" and "Gold," it's "Red" and "Blue" this week.

Some common ground

The Pirates and Ponies already share some common ground. Both have been victimized by Clark Fangmeier in their most recent matchups with Rice.

ECU went into the Rice game in 2006 needing a win to wrap up the division title but, after leading the Owls 17-9 going into the fourth quarter of that crucial matchup, Rice rallied for an 18-17 win as Fangmeier converted a 40-yard field goal with three seconds left.

It was deja vu for Fangmeier last week against the Mustangs as his 31-yard boot with no time left accounted for a 43-42 win over SMU in Dallas. The Mustangs had scored 28 straight points to lead 42-27. It was small consolation for departing SMU coach Phil Bennett that a Ford Stadium scoring record for total points was set in the process.

Bennett reportedly had been told that he would be dismissed if SMU didn't earn a bowl berth in 2007.The axe fell following a 29-23 loss at Tulsa on Oct. 27 that eliminated the Mustangs from bowl contention. Bennett agreed to coach the remainder of the season as SMU initiated a national search for a successor.

Bennett must feel like the poster child for Murphy's Law that whatever can go wrong will go wrong as he closes out his career on the Hilltop this weekend against UCF. The Mustangs have been competitive in their Conference USA games for the majority of the season but have an 0-6 league record to show for their efforts. SMU's average margin of defeat in league games is a scant eight points.

UCF doesn't have Clark Fangmeier but the Knights do have premier running back Kevin Smith, who is second nationally in the Bowl Subdivision with 176.8 yards rushing per game. Smith is the focal point of an offense that is averaging 37.0 points per game, which is 16th nationally.

Smith will face an SMU defense that ranks 89th as it allows 190.9 yards per game on the ground. The Mustangs are giving up an average of 37.3 points per game.

Sophomore quarterback Justin Willis leads SMU offensively. He is 56th nationally in passing efficiency rating. He is completing 57.3 percent of his throws with 2,457 yards through the air this season. Willis has thrown for 21 touchdowns with 14 interceptions. He passed for four touchdowns and ran for another last week in the Rice game.

Ultimately, Willis's efforts were not enough as SMU dropped to 18-50 in Bennett's six seasons as head coach.

O'Leary's take

Ironically, the man who fired Bennett is the man who hired O'Leary at UCF. That would be current SMU athletic director Steve Orsini. O'Leary must be feeling good that he is not involved in the current debacle at Notre Dame, where he found himself in the ejector seat before he ever coached a game for the Fighting Irish after some falsified items were found on his resume.

"I think Steve is a good friend of mine," O'Leary said. "You think about the guy who had the blueprint here was Steve. Walking around now, Steve was the one who had the initial thought process on the dorms, arena, stadium, and everything really."

The Knights are coming off a 45-31 win at UAB in which ECU's loss at Marshall provided ample inspiration for the UCF players.

"It was 17-17 at UAB and someone told me when I came in at halftime that East Carolina lost 26 to 7," O'Leary said. "I mentioned that to the kids and they hit the field running. I thought offensively we did some good things. I think defensively we were just soft and were not real aggressive as we were the past three weeks."

UCF will face SMU on its Senior Day, the same situation it encountered at UAB.

"We seem to be running into that right now, Senior Day," O'Leary said. "They always give a little extra effort on Senior Day, so we will have to be ready to play. Obviously, I expect a tough football game."

The Mustangs may also play harder in hopes of sending Bennett out with a win in his final home game. ECU rose up in a similar scenario in John Thompson's final home game as coach in 2004 when Memphis, led by record setting back DeAngelo Williams, prevailed 38-35 despite an inspired effort by the Pirates.

Williams ran for 225 yards and four touchdowns, which are the sort of numbers Smith is capable of putting up for UCF.

A big day by Willis could offset the Knights star. UCF is allowing 232.1 yards per game passing, which ranks 68th among the 119 Bowl Subdivision teams.

"I tell you, the quarterback is really a good player, [Justin] Willis," O'Leary said. "He reminds me a little bit of Joe Hamilton (who played for O'Leary at Georgia Tech) as far as some of the things he does with the ball, running and throwing and just making people miss.

"They are an option type team that breaks defenses down into one-on-one responsibilities, so you know the defense has their work cut out for them as far as accountability and making sure everybody does what they are supposed to do and not try to do someone else's job. They have an offense that I think has scored points against everybody."

One problem for the Mustangs has been turnovers. They are at minus 0.6 per game in turnover margin which has them tied for 97th and near the bottom among 119 Bowl Subdivision teams.

"I think what has happened is that they have gotten themselves in some trouble with some turnovers and field position," O'Leary said. "I think offensively they are a very solid football team and defensively they play hard. I have been very impressed and I am not saying that because we are playing them. I have been very impressed with SMU and the effort, the second effort and just guys running around.

"The way I look at it, I look at special teams and they are very aggressive on special teams. They are playing with good effort. It is hard when you are without a coach and your season has not gone the way you would have wanted it to go.

"I think that they show up every week and they had a tough loss last week. They thought they had the game won. I guess Rice had called a timeout with one second left and kicked a field goal to win the game 43-42. They have been in most games and basically three or four of those games could have gone the other way."

ECU fans certainly will be pulling for things to go the other way for Bennett and the Ponies this week.

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11/15/2007 05:10:51 AM


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