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View from the 'ville
Thursday, November 13, 2008

By Al Myatt

Challenge waiting at "The Rock"

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

Nothing seems to come easy for East Carolina against Southern Miss.

The Golden Eagles lead the overall series 25-8 and have won 10 of the last 12 games against ECU. The Pirates' two wins in that span were by a total of eight points, including a 20-17 overtime victory in 2006 when the teams last played in Hattiesburg. That triumph was assured when ECU defender Travis Williams wrestled the ball away from Golden Eagles tight end Shawn Nelson for a game-ending interception.

ECU closer Ben Hartman had kicked a 19-yard field goal as the Pirates had first possession in overtime.

It may be a little harder to get a handle on East Carolina's important Conference USA football game at Southern Miss on Saturday with the Golden Eagles having undergone a coaching change since a 28-21 win over the Pirates in Greenville last season.

Southern Miss liked power football under previous coach Jeff Bower. When ECU was off to a 5-0 start in 1999, the Golden Eagles came to Greenville and ran tailback Derrick Nix 41 times for 171 yards and a touchdown in a 39-22 win. That was Bower's style.

His successor, former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Larry Fedora, has gone to a spread attack. There has been an adjustment period but there are signs that Fedora's style is taking hold. The Golden Eagles overwhelmed UAB 70-14 in a record-setting statement game on Nov.1.

They followed that with a 17-6 win last week over a Central Florida team that was disheartened by a 19-16 overtime loss to East Carolina the previous Sunday night. Once 2-6 overall and 0-4 in Conference USA, Southern Miss is 4-6 and 2-4 with a goal of becoming bowl eligible.

"The challenge for this week is going to `The Rock' and Southern Miss, which is a very good football team," said ECU coach Skip Holtz. "Offensively, they are a big-play, fast-strike offensive football team. DeAndre Brown, who is one of the biggest weapons they have, is a 6-foot-6 freshman. He has receptions of 68, 60, 59, 54, 48, 47, 42 and 40-yards this season. They are a big-strike team. Brown can really run and get behind you."

The Pirates will face a balanced offense in terms of USM's run/throw capability.

"They are throwing the ball an awful lot, around 240 yards a game," Holtz said. "They also rush for just over 200 yards a game and average around 450 yards of total offense each game.

"They have a freshman quarterback in Austin Davis. I don't know his status right now, but Damion Fletcher has been running up and down the field. They also have two or three other backs behind him who have been carrying the ball and running extremely efficiently. They're averaging 5.0 yards per carry, they've got big rushes with what they're doing and they are a big-play offensive football team.

"And it's going to be a heck of a challenge for our defense this week."

Southern Miss took took the win in Greenville last year in a see-saw contest. The Golden Eagles led 14-0 at the half but ECU responded with a big third quarter to take a 21-14 lead. Southern Miss faced a third-and-15 at its own 35-yard line when Jeremy Young hit Fletcher, who took shook off several would-be tacklers for a pivotal 48-yard gain that led to the tying touchdown. Fletcher has been a regular in the training room this week trying to get patched up for the Pirates.

The Golden Eagles managed the clock effectively in the fourth quarter last season and drove 80 yards to score the winning touchdown on a 1-yard run by Young with just 32 seconds remaining. The Golden Eagles have four starters back on the offensive front, including Nelson. That front helped produce 383 total yards in last season's matchup.

"Their offensive line is extremely well coached," Holtz said. "You've got Shawn Nelson, who I think has been there for forever. He was just such a great player as a freshman and made such an impact on this league, and now he has been around doing it for four years. He's a great player as a tight end. Now they have him on one side and Brown on the other. They pose some threats for us as a defensive football team."

The Pirates lead Conference USA in scoring defense at 21.2 points per game and total defense at 326.8 yards per game. ECU also leads the league in red zone offense and defense.

While the offense has managed just two touchdowns in the last two games, ECU's defense has kept the margin manageable until Hartman could come to the rescue in overtime.

"For whatever reason it has been low scoring," Fedora said of the Pirates offense. "Both UCF and Marshall that they have played, have pretty good defenses and have played well and held them to low scores. But they have found a way to win.

"As far as why they are low scores, probably the same reason we didn't score, we didn't make enough big plays, and they probably haven't made enough big plays in the last couple games, but they found a way to win football games, and that's by playing good defense, being sound in special teams and not turning the football over."

ECU could use an offensive rebirth this Saturday as the Pirates enter an emotional atmosphere in Hattiesburg. Promotions have called for a "Black Out" with fans wearing black Southern Miss gear for Senior Day. There are coupons available which allow Golden Eagles supporters to purchase four tickets for $40.

The Pirates have some breathing room in the C-USA East Division race. Even with a loss on the road this weekend, ECU would still control its fate in the race for the division title.

The Pirates have stumbled before when in position to win the division. The trip to Southern Miss is definitely an opportunity for the ECU program to step up and perform like champions.

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11/13/2008 01:59:01 AM


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