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Pirate Defense Quiets Critics
With Dominating Performance

By Denny O'Brien

GREENVILLE -- East Carolina's offense entered Saturday's Homecoming matchup with Memphis running on all cylinders, churning out yards as expected and piling up points like a well-oiled machine.

But it was the defense, oft-smeared in the media of late, that stole the show, turning a Tiger attack which came into the game with a reputation for aggressiveness into cuddly kittens as the Pirates seized a key 32-11 Conference USA victory.

According to ECU head coach Steve Logan, the defensive resurgence couldn't have come at a better time.

"That football team (Memphis) had been up and down the field on just about everybody with that spread offense," Logan said. "We were very concerned coming in.

"Coach (Defensive Coordinator Tim) Rose and his staff and the players put together a wonderful plan that kept them just enough off balance, and it allowed us to control the football game. It was a good victory as far as just taking control of a game and never really letting it get out of hand."

With the win, East Carolina (4-3, 3-0 C-USA) remained unbeaten in C-USA play and inched closer to achieving its ambitions of a first-ever league title. For Memphis (4-3, 2-2), the loss virtually ended any hopes of a conference championship and a Liberty Bowl berth in its hometown.

It was an uncharacteristic performance by the Pirate defense, which had yielded yards by the bushel in each of its six previous contests. The Tigers were able to manage just 231 yards of total offense, 63 of which came on a late fourth quarter touchdown-scoring drive when the Pirates had the game well in hand.

The defense's cause was aided by the return of cornerback Kelly Hardy, who had missed the last three games with an injured knee. According to Logan, Hardy's presence changed the complexion of the game.

"There is a reason that there are first-team players," Logan said. "Kelly is our best cover corner, no doubt about it.

"He changed the look of what we were doing out there today. They tried a couple of deep routes on him that they did not even attempt to throw because he did a great job out there. It was good to have him back."

Hardy put an exclamation on his return with a crucial third-quarter tackle on third and goal, throwing receiver Darron White for a seven-yard loss, and ending Memphis' first threat at finding the end zone.

"Kelly brings a lot to the table," senior linebacker Pernell Griffin said. "With him on the corner, it seems like we're a different team."

But the defense wasn't the only show in town, as the Pirate offense continued its dazzling ways, grinding out 473 total yards with a relentless ground and air attack.

For the most part, it was the same cast of characters whose names have been in the headlines all season.

Leonard Henry produced his sixth consecutive 100-yard day, rushing for 132 yards on 26 carries. Henry's effort marked only the second time that an ECU rusher had broken the century mark in six straight outings.

Quarterback David Garrard had a Homecoming to remember, connecting on 20 of 25 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. The Durham senior added two more scores on the ground.

"David (Garrard) may have played one of the very best games he's ever played," Logan said. "He checked our entire offense probably 70-something snaps at the line of scrimmage.

"I don't recall a play where I was disappointed in his decision. It was really fun to watch. It is just an amazing thing when a kid grabs a hold of this offense, what can be done. Right now, he's got a pretty good grip on it."

But it was an atypical game offensively for East Carolina, which characteristically has gained yards in sudden chunks, scoring with a quick-strike mentality. Against Memphis, the Pirates took on the identity of a ball-control offense, eating up more than 36 minutes of game clock.

"It's awful, isn't it," Logan said, who is fond of pooh-poohing the time-of-possession factor. "I'm proud of the kids executing, but the drive that I liked was the 60-yard touchdown pass.

"Snapping the ball over, and over, and over again is fine, and it makes the clock-watchers happy, but fast points is the answer. I am proud of the execution, and to Memphis' credit, they made us earn it. They didn't give us any explosion plays all day long, particularly in the run game."

The time-consuming drives didn't seem to bother Garrard, whose near-perfect performance avenged a woeful effort at Memphis last year.

"I don't mind if they are 20-play drives or ten-play drives," Garrard said. "It doesn't matter as long as we go down there and get some points."

The Tigers finally finally clawed their way onto the scoreboard in the third quarter when kicker Ryan White split the uprights from 31 yards out to pull the Tigers to within 16-3.

White's field goal came after Memphis found itself in good field position for the first time all afternoon after holding the Pirates to a three-and-out and returning Jarad Preston's punt to the ECU 44-yard line.

But that would be as close as Memphis would get, as Richard Alston provided a knock-out punch one minute into the fourth quarter, hauling in a 45-yard scoring strike from Garrard to put an end to the Tigers' comeback hopes.

"Dave made an outstanding throw," Alston said. "He put it right there, and I just made the play on it."

The prospect for completing the TD strike to Alston didn't look too promising as the play unfolded. Garrard stumbled after taking the snap, but regained his balance long enough to hit Alston in stride for the score.

"I was pulling out, and one of my guys stepped on my foot," Garrard said. "I guess it timed everything up right, though. Richard got past the safety, and I knew if I didn't underthrow him, it was going to be a great catch."

Alston finished the day with 105 yards on six catches, emerging as the go-to guy in the Pirates' receiving corps. Alston's performance drew a raving review from Logan, who gave a thumbs up to the converted quarterback's performance.

"Richard Alston has found a home," Logan said. "He is a wonderful wide receiver.

"A lot of times when you move a quarterback to wide receiver, you end up with an athlete playing wide receiver. Richard is a true wide receiver. He's got a wonderful set of hands, and he's got a good heart."

The Pirates set the tone early when Garrard scored on a one-yard option keeper at the 11:56 mark of the first quarter. The Pirates found themselves in excellent field position after Memphis punter James Gaither fielded an errant snap from his knee and was ruled down at the ECU 21-yard line.

The Pirates got right back to the work at hand with 1:04 left in the first quarter when Kevin Miller nailed a 35-yard field goal, his first of four trifectas, upping the Pirates' lead to 10-0. Miller's boot culminated a ten-play, 46-yard drive that lasted five minutes.

Miller would convert twice more in the first half, once from 27 yards and again from from 35 yards with four seconds before halftime, to give the Pirates a 16-point cushion at the break.

That proved to be all the Pirates would need.

With the defense's inspirational play, the Pirates hope they have found the missing piece to the puzzle as they zero in on the C-USA crown.

"It's a different look in this team's eye when we're getting ready to play a conference team," Griffin said. "That's been our goal the whole time — win the conference. The guys definitely want it."

ECU has ten days to prepare for the next skirmish in its charted voyage to the Liberty Bowl, a Tuesday night ESPN2 confrontation at Texas Christian on October 30.

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02/23/2007 01:41:55 AM

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