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Conference USA Breakdowns and Matchups

Denny O'Brien's Game Day Slants
Saturday, November 9, 2002


Turning point for Pirates can start today

Tulane-TCU, Southern Miss-UAB matchups will influence title race



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Four Conference USA teams with but one league loss harbor Liberty Bowl hopes. One of them is East Carolina, which has an opportunity to steer its disappointing season firmly back on course.

Remarkably, despite a stumbling start, the Pirates (2-5, 2-1 C-USA) find themselves in position to seize control of their own fate in the conference title race with a road win today over a Houston program (4-4, 2-3) which has learned the taste of success again after a miserable 2001 season.

Meanwhile, two of C-USA's other leaders, Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1) and UAB (4-4, 3-1), will collide with each other, automatically narrowing the field of single-loss contenders to three.

Texas Christian (7-1, 4-1), which is currently perched atop the league standings after pasting Southern Miss last week, hosts an already-bowl-eligible Tulane team (6-3, 3-2) in a contest that has suddenly taken on strategic implications.

In a pair of out-of-conference games, Memphis (2-7, 1-5) visits future C-USA member and convicted Pirate killer South Florida, and struggling Army (0-8, 0-6) can stay in the running for the Commander-in-Chief Trophy with a home upset over Air Force.

Cincinnati (3-2, 4-5) and Louisville (5-4, 3-2) have the day off in the wake of the Bearcats' startling 24-14 Thursday night plucking of the back-to-back defending C-USA champion Cardinals on ESPN.

'Get tough' approach still rules ECU's off week

Off weeks haven't been a blessing for East Carolina. The Pirates are 0-2 this season following idle Saturdays, a streak they hope to break in Houston.

Heading into the 3:00 PM (EST) Conference USA tilt, Pirates coach Steve Logan says his team maintained its focus its third extended break between games, despite the natural tendency to become stale.

"It's not hard to keep them focused," Logan said. "We've gone out and taken a lot of snaps against East Carolina. We are just spending so much time and energy on ourselves and that is just what this group needs right now.

"The bad news is we've got a bunch of youngsters out there. The good news is that we've got a bunch of youngsters out there. They have a good time out there playing and are excited about playing. We have a chance, in my opinion, because of youth, to get better."

Logan did not let up on his midseason trend of conducting full-contact drills during the bye week to continue to hone a physically aggressive attitude in a team he labeled as lacking that attribute a few weeks ago.

Thus far, the 11th-year Pirates coach likes what he has seen.

"We have seen the toughness," Logan said. "We have gotten more physical as the season has gone along.

"We have gotten our players in better spots to perform. I know that Vonta Leach has really helped our offense become more physical. Defensively, we are moving some guys around and taking some looks. Richard Koonce has moved around a few places on defense and I am not sure where we are going to play him, but he is a guy that we need to get on the field and keep on the field."

Logan and defensive coordinator Tim Rose also continue to toy with the Pirates defense, searching for the right combinations and schemes. Two players who have emerged as bright spots on an otherwise maligned unit are freshmen cornerbacks Reicko Jones and Jared Brogden, who continue to earn more playing time.

Though undersized, both Jones and Brogden are quick and physical, which has enabled the Pirates to deploy more man coverage. Logan says that's a look the Pirates will continue to show.

"We are continuing to tweak, fine-tune and find ways to get stabilized on the defensive side of the football," Logan said. "But Reicko certainly can play the man coverage and Jared is doing a good job of it. We are feeling better and better about some of the things that we are doing on the back end.

"We've just got to go and execute it a little bit better and get stabilized up front. The man coverage is something that we will continue to play a good bit of. The spread offenses have dictated basically that you have to play man coverage and not sit in zone coverage all day."

Denny O'Brien's
C-USA Power Poll

 1. TCU (7-1, 4-1) - Consecutive routs of Louisville and Southern Miss put Frogs in class of their own.

 2. Southern Miss (5-3, 3-1) - No Nix could spell trouble for Eagles in Birmingham.

 3. Tulane (6-3, 3-2) - Green Wave could seriously cloud C-USA picture with a win in Fort Worth.

 4. Louisville (5-4, 3-2) - Disappointing season rolls on for Louisville, which lost the keg of nails to rival Bearcats.

 5. Cincinnati (4-5, 3-2) -  Season has taken a turn for the better with back-to-back impressive victories.

 6. UAB (4-4, 3-1) - Bowl appearance within reach for Blazers.

 7. East Carolina (2-5, 2-1) - Win in Houston would keep title dreams alive for Pirates.

 8. Houston (4-4, 2-3) - Cougars have bowl hopes of their own.  Win over East Carolina keeps that dream alive.

 9. Memphis (2-7, 1-5) - Pride is all the Tigers have left in disappointing campaign.

10. Army (0-8, 0-6) - The season can't end soon enough for winless Knights.

When ECU has the ball

The magic number for East Carolina remains 150. As in rushing yards.

When the Pirates eclipse that mark, victory is generally the result. On paper, it looks as if ECU should have no problem meeting that quota, but recent changes to Houston's defense could make that a bit more difficult.

"On defense, they had an open date before the Memphis game and they did an about-face on what we were getting ready for," Logan said. "So, we have a new set of problems that we're going to have to deal with.

"They simplified the defense with not many blitzes at all and just freed up the kids and let them play football."

Fewer blitzes should mean more time for quarterback Paul Troth, who has shown signs of brilliance when given the time to shuffle through his reads. If Troth finds his groove — which he should — holes should open for Art Brown.

A healthy offensive line and the lead blocking of recently anointed fullback Vonta Leach could mean another big day for "Touchdown" Art Brown.

Advantage: ECU

When Houston has the ball

Cougars coach Dana Dimel had to notice two things from East Carolina's game against Louisville:

  1. You can run the ball through the heart of the Pirates defense.

  2. You can throw it on the East Carolina secondary.

That has to have the third-year Houston coach salivating because the Cougars do both well.

Joffrey Reynolds leads Conference USA in rushing, averaging 120 yards per contest. With a combination of power and speed, the senior running back has the tools to bull his way through the line and break things open in the secondary.

Quarterback Nick Eddy has found his rhythm in the pocket and has a host of reliable pass catchers at his disposal. KeyKowa Bell, Brian Robinson, and Brandon Middleton compose arguable the league's best trio of receivers.

With so many weapons, it's hard to imagine East Carolina keeping the Cougars offense at bay.

Advantage: Houston

Special Teams

This could be a historical week for Pirates kicker Kevin Miller.

With five more points, the Virginia Beach native will become East Carolina's all-time leading scorer. That comes on the heels of being named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza award.

In Dustin Bell, who has nailed eight-of-nine field goal attempts, Houston has a reliable kicker, too. However, Jimmy McClary averages just over 39-yards per kick, whereas Jared Preston is the league's best.

East Carolina also holds an edge in the return game, so the Pirates could hold a field position advantage.

Advantage: Even


The city of Houston has been kind to the Pirates, who were victorious in both previous trips to the Cougars' den. ECU's most recent trip to the town was even sweeter — a 40-27 victory over Texas Tech in the Bowl. With both the Pirates and Cougars possessing suspect defenses and capable offenses, this has all the makings of a Texas Shootout. Which team turns the ball over less and performs well on special teams could emerge the winner. Turnovers can't be predicted, but special teams appear to favor the Bucs. Pirates win a close one, 35-31.

(Through games of 11/07/02)
  Conference Overall
Teams W L W L
Texas Christian 4 1 7 1
Southern Miss 3 1 5 3
UAB 3 1 4 4
East Carolina 2 1 2 5
Tulane 3 2 6 3
Louisville 3 2 5 4
Cincinnati 3 2 4 5
Houston 2 3 4 4
Memphis 1 5 2 7
Army 0 6 0 8

Around Conference USA

Memphis at South Florida

Memphis has a chance to do what no other league member has done this season — beat South Florida.

In the process, the Tigers have the opportunity to do what no opponent has done in 18 games — win at Raymond James Stadium.

But, considering the ease with which opposing offenses have scored against the porous Tigers defense, both streaks should be safe. Memphis won't have the answer for Marquel Blackwell, who will likely accumulate more convincing content to add to his flashy website. Bulls 38, Tigers 20.

Air Force at Army

The season isn't lost just yet for Army. The Black Knights still have a shot at the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

That's the good news.

The bad news is the Cadets must march over Air Force to collect the hardware, which is highly unlikely. The Falcons possess the nation's second-best rushing attack. Army ranks among the nation's worst in rushing defense.

That spells disaster. Falcons 42, Black Knights 7.

Southern Miss at UAB

The Golden Eagles desperately need to get things going offensively after a grounding by Texas Christian last week. The absence of star runner Derrick Nix certainly doesn't help the situation.

What does help is a porous UAB defense, which is a complete 180 from the past two seasons. There aren't many things the Blazers do well on that side of the ball, so Nix's absence could be irrelevant.

The bigger question is, can a suddenly potent Blazers offense light it up on a suddenly humbled USM defense? The short answer: nope. Eagles 30, Blazers 16.

Game of the Week: Tulane at Texas Christian

Prior to the season, few expected this early November matchup to have such championship implications.


Though a loss would all but eliminate Tulane from championship contention, a victory over red-hot TCU keeps the Green Wave in the hunt. The Frogs, having already beaten Louisville and Southern Miss, could shift into cruise control with a win.

That won't be easy, though, with starting quarterback Tye Gunn sidelined with an injury. The offense sputtered earlier in the season with Sean Stilley under center, largely due to the quarterback's inconsistent play.

However, the Frogs do have two things going for them, which should be enough to notch the home win. They've suddenly discovered how to run the football, while their defense remains the program's staple. Frogs 27, Wave 17.

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02/23/2007 01:46:34 AM

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