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Conference USA breakdowns and matchups

Denny O'Brien's Game Day Preview
Saturday, September 7, 2002


Pirates, Cards looking to salvage pride up front

Magazine Correction Notice:

The Conference USA Preseason Preview and Power Poll package which appeared in the just-published The Magazine was written by Denny O'Brien. It was inadvertently attributed to Ron Cherubini because of a technical error.





Wins and losses are often defined by the ground game.  East Carolina and Louisville will attest to that.

The Pirates and Cardinals entered last weekend as heavy favorites against traditionally weak in-state opponents.  However, ineffective ground games and surprising performances by the opposition spurred upset specials.

Louisville's problems were expected to a certain extent, considering the Cardinals didn't possess an imposing ground attack last season and are breaking in four new starters along the offensive front.

Yet, you would have expected the U of L to produce more than 55 rushing yards against a Kentucky defense that was among the nation's worst last season.  The Cards' struggles on the ground also had a direct effect on the passing game, where UK corners clamped down on Louisville receivers, allowing the front seven to pressure QB sensation Dave Ragone all night.

"We have eight different guys and we're still trying to find the five best," Smith said of his young offensive line.  "We struggled."

"They (Kentucky) brought a lot of things at us and we just didn't pick much up. If you can't block any body, it's tough to win. It's pretty simple: you have to block somebody."

ECU's problem last Saturday wasn't so much its lack of personnel as it was a muddy field, which wasn't conducive to the cutback running styles of fullbacks Art Brown and Marvin Townes.  Additionally, head coach Steve Logan suggested that a few blocking assignments were missed by new personnel, which led to some of the breakdowns in the Pirates' ground attack.

That has been an area of great concentration for the Pirates this week.

"We are going to try and make some yards and run forward rather than sideways," Logan said.  "We are going to do some things different with our schemes and get Tutu Moye blocking this week and he is going to be the big difference this game."

East Carolina at Wake Forest

Logan insists that revenge is not a motivating factor at East Carolina.  But rest assured, the Pirates remember the bitter taste Wake Forest left in their mouths in last season's opener.

The Deacons, who were making their debut under new head coach Jim Grobe, surprised the Pirates with new schemes that were a modified presentation of what Air Force deployed when Grobe was an assistant there.  It took the Bucs a half to make adjustments, but that didn't provide enough time to come back from a 15-0 deficit.

With a fresh game film in hand, Logan feels much better about preparing for the Deacons this time around.

"Defensively, we've got a little better grip on what it is they want to do," he said.  "Just the fact that we have a film this year is going to help us prepare.

When ECU has the ball

After struggling last week in the Wallace-Wade muck, expect the Pirates to make a concerted effort with the ground game on Saturday.  With the weatherman calling for clear skies and warm temperatures, Brown and Townes should have a fast track on which to run.

A better ground game should make the aerial attack much more productive.  ECU's receivers struggled catching a wet pigskin against Duke, but won't have to contend with such conditions in Winston-Salem.

With better production by the ground game and a more reliable receiving corps, quarterback Paul Troth should find a better rhythm against the Deacs.  And when you consider that Northern Illinois moved the ball at will on Wake, you have to think the Pirates will be highly successful on offense. 

Advantage: ECU

When Wake has the ball

The Deacons received good news with word that running back Tarence Williams would return against East Carolina.  However that's not what has Logan most concerned.

"Tarence is a good back and I'm sure they want him back and he will help them," Logan said.  "But the guy that has my attention in number 32 (Ovie Mughelli), that's the guy. He is a big powerful man and a game-changer."

That Duke fullback Alex Wade sloshed and muscled through Pirate defenders on Saturday is great reason for concern.  Mughelli, The man they call "Chocolate Thunder", should get called early and often along with a host of other runners that contributed to Wake's 344 rushing yards against NIU.

QB James MacPherson isn't a world-beater, but that is not his defined role in Grobe's spread-out rushing attack.  He'll toss it up anywhere from 15-20 times, though, throwing mostly off play-action and roll-outs.

With the Pirates' defense designed to counter speed with speed, look for the astute Wake coaching staff to oppose it with power.

Advantage: Wake

Special teams

The Pirates appear to have a decided advantage on special teams, which likely cost the Deacons a win in week one.  Two blocked kicks and a shanked field goal more than provided the difference for the Huskies last Thursday.

ECU did have a couple of blunders, including a missed extra point by Kevin Miller and a misplay by punt returner Richard Alston that almost cost the Pirates a touchdown.  Chalk both of those up to the weather.

The Pirates' strong kicking game should provide a nice field position advantage, which could loom large in an expected close game.  

Advantage: ECU


It's easy to see both defenses struggling against the schemes they'll be presented.  So suggesting that the ECU-Wake rematch will be high-scoring isn't a stretch.  In a close game with no decided home-field advantage, always go with the team most likely to present the most balance and has the better special teams.  The Pirates have the edge in both facets, and should squeak by with a 31-27 victory.

Denny O'Brien's
C-USA Power Poll

 1. Southern Miss (1-0) - As predicted, the Golden Eagles needed little more than a sleepwalk in week one.  New QB Mickey D'Angelo is an improvement over Jeff Kelly. 

2. Cincinnati (1-0) - Comeback victory over TCU makes the 'Cats a serious C-USA contender.   

3. Memphis (1-0) - We'll find out just how good the Tigers are this week. 

 4. Houston (1-0) - A victory over rival Rice is no small potatoes.  Especially when it's your first in over a year.

5. Louisville (0-1) - BCS or Bust?  Bust.  Unless the O-line shapes up, the Cards could be in for a middle-of-the-pack finish.  Hard to believe, isn't it?

 6. Texas Christian (0-1) - The Frogs were thinking C-USA title with eight minutes to play.  After just one loss, it would be tough to suggest they're out of the title race, but history says they are.     

 7. East Carolina (0-1) - It's tough to evaluate the Pirates based on Saturday's conditions.  But it's easy to drop them three notches after bowing to Duke.

 8. Tulane (1-0) - A win over Southern doesn't warrant a jump.  Beating Houston, however, would mean a big boost.

9. Army (0-0) - Black Knights move up despite the off week.  Considering UAB's performance, it's a good bet they'll stay out of the cellar.

10. UAB (0-1) - There weren't a lot of positives you could find in the Blazers loss to the Gators.  Well, they did make it out alive.

Holy Cross at Army

Head coach Todd Berry insists things are looking up at West Point.  They definitely are in week one.

Army won't have to break a sweat against the Crusaders, which is an unusual situation in West Point these days.  The Black Knights will have the opportunity to do something that hasn't occurred often during Berry's tenure — record a blowout victory.

Berry says new starting quarterback Reggie Nevels reminds him of former ECU star Marcus Crandell.  He'll look very Crandell-esque in a lopsided 40-10 victory.

Tulane at Houston

Considering recent history, it's tough to imagine either Tulane or Houston getting out of the gates at 2-0.  But that will definitely be the case for one of them Saturday.

Houston coach Dana Dimel has found a star-in-the-making in quarterback Barrick Nealy, who shredded the Rice defense for 99-yards rushing and 161-yards (11-15) passing.  The Coogs' new run-pass threat had plenty of help from a resurgent running game, highlighted by running back Joffrey Reynolds' 28-carry, 161-yad performance.

Tulane has plenty of offensive weapons, too, but the defensive advantage would seem to fall toward Houston.  Expect the Cougars to control the clock and the game, 27-17.

Louisville at Duke

And so the streak ends.  Is it time for a different one to begin?


Kentucky may be bottom of the barrel in SEC land, but the Wildcats are much better than Duke.  So is Louisville.

The Devils won't benefit from a rain-soaked field this week, and as bad as the Cardinals' O-Line is, expect major production from Dave Ragone and Co.  Duke QBs Adam Smith and Chris Dapolito should find the going tough against a stingy Louisville secondary -- Cards 34, Duke 10.

Texas Christian at Northwestern

Only an overtime heartbreaker can deliver a more crushing blow than an all-out pummeling.  That's why, with Texas Christian having a short week to prepare, Northwestern could hold a slight mental advantage.

The Wildcats won't hold many more advantages, though, in what appears to be an all-out rebuilding campaign in Evanston.  TCU, on the other hand, is experienced on both sides of the ball and is, without question, much more talented.

The Frogs shouldn't have to break much of a sweat in this one, jumping all over Northwestern, 33-14.

Illinois at Southern Miss

The Kirt Kittner era is officially over in Champaign.  Fighting Illini faithful came to that realization in a 33-20 loss to Missouri last week.

It doesn't get easier for Illinois, which must travel to Hattiesburg to face a Southern Miss team that seems to have found its swagger.  Southern Miss has its best all-around defense in years, and quarterback Mickey D'Angelo is an upgrade in talent under center.

Now-healthy running back Derrick Nix will continue to make up for lost time, finding paydirt early and often, while D'Angelo will continue to cultivate an already beautiful relationship with his receivers.  Meanwhile, Illinois will find the yards tough to come by -- Eagles 30, Illini 16.

Troy State at UAB

It's not exactly the Iron Bowl, but this Battle of 'Bama should be somewhat interesting.

OK, not that interesting.

Watson Brown has more questions than answers this season, and the defense, which has been UAB's stronghold in recent years, is suspect.  Troy State is no pushover, either.  Just ask Mississippi State, which lost to the Trojans last year, and Nebraska, which struggled to a two-touchdown victory last week.

Troy State is the program on the rise in Alabama, while UAB is the program on the decline.  That much will be evident in a 23-17 Trojan victory.

Game of the Week:
Memphis at Ole Miss

Passing yardage won't be in short order in this Mid-South showdown.  Defense, on the other hand, just might be.

Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning is following in his father's footsteps and has the Rebels back in the thick of things in the tough SEC.  The younger brother of Payton, Eli has the same rifle arm possessed by father and sibling, and probably boasts better footwork and pocket presence.

Directly opposite of the latest Manning prodigy will be Danny Wimprine, who shattered the Memphis single-game record for touchdown passes with five.  He seems to have found a steady target in Travis Anglin, who began last season as the Tigers' starting signal caller.

In the end, this one could come down to to which team has the better defense and can achieve the most balance on offense.  On paper, the Tigers appear to hold a slight edge in both areas, which is why they could sneak out of Oxford with a victory, 28-27.

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02/23/2007 01:47:10 AM

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