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Inside Game Day
Thursday, September 5, 2013

By Al Myatt

Hokies on the horizon as win ends brief week

Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

GREENVILLE In a short week after a late night and a 52-38 season-opening win over feisty Old Dominion last Saturday, East Carolina did a good job of recovering and focusing forward in its Conference USA opener on Thursday night at home against new league member Florida Atlantic.

"It was a great challenge for our team," said ECU coach Ruffin McNeill, who improved to 21-19 with the Pirates. "We planned on this from practice in fall camp for the short week. ... They played great on all four sides of the ball: offense, defense, special teams and sidelines."

The Pirates took care of the basics and executed well enough to move to 1-0 in the league standings.

"All wins are big, but winning the first one in conference is very big," McNeill said.

The defense made progress and the offense showed better balance.

"The defense gave us some short fields," said ECU quarterback Shane Carden. "If we keep the offense and defense on the same page, this team can do some good things."

It was a game of segments and ECU won most of them.

The Pirates showed marked improvement in the abbreviated week. But how good has the competition been?

ODU is on the upper end of the spectrum in the Football Championship Subdivision. FAU (0-2) is obviously on the lower rungs in the Football Bowl Subdivision. There is some overlap in competitive level between the two classifications despite the disparity in scholarships.

There is no question that the Pirates face their biggest challenge thus far when Virginia Tech visits Sept. 14. The Hokies provide an indirect measuring stick to the very best in the college game, having lost their opener 35-10 to Alabama, the two-time defending Bowl Championship Series winner and current No. 1.

The Hokies' score with the Tide was deceptive, considering Alabama managed fewer total yards, 206-212.

Special teams play, normally a strong point for Frank Beamer teams, was a factor as Virginia Tech surrendered two scores on special teams returns. The Hokies yielded another score on an interception return.

The good news in terms of the Pirates' preparation is that the short week for FAU becomes a long week leading into the Virginia Tech game. ECU will have two extra days from a regular practice week to fine tune for the Hokies, who host Western Carolina on Saturday.

There was more good news Thursday night.

Here's a look at some of the segments that added up to a 31-13 ECU win.

Too many flags

ECU averaged 4.2 penalties per game last season but had seven against FAU. No doubt McNeill will reinforce the concept of playing smart in the practices ahead as that is one of the cornerstones of his philosophy. Winning the turnover battle is another of his points of emphasis and ECU came out on top there with three takeaways trumping two lost fumbles. The Pirates totaled 44 return yards and 10 points on picks by Maurice Falls and Josh Hawkins.

The Pirates were 5 of 6 on scoring opportunities in the red zone.

Carden was not as prolific as in the season opener but he was accurate and effective as the running game became more productive.

Carden completed 17 of 25 for 191 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Vintavious Cooper netted 95 yards rushing on 20 carries and had five catches for 49 yards, all team highs.

Brandon Williams and Zeek Bigger each had nine tackles to lead the defense.


East Carolina came out in black pants, uniforms and helmets for the start of its last run through Conference USA. It was a new look and there was a new anthem to accompany the Pirates' entrance into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Smoke billowed and ECU emerged from the Murphy Center to the strains of "Back in Black" by AC/DC.

"Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix had been the standard since the Steve Logan coaching era but ECU wasn't wearing purple for the nationally-televised contest on Fox Sports 1.

The fans were certainly on board for the blackout as better than 90 percent appeared to be wearing black shirts.

"Loved the blackout," Carden said. "Loved the fans. Great atmosphere. Great for the players."

Early sparring

The obvious game plan for the Owls was to address ECU's passing game after Carden broke his own school record with 447 yards through the air on a school record 46 completions against Old Dominion just five nights beforehand.

The Owls used man coverage early on and ECU responded by utilizing Cooper on the first two snaps. Cooper had four carries for 23 yards on the Pirates' first possession and the passing game revved up on the initial series as Carden completed 4 of 5 for 59 yards with a third down conversion for 13 yards to Justin Hardy. Carden finished the drive with a 17-yard score to true freshman Davon Grayson.

ECU overcame an illegal procedure penalty and an intentional grounding call after winning the toss and electing to receive. Lance Ray returned the kick to the 19 and the Pirates' efforts at offensive balance took over from there.

Carden said ECU tries to respond to what the defense is giving.

Florida Atlantic managed just 21 total yards on its first two possessions but a sack of Carden and a 20-yard punt return by Robert Lohnes set up a field goal by the Owls that cut ECU's lead to 7-3.

Better tackling needed

The Pirates have been in position to make some plays defensively but have not made tackles. It was a recurring problem against ODU and its quarterback, Taylor Heinicke, last week. It was a factor again on Thursday night. Owls quarterback Jaquez Johnson escaped the clutches of converging Pirates to run for 14 yards on a 3rd-and-17 in the second quarter. The scramble set up a 46-yard field goal by Mitch Anderson and cut ECU's lead to 7-6.

Ray's return

Ray had a 90-yard kickoff return for a score in ECU's 2012 season opener against Appalachian State and seemingly disappeared the remainder of the year.

Ray reappeared on an 85-yard kickoff return after the Owls second field goal, setting up a 1st-and-10 at the FAU 12-yard line. Cooper had an 11-yard burst for 1st-and-goal at the one. An incomplete pass and a rush for no gain preceded a timeout.

Carden hit Justin Hardy for his first touchdown of the season off of play action for a 14-6 lead on Warren Harvey's conversion kick with 10:34 left in the half.

... And a turnover

Falls picked off a Johnson pass in the flat and made an 18-yard return on the first play following Hardy's first scoring grab of the season. Carden engineered a quick 12-yard drive, perceptively checking off to a draw to Cooper that produced a touchdown on a 7-yard run with 9:13 left in the half.

Officials miss

The C-USA officiating crew lost back judge Javarro Edwards for a period due to an injury before Hardy lost a fumble at the FAU 46. The replay showed the Owls defender led with his helmet to Hardy's head on the fumble-causing hit, which is supposed to result in ejection. There was no call on the play but C-USA officiating supervisor Gerald Alston's jaw dropped when he watched the video in the press box. The possession led to the first missed field goal from Anderson from 37 yards.

The attempt hit the left upright and bounced back. Perhaps justice was served.

Anderson missed again from 40 yards with 7:34 to play.

Officials miss, II

After an interception return by Hawkins to the FAU 5-yard line on the Owls' first series of the second half, ECU had to settle for a 22-yard field goal by Harvey for a 24-6 lead.

Two plays before Harvey's chip shot, Hardy snatched a fade pass with his huge right hand and went to the turf with the ball. He appeared to be bouncing to his feet when the ball came out. There was discussion among the officials with the line judge appearing to indicate a catch.

An official behind the play prevailed, even running to referee Ken Antee to politic for his incomplete call before Antee went to converse with the review booth.

Hardy controlled the ball to the ground.

The ruling on the field stood. The replay on the big screen told fans differently. Antee's announcement was met with a chorus of boos.

Strike two for the zebras.

Strike three

The Owls added some respectability to the final score as William Dukes caught a 2-yard scoring pass from Greg Hankerson on a fade with 1:03 left. The Owls went 64 yards in 11 plays against ECU reserves. The Pirates put Justin Dixon, Terry Williams and Lee Pegues in on the defensive front after FAU had driven into goal-to-go position. Their presence shut down the middle and forced the Owls to go up top from close range.

Dukes appeared to be bobbling the ball as he went out of bounds. No replay was shown on the big board and the TD was a long way from impacting the outcome.

An ACC crew may be coming in for the Virginia Tech game. That is often a contract provision when a BCS team goes on the road against a non-BCS program.

Raven Leach gets NFL started

Just after ECU's defense held the Owls on downs at the Pirate 34 late in the third quarter, it was announced in the press box that former ECU standout Vonta Leach had scored the first touchdown of the NFL season for the Baltimore Ravens against the Denver Broncos. Leach finished his Pirate career in 2003 as a running back after starting out at ECU as an linebacker.

Leach was an unsung hero on Baltimore's Super Bowl champions last season.

Hairston gets six

East Carolina running back Chris Hairston has been injured at some critical points early in his career but the sophomore from Winston-Salem got his first touchdown from four yards out to extend the lead to 31-6. Coincidentally, Miami of Florida beat the Owls 31-6 in the season opener for both teams.

A lot of reserves saw action in the late stages on Thursday night. ECU backup quarterback Cody Keith went in for his first snaps on the college level in the fourth quarter. He first two throws were dropped.

Keith got a completion to Cory Hunter later in the final frame but a big gain was nullified by a penalty.

Keith finished with completions on 3 of 5 attempts for 11 yards.

Meager crowd, relatively speaking

A crowd of 37,533 was announced for the game, the smallest at an ECU home game since the Pirates defeated Houston 38-32 for the C-USA championship on Dec. 5, 2009 before a gathering of 33,048, which probably did not include the season ticket base.

There were a lot of empty seats in the corners and the upper deck on Thursday night.

The crowd had thinned considerably by game's end, understandable on a work/school night with people feeling the need to get home at a reasonable hour.

E-mail Al Myatt.

PAGE UPDATED 09/06/13 04:50 AM.

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