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Thursday, September 5, 2013

By Denny O'Brien

ECU defense finds some black magic

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

GREENVILLE – Maybe East Carolina should have unveiled its black uniforms sooner.

Judging by the way the defense performed in the Pirates' 31-13 victory over Florida Atlantic Thursday night, maybe their black gear rubbed a little magic into that often criticized group. Given how it performed in the season opener, that theory doesn't seem that big of a stretch.

The Pirates needed a defensive lift given the degree to which the ECU offense sputtered against FAU. Aside from touchdown drives of 81 and 67 yards, the Pirates never found much offensive rhythm, thanks partially to seven penalties and two turnovers.

It was a night when East Carolina took a couple of surprising steps forward on defense, followed by a puzzling step back on offense.

Had the defense and special teams not bailed the offense out, this one would have been far more competitive than it was. Perhaps the midweek pep talk by senior safety Damon Magazu lit a charge into the resurgent ECU D.

“One of our leaders, Magazu, brought the defense together and had a meeting,” junior outside linebacker Maurice Falls said. “We all agreed with that. We came out this week and had fun.

“We made all of our assignments and did our jobs. We wanted to force turnovers and get our offense back on the field. When our offense is on the field, there's a good chance we're going to score.”

There is little debate that the offense the Pirates faced Thursday was a step back from Old Dominion. The Owls lacked both the personnel and scheme of ODU, and the Pirates were in complete control from the opening snap.

The Pirates brought pressure, covered well, and demonstrated better ball pursuit. They collected six sacks, forced three turnovers, and gave the offense favorable field position throughout the game.

As for those third down situations that were seemingly automatic for the Monarchs in the opener? Completely different story this time around, as the Pirates controlled possession plays throughout the night.

The end result was a defensive performance that limited the Owls to only 282 yards, 124 of which occurred in the fourth quarter after ECU had emptied its bench. The Owls' lone touchdown came long after most had lost interest.

Credit defensive coordinator Rick Smith for devising a sound game plan that grounded the Owls for most of the night. He prepared a package of blitzes that sent defenders from multiple angles and generated confusion for both FAU Qbs.

“Rick has been known for takeaways,” Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said. “Tonight, we did a good job of that. We got three.

“It was big. If we can give our offense two to three extra possessions, which we did tonight, that's always a benefit to our football team.”

A critical one, too.

East Carolina's offense managed only 312 yards on 64 plays, both numbers representing a significant step back from the season opener. The Pirates also converted only five of 13 third down opportunities, and repeatedly demonstrated an inability to extend drives.

If there was a glaring defensive weakness Thursday, it was the Pirates' inability at times to bring Owls quarterbacks to the ground when they otherwise had them corralled. It resulted in several missed opportunities to produce negative yardage, though it didn't inflict much damage to ECU.

But the Pirates can't afford similar mistakes against better opponents, like the Virginia Tech team they will face next week. The Hokies have far better personnel than FAU and most likely will make similar mistakes bite ECU.

Given where the Pirates were last week, Thursday night's errors seem more manageable for McNeill and his staff. If East Carolina can make the same degree of improvement next week, it has a legitimate chance of beating Virginia Tech — providing the offense shows up.

The good news for ECU is that the defense did Thursday night.

E-mail Denny O'Brien

PAGE UPDATED 09/06/13 04:20 AM.

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