Conference play is in full swing and USF faces the best team in the AAC this Saturday night. East Carolina is riding a wave of great wins over Virginia Tech, UNC and SMU. They look poised to win the conference and land a nice bowl game, unless someone can spoil their season. To that end, the bye last week could not have come at a better time because it gave the team two weeks to prepare for the Pirates, and it gave Andre Davis enough time to heal and finally return to the field. Todd Chandler will also be back for this game.
So the thing to know about East Carolina is that their head coach spent 10 seasons at Texas Tech in various roles. This means that he runs an Air Raid Offense. You've seen it before: Baylor and Texas A&M also use it. Basically it means that the quarterback is always in the shotgun, generally with four wide outs and a running back, and he almost always intends to pass the ball. The receivers run various routes to spread out the secondary, and most plays involve at least one receiver going deep. The quarterback gets his pick of what to do with the ball, including dumping it to the running back (or scrambling, if it's Johnny Manziel we're talking about). About 75% of Air Raid plays are passes, so it takes a smart quarterback to pull it off.
The Air Raid is pretty much the opposite of USF's power run scheme. The Bulls follow the conventional wisdom of running first to establish a ground threat, then mixing in passes to get the defense on its heels. Air Raiders don't worry about that, they just keep passing and passing, trying to get big chunks of yardage on every play.
The difference between the Bull and Pirate offenses is pretty clear from the stats. USF's yardage is split down the middle: roughly half of the yards come from passing and half from rushing. Less than 33% of ECU's yards come on the ground. Unfortunately, it appears that the Pirates are much better at their style of offense than the Bulls are at theirs. USF averages 283 total yards per game, and ECU averages 581. Yes, it takes USF two full games to approach the yardage that ECU is getting every week.
ECU averages 396 passing yards per game, while USF averages 148.
Pirate quarterback Shane Carden is a senior who has been ECU's starter for three seasons now. He is the sixth most prolific passer in the country with 1,879 passing yards. All of this passing is why the Bulls' defense has been working on open field tackling for the last two weeks. ECU will throw it and their receivers will catch it, so the secondary cannot miss tackles and still win this game.
Three ECU receivers have more yards than Rodney Adams, the Bulls' leader. Justin Hardy has 479 receiving yards, Isaiah Jones has 453 and Trevon Brown has 249. Rodney Adams' 204 receiving yards seem pretty flat in comparison. However, Mike White will finally have Andre Davis to throw to against ECU, so hopefully the numbers will look better Saturday night.
USF's average defensive lineman is 6-2/287; ECU's average offensive lineman is 6-5/299.
The Bull pass rushers will probably be able to get to Carden and knock him around a little, which is important to do against a good passer. If he has enough time to throw comfortably on every play, the Bulls will be in trouble. Carden is pretty mobile, he rolls out and eludes tacklers well, and his linemen move with him. USF Defensive Coordinator Bresnahan even said of Carden, "you're not going to sack him." Hopefully they can knock him down a few times and throw him off of his rhythm.
Defense: USF allows 392 yards per game and ECU allows 367.
Overall, the defensive matchup is fairly equal. ECU's run defense is the sixth best in the country, allowing just 106 rushing yards per game, so that will be a problem for Mack and company. USF will need more than 106 rushing yards to win this one. What may give USF's defense the edge is its ability to cause turnovers (12 so far this year). This week Bresnahan outlined the turnover situation like this: "I believe that [turnovers are] the most important statistic, other than points allowed, in football . . . we really haven't done a good enough job since Maryland. We got six turnovers with Maryland and then since then it's one or two per game; we've got to get back on a roll. This is an offense that, with the ball being thrown around the field, you do have some opportunities . . . we've got to make [turnovers] an advantage for us."
Kloss is 7 of 8 in field goals, ECU's Warren Harvey is 5 of 8.
Once again, if this game were to come down to special teams, the Bulls would have it easily. Kloss is currently the 12th best field goal kicker in the nation and Ciabatti's average punt is up to 45.4 yards, good enough for 11th in the nation. Chris Dunkley has chalked up 333 yards returning kicks and has us on the edges of our seats every time he almost breaks away and runs one back. No ECU players approach the success we have found with special teams.
To counter the pessimism that these statistics may have given you, consider this: USF has home field advantage, healthy players, nice weather, Marlon Mack, and a history of upsetting ranked teams. So, think happy thoughts and enjoy the rest of homecoming.