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Bulls Recon: Scouting The Pirates With Underdog Dynasty

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We get the lowdown on the Pirates from someone who watches them all the time.

NCAA Football: Central Florida at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Underdog Dynasty is SB Nation’s home for all Group of Five Schools that aren’t #MACtion or #TheMWC and who don’t have their own blog on the network. Fortunately for you, you do. Feel special.

We chatted with UDD’s ECU scribe Bubba Rosenbaum about the new look Pirates, hurricanes, the band protest, and everything else around the Homecoming game for the Bulls.

The season started very strong for ECU. Nice win at home vs. NC State, close loss on the road to BDWM (Big Dumb Will Muschamp). But the last two weeks saw two pretty bad performances vs. Va. Tech & C.Florida. What's changed?

While the loss at South Carolina was close (20-15), the Pirates' deficiencies were exposed in that near miss against the Gamecocks. Special teams' play has been atrocious and turnovers have been an issue. An 80-yard kickoff return and a fumble led to short fields and a 17-0 USC lead less than seven minutes in. Then, ECU's comeback attempt fell short because of a variety of reasons—but none more apparent than its inability to cash in when in the red zone. The Pirates were only 2 for 6 inside the Gamecocks’ 20-yard line and scored just a single touchdown. These results were due to three turnovers, a chip shot field goal getting blocked and the inability to run the football.

Those issues, as well as others, have become more glaring over the last two weeks with the losses at Virginia Tech and against UCF.

Offensively, the ground game has been non-existent as ECU mustered just 33 yards on 32 attempts versus UCF after putting up a very misleading 81 yards against Virginia Tech (The Pirates had less than 40 yards midway through fourth quarter). Both the Hokies and Knights dominated the line of scrimmage. Pass protection has also been very poor, as a combined 11 sacks (6 vs. VT and 5 vs. UCF) were surrendered in those games.

Defensively, the pass defense has been the weakest link. The Pirates have produced very little pass rush—as they have just ONE sack through five games—and that’s placed a tremendous strain on a youthful secondary.

Most every aspect of the kicking game hasn’t performed well either. The Pirates have allowed kickoff returns of 80 and 100-plus yards while struggling to get returns back to the 25. This inability to cover forced ECU to squib kick it against UCF, but even those were executed poorly and resulted in a significant loss in field position.

Virginia Tech returned a punt 87 yards for a score, blocked another and tackled the punter for a 15-yard loss. The Hokies, like the Gamecocks, blocked a chip shot field goal.

Punter Worth Gregory was expected to be a strength, but has really struggled thus far and punted a free kick just 30 yards and out of bounds last week versus UCF.

Philip Nelson: will he go this week? And if he doesn't, what will the Pirates try and do differently in his place with Gardner Minshew?

Philip Nelson left the game during the second half against UCF with an undisclosed injury that was likely a concussion. He has attended practice, but has not suited up yet this week. He could very well miss this week, but Coach Mo isn’t saying much other than “they’re optimistic”.

As far as the game plan with Gardner Minshew, it would be very similar to what it would be with Nelson per offensive coordinator Tony Petersen after Tuesday’s practice. A difference may be that the USF defense wouldn’t have to worry as much about Minshew being a threat in the run game since he doesn’t possess the running ability and athleticism of Nelson.

Zay Jones has 66 catches already this season for 695 yards. Jimmy Williams looks like the deep threat. Who else does USF need to be aware of in the receiving corps?

Jimmy Williams has definitely emerged as the deep threat and is averaging nearly 25 yards per catch. Against Virginia Tech he had two touchdowns over 70 yards and he had seven catches for 150 yards with a long of 50 last week against the Knights.

Additionally, Quay Johnson—the team’s second leading receiver in terms of receptions—has hauled in 30 receptions for 321 yards. While many of these have come in the screen game, he did turn a comeback route into a 75-yard touchdown last week.

Deondre Farrier, a redshirt freshman, was highly touted out of high school and started to make an impact over the last three games.

Running backs Anthony Scott (19-152-3) and Devin Anderson (7-50-1) are utilized a lot in the passing game via various screens.

The rushing attack is averaging 3.8 yards per carry this season, and had 32 rushes for 33 yards against C.Florida last week. What's the reason behind the struggle to run the ball?

The run game was a real weak point on last year’s team and there has been little to no improvement this season.

With the staff change, an increased emphasis was placed on ground game by head coach Scottie Montgomery, OC Tony Petersen and OL coach Geep Wade.

While there is a new scheme in place, I would say the lack of success stems even more from personnel.

ECU will use a variety of pistol sets and attempt to get the ball in James Summers hands in a number of ways such as designed quarterback runs, jet sweeps and screen passes.

ECU is 110th out of 128 schools in yards per play allowed at 6.4, and 127th in sack percentage at 0.88%. Is this defense that bad? What's the strongest and weakest unit?

East Carolina’s turnover problems and special teams’ issues have placed the defense in some difficult situations to say the least.

That said, the Pirate defense certainly has plenty of issues. There is not much depth in the front seven and the unit is even more thin now that nose tackle Demetri McGill is out. McGill was injured against the Hokies, missed last week and will not be able to go against the Bulls.

As mentioned earlier, the pass rush has produced just one sack thus far and not many hurries. That has placed a young and inexperienced secondary in some tough spots. Starting corner Corey Seargent, ECU’s best, is also questionable for the USF game.

Thoughts on how your school has reacted, both fans and administration, to the band protest during the national anthem last week?

As ugly as it was on the field in the 47-29 loss to UCF, much of the attention in the media and otherwise was directed toward what occurred during the national anthem and halftime performance of the Marching Pirates.

Somewhere between 15 and 20 band members chose to take a knee to protest recent events involving police and various other issues they feel exist in our nation. Some of the students played the anthem and there were those who did not.

Those individuals were booed loudly in both instances.

While there are undoubtedly issues that need to be addressed in our country, I felt that it was the wrong time and place to attempt to exercise their First Amendment rights. If the protest was done peacefully on campus, I wouldn’t have had an issue. However, I strongly objected since they chose to neglect their band’s code of conduct and the protesting was done during our national anthem.

As far as how our institution responded, I was glad that the powers that be in the music department released a letter addressing the issue and assured that band members wouldn’t participate in such a protest again without consequences.

Additionally, AD Jeff Compher issued a statement and explained how conversations were had with the Marching Pirates’ leadership to make sure everyone was on the same page moving forward.

Coincidentally, the Pirates will host Navy in their next home game on Thursday, October 13.

With the Big XII already saying no, what is the realistic long-term expectations for ECU football? What should be the definition of success?

Without P5 status, there are certainly a lot more hurdles for ECU to have to negotiate as far as lack of TV revenue and the impact that has on the athletic department’s budget.

ECU has always been a program that has embraced doing more with less and ridden its passionate fan base.

Obviously, the stars have to align perfectly in order for the Pirates to have any shot whatsoever at making the playoff and we could get a good gauge on whether it could potentially happen this year with league mate Houston.

I believe that the program has enough going for it that it can realistically expect to compete for AAC titles in most seasons and that annual bowl trips should be the norm with there now being more than 40 bowls.

If the program is consistently competitive—both in the AAC and against a challenging but not daunting non-conference slate—and also winning an average of eight games per season, I would consider it to be a successful one.

We’ve learned that you never know when a conference shake-up might occur so ECU just needs to WIN and hope that it will get the attention of the Power 5 leagues.

The Pirates have had their share of eye-opening wins, but haven’t capitalized on a lot of opportunities to post 10-12 win seasons rather than 8-9 win campaigns.

Prediction for the game? Feel free to throw in a weather prediction as well if you don't think it gets played. Any chance ECU can charter down here tomorrow instead of Friday?

It appears that the weather on the Gulf Coast may allow this game to be played if Matthew will allow the Pirates to make the trek to Tampa.

I have spoken to another well-connected ECU writer and he hasn’t heard of any adjustments to the travel plan as of yet.

As far as the game itself, I expect the Bulls to win comfortably.

I would be surprised if USF doesn’t win by at least two touchdowns and wouldn’t be shocked if the game is a blowout.

This ECU team has so many question marks and really isn’t playing winning football in hardly any facet.

If the Pirates are going to pull the substantial road upset, they will have to tighten the screws on their special teams, red zone woes and inability to run the football. Gardner Minshew may very well be the starter at quarterback and if ECU could muster some semblance of a ground game against a suspect Bulls’ run D that would be a huge asset in multiple ways.