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The Big USF vs. East Carolina Preview

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The Pirates have a lot of firepower on offense. Can they hang with the Bulls?

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

Overview

In his five years as head coach of East Carolina, Skip Holtz went 38-27 and went to four bowls. He, of course, got a job with USF.

In six years with ECU-- two of them in a tougher conference-- Ruffin McNeill went 42-34 and went to four bowls. This was apparently grounds for the Pirates to fire him, because he didn't live up to the glorious standard set by His Skippiness, or something.

McNeill's ECU teams were a lot of fun and often quite good-- the 2013 edition went 10-3 and clocked in at 54th in S&P. But after a mediocre 2015 in which the Pirates limped to a 5-7 finish, the administration pulled the plug on the Ruffin era rather abruptly and hired then-Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery. Jury's still out on whether or not Montgomery is an upgrade over McNeill, but he is undoubtedly a really awesome dude.

It's been an up-and-down season for the Pirates thus far, who come into tomorrow's game with one of the stranger 2-3 records you'll see. ECU has...

- Trounced Western Carolina, who we know is capable of giving FBS schools trouble, 52-7!
- Followed that up with a thrilling 33-30 win over an NC State team that's looking pretty good this year!
- Lost to a rebuilding Will Muschamp-coached South Carolina on the road.
- Got obliterated by Virginia Tech, 54-17.
- Outplayed UCF for much of their conference opener, but committed three turnovers and totally collapsed after losing QB Philip Nelson to an undisclosed injury after a huge hit.

ECU has at times looked liked the best team in the AAC East, and at others looked like they'll be lucky to win another game this year. The version of ECU that the Bulls see tomorrow is largely dependent on Nelson's health. Nelson just returned to practice yesterday and is still listed as "probable" for the game.

Peripherals

Team S&P (Overall) S&P (USF O vs. ECU D) S&P (ECU O vs. USF D) S&P (ST)
USF 33 15 80 16
ECU 81 83 61 126

The Bulls have graded out significantly better than the Pirates thus far, though they aren't terribly different in a lot of aspects. Both have struggled to get pressure on the quarterback (ECU ranks 87th nationally in Havoc Rate, which measures how often the defense is able to force a disruptive play; USF ranks 97th) and put a lot of pressure on their defensive back seven to perform, and both have had to lean on their offense in the early going while their defense learns the ropes. Of course, the huge difference between the two is that only one has been effective running the ball.

When ECU Runs...

Team Rushing S&P Rushing Efficiency Rushing Explosiveness
ECU Offense 75 111 30
USF Defense 77 76 31

To say that ECU has struggled running the ball lately would be a massive understatement. Here are the Pirates' rushing numbers from their last three games:

vs. South Carolina: 33 rushes, 119 yards (3.6 ypc)
vs. Virginia Tech: 35 rushes, 81 yards (2.3)
vs. UCF: 32 rushes, 33 yards (1.0)

Pretty terrible. It's not like the options are horrendous, either: junior Anthony Scott is a decent, if unspectacular back, and James Summers, who started last year's game against USF at quarterback, has been effective as a runner in 2016. Scott and Summers are good athletes who have the ability to break a big play-- they've just gotten very little help from their offensive line.

To ECU's credit, they've attempted to limit the effects of their poor running game by attempting to run the ball as little as possible. The Pirates run just 41.1% of the time on standard downs, which is the fourth-lowest total in FBS. This offense-- and this team, really-- goes as the passing game goes.

Of course, these are all moot points if the USF defense plays like butt against the run again. This is a caveat that must be added until USF proves that the FSU game was an aberration, but ECU might have the worst rushing attack USF will face all season. I don't hate the Bulls' chances here.

When ECU Passes...

Team Passing S&P Passing Effiency Passing Explosiveness
ECU Offense 9 66 79
USF Defense 55 77 17

As horrendous as the Pirates have been on the ground, they've been equally impressive through the air. Much of that is due to the success of Philip Nelson, a former Minnesota QB who transferred to Rutgers, then was dismissed from the program for a genuinely awful assault case that raises the question of whether or not he should be playing football right now. Regardless, Nelson has done well in Montgomery's up-tempo system that stresses a lot of short passes and easy reads-- he's completed 70% of his passes to date, with eleven touchdowns and just four interceptions. If he's 100% on Saturday, the Pirates will be able to move the ball through the air. The only team to keep Nelson in check so far has been Virginia Tech, and he still threw for 362 yards on them.

If Nelson can't go-- I have a feeling he will, for what it's worth-- the Pirates will turn to JUCO transfer Gardner Minshew, who took over for Nelson in the third quarter of the UCF game and was largely ineffective. Minshew's first pass went for a 75-yard touchdown to pull the Pirates within two points of the Knights... but then he went 11-for-26 for 117 yards and two interceptions the rest of the way, and the UCF outscored ECU 24-8 from that point on. Life comes at you fast.

Whoever gets the start will have the benefit of a very impressive receiving corps, including the absolutely ridiculous Zay Jones, who has 66 receptions already in five games, and is on pace to shatter a whole bunch of NCAA records. ECU's offense is basically predicated on feeding Jones the ball in away way possible, and it often works-- he's averaging around 16 receptions for 147 yards (!!!!!!!!!!) in his last three games. The Pirates will throw screens to Jones like there is no tomorrow, so you can't really gameplan to "stop" him, just try to limit his yards after catch.

The biggest beneficiary of a volume receiver, of course, is the receiver on the other side of the field. With defenses tuned in on stopping Jones, senior Jimmy Williams has totaled a remarkable 467 yards on just 19 catches, good for 24.6 yards per reception. ECU has a lot of weapons and is almost certainly going to put up points-- they just need a steady hand throwing them the ball. If Nelson is healthy, they have that.

When USF Runs...

Team Rushing S&P Rushing Efficiency Rushing Explosiveness
USF Offense 45 46 23
ECU Defense 96 29 124

Teams have been able to run the ball against this ECU front without much trouble. UCF put up 217 yards and four touchdowns on the ground last week, and NC State eclipsed the 200 yard mark earlier in the season on a healthy 6.9 yards per carry. If the Pirates have any prayer of stopping the USF offense, they'll need to win the battles in the trenches on first downs, forcing the Bulls into obvious passing downs. Teams have been able to slow USF a little bit on standard downs this year, but the Bulls been so explosive and capable of gaining chunk yardage that it hasn't really mattered. If ECU can force USF into a shootout (very possible!) and successfully sell out against the run (much more challenging, but still possible), they've got a shot to hang. But no one apart from FSU has been able to do that yet.

When USF Passes...

Team Passing S&P Passing Efficiency Passing Explosiveness
USF Offense 65 73 2
ECU Defense 90 62 102

This looks like the type of defense that Quinton Flowers and company would love to go up against. The Pirates struggle getting a pass rush, and as such have been prone to getting picked apart by long pass plays. Sound like an offense you know?

As per usual, USF's sustained success through the air really depends on Flowers' accuracy. He was tremendous against Cincinnati, showing that he's capable of hitting the intermediate throws that many of us had just sort of written off for the rest of the season. All FBS teams not named UCF have been able to move the ball in chunk plays against the Pirates pretty successfully, so there's a golden opportunity tomorrow for Q to have one of his best games of the season. The throws will almost certainly be there; he just has to make them.

Summary & Prediction

There are two ways that I can see this game going, and both rely on very simple variables.

If Philip Nelson plays, the Pirates will be able to move the ball. USF will almost certainly be able to move the ball too, and we'll be in for a shootout a la what we saw against Cincinnati last week. The Bulls' defense eventually stiffened, forced some turnovers and pulled away late, but the 45-20 final score didn't quite seem to sum up how much of an exercise in anxiety that game was. ECU could engage the Bulls in a similar game, with both offenses going back and forth until one of them breaks serve. USF would probably win this sort of game as they did against Cincy, but it leaves too much up to chance for me to be entirely comfortable with it-- a couple turnovers, and all of a sudden ECU's in the driver's seat, with a super-talented quarterback to boot.

Virginia Tech showed that if you can get pressure on Nelson and otherwise clamp down on a pretty sorry run game, you can shut down the ECU offense, but I don't trust the Bulls' defense to effectively do either of those things. If Minshew is forced into action, though, the task because significantly easier.

At the end of the day, there are five main aspects of football (rushing offense, passing offense, rushing defense, passing defense, and special teams). ECU is mediocre-to-horrible at four of them. USF is by far the more well-rounded team, and I think they'll find a way to pull away in this one regardless of who gets the nod at QB for the Pirates.

USF 41, ECU 21