East Carolina has always been a bit foolishly optimistic about their place in the world of college football. Yes, they have an unusually large fan base for a school of their stature, surrounded by basketball schools and urban universities that struggle to get people to come to games. Still, they’re in Greenville, North Carolina, which is of absolutely no interest to modern TV networks.
This hasn’t stopped ECU from lobbying and begging and groveling to join a better conference than the one they were in since, oh, let’s say forever. ECU (and I’m talking about both the fans and the actual institution) have been trying to weasel their way into the ACC for a long time. Last year they got really desperate and tried to latch on to West Virginia as a possible travel partner for the Big XII if they had chosen to expand. They also made a hilarious claim that they could deliver the whole state of North Carolina, you know, except for the four ACC schools in that state. Amazingly their plan did not work, and they were eliminated long before the conference decided not to expand at all.
That kind of misguided optimism extends to the football program. After six relatively successful years under ECU alumnus Ruffin McNeill, athletic director Jeff Compher fired him after the 2015 season. In 2013 the Pirates had finished 10-3, their first season with double-digit wins since 1991. The next year they won at Virginia Tech, hung 70 on North Carolina, and spent over a month ranked in the AP top 25. But a 5-7 record in 2015 was apparently enough for Compher to arrogantly make a change. Among the quotes he gave at the time were:
Winning conference championships. I think those are the things that I feel we’re striving to do as a program. Our football team and everything about it should be moving in that direction. Based on my assessment of the situation, it was not heading in that direction.
But please understand, this isn’t just a monetary decision, this is about the direction of our program and the prospects of future success.
I know we're not about excuses. We're about production. That's really important. This is about being competitive and moving towards championships regardless of the obstacles.
Compher hired former Duke assistant Scottie Montgomery, only to watch his gamble backfire horribly. The Pirates were 3-9 last year and pretty visibly quit on the season before it ended. (Also there was a little bit of bad blood between other coaches and Compher, as evidenced by Willie Taggart unsuccessfully trying to run up the score on ECU in last year’s meeting.) This year ECU is even worse, and teams are practically lining up to dunk on them.
Let’s look at their statistical profile. One big caveat: This does not include any data from ECU’s improbable 41-38 win over UConn on Sunday. But UConn is ranked even lower than they are, so these numbers probably haven’t gotten a whole lot better.
|S&P+ (USF O vs. ECU D)
|S&P+ (ECU O vs. ECU D)
East Carolina’s offense is not good, and their defense is absolutely abysmal. They let UConn gain almost 600 yards on them on Sunday! Yeah, that UConn! The one coached by Randy Edsall! The real issue is the total lack of experience and continuity in the Pirates defense.
In attempting to diagnose ECU's defensive problems. An in-depth look at the depth chart shows a lot (lack of continuity, attrition, etc.) pic.twitter.com/juUYXEZ0yo— Stephen Igoe (@StephenIgoe) September 27, 2017
That defense should get better with reps, but it won’t happen by Saturday.
When East Carolina Runs...
|Rushing Success Rate
Before last week’s game, ECU had about the worst rushing offense in the country. That hasn’t changed a whole lot even after their win over UConn, because while the Pirates ran for 170 yards, it took them 47 carries to do it. Their leading rusher is Tyshon Dye, a graduate transfer from Clemson who has just 124 yards in four games.
While we’re here, what a weird stat profile USF’s run defense has. They’re #1 in stuff rate and success rate, but #123 in run explosiveness. So basically they’ll get you in the backfield a lot, but if they don’t you have a chance to pop a big one. Or the numbers are just skewed by two long TD runs the Bulls allowed to Stony Brook and Illinois.
When East Carolina Passes...
|Passing Success Rate
New starting quarterback Thomas Sirk, who transferred from Duke, went off against UConn, throwing for 426 yards and three touchdowns. It was a massive improvement from his two earlier performances, where he completed barely half his passes and tossed four interceptions. Without Zay Jones around to target 30 times a game, the Pirates have spread the targets around a bit more. Davon Grayson had a monster game on Sunday, making 11 catches for 223 yards and all three of Sirk’s touchdowns.
USF’s pass defense has been about a million times better than it was last year, but this might be a bit of a test.
When USF Runs...
|Rushing Success Rate
USF’s running game lacks the explosiveness and consistency it had last year. Not having Marlon Mack anymore is one factor, but too often they’ve replaced good play selection and execution with “let’s snap it real fast and run it up the middle and see if we catch them off guard.” That’s one reason why their stuff rate (the number of times a run is stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage) is so bad. Fortunately ECU’s run defense is an abomination, so it may not matter this week.
The big tackling threat is Jordan Williams, who already has 44 on the season, but only one TFL.
When USF Passes...
|Passing Success Rate
So far USF’s passing offense has been boom or bust. Quinton Flowers has not thrown the ball well at times, but when he does complete passes they usually go for big chunks of yards. Meanwhile, ECU let Bryant Shirreffs throw for 406 yards on them last week. What I’m saying is, their pass defense is not good. They have a total of four sacks (Kiante Anderson has 2.5 of those) and two interceptions through four games. USF should have a lot of open receivers as long as Flowers can get them the ball.
Summary and Prediction
USF still has a lot of things to work on, like offensive execution, line play, and avoiding penalties. But even if those things are subpar this week, they still should win pretty easily. East Carolina is simply terrible. They may improve down the road with more reps and growing together as a team, but right now they aren’t ready to compete against most FBS opponents (except, again, UConn). The Bulls should win this in a walk as long as they play reasonably well.