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12 Up, 12 Down: East Carolina Pirates

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Last year’s game in Greenville was an offensive feast for the Bulls, but the Pirates aren’t the doormat they were then. How do the two teams match up this time?

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

Goofing on East Carolina is a TDS tradition. This really isn’t the time for any of that, though. The school resumed classes on Wednesday and it looks like Greenville made it through Hurricane Florence relatively well, but not far south of there it’s a total catastrophe.

If you can find a local charity in eastern North Carolina that is trying to help people in need, please send something their way. I’m not a fan of just chucking money at the Red Cross because who knows where it will end up. If you want to help ECU’s community effort, the university is putting together a relief fund and several programs to help people recover and rebuild.


Let’s move on to football. ECU’s game at Virginia Tech last Saturday was called off. Instead of hanging around Greenville and potentially having no way to get out of town after the storm passed, the team decamped to Orlando so they’d be easily able to get to Saturday night’s game in Tampa. This may be an advantage for the Pirates, who ended up with extra time to prepare for the USF game. On the other hand, being about 600 miles from home with their normal routines disrupted may not have been that much help.

After the Pirates lost to FCS North Carolina A&T on the opening weekend, complete with a Benny Hill ending, it was looking like a question of when Scottie Montgomery would lose his job, not if. But for the first time in a long time, ECU circled the wagons and put a 41-19 hurting on North Carolina on September 8. The Pirates still have a long way to go, but was that win over the Tar Heels the start of something? Or is UNC just really, really bad?

Let’s dig into the advanced stats and see what we can learn about the Pirates.

Team S&P+ (Overall) S&P+ (USF O vs. ECU D) S&P+ (ECU O vs. USF D) S&P+ (ST)
USF 38 33 61 118
ECU 112 112 84 12

While we’ve started including the advanced stats as of this week, keep in mind the sample sizes are very small. Even more so for the Pirates, who have only played two games while most everyone else has three. Anyway, S&P+ doesn’t think too highly of ECU, mostly because of their dreadful offensive performance against NC A&T.

P.S. How bad have USF’s special teams been if they’ve run two kickoffs back for touchdowns and they’re still ranked #118? The punting and kickoffs have been horrible, and the placekicking has been mediocre. That’s how.

When East Carolina Runs...

Team Rushing Efficiency Run Explosiveness Stuff Rate
ECU Offense 109 39 126
USF Defense 106 76 77

The Pirates haven’t run the football very well so far this year. Primary backs Anthony Brown and Hussein Howe are both averaging under 4 yards a carry, and only changes of pace Darius Pinnix and Holton Ahlers have shown any explosiveness. Ahlers, a true freshman 236-pound backup quarterback playing college ball in his hometown, made his first appearance of the season against UNC in a Blake Bell/Tyrone Swoopes kind of role and ran for two touchdowns.

USF’s run defense stat profile is going to be skewed for a long time because they faced a triple option team. Their performance against Illinois last week is more relevant. After really struggling in the first quarter, the Bulls figured out the Illini running game and bottled it up nicely.

When East Carolina Passes...

Team Passing Efficiency Passing Explosiveness Sack Rate
ECU Offense 99 103 22
USF Defense 48 42 3

If there’s one thing ECU has been able to do well even during these last few years, it’s throw the ball. While it’s only been two games, this year has been a bit of a dropoff, mainly because the quarterback options are a lot narrower than they have been. Thomas Sirk and Philip Nelson graduated, and Gardner Minshew left for Washington State, which basically forced the Pirates to go with sophomore Reid Herring. His completion rate isn’t great, but when he does complete passes he spreads them out well. Trevon Brown, Blake Proehl, Terrell Green, and Deondre Farrier all have between 10 and 12 receptions so far.

Again with USF’s defensive rankings, you have to take them with a grain of salt. The Bulls haven’t faced a competent passing attack yet. Whether Herring and ECU will be the first remains to be seen.

When USF Runs...

Team Rushing Efficiency Run Explosiveness Stuff Rate
USF Offense 20 24 27
ECU Defense 30 49 10

The USF running game has been completely different than last year. Instead of being very explosive but prone to getting stuffed, now the Bulls don’t break many big runs but grind out consistent gains. #HBDive is OK when #HBDive is actually working for 5 yards a clip. That’s how the running game is supposed to work in this offense. Blake Barnett has also proven he’s more than capable of pulling the ball and running it himself, adding a dimension to the rushing attack that didn’t look like it would be there when fall camp started.

ECU’s defense has been miles better than last year. Their run profile was helped a little bit by North Carolina having to give up on the run in the second half of their game. But they’ve been pretty stout along the defensive line so far. Defensive end Nate Harvey already has 5.5 TFL and 7 run stuffs in two games. The Bulls might want to not run at him.

When USF Passes...

Team Passing Efficiency Passing Explosiveness Sack Rate
USF Offense 11 76 57
ECU Defense 56 47 110

Like the Pirates, USF has done very well spreading the ball out to their receivers. Tyre McCants, Randall St. Felix, Mitchell Wilcox, and Darnell Salomon are all over 10 receptions. Wilcox actually leads all FBS tight ends with 182 receiving yards. After a year of underuse, Sterlin Gilbert and Barnett have done very well to get him the ball in a system where tight ends don’t always have a lot to do.

You can hit a big play on the ECU pass defense. However, you don’t want to fall behind the chains on them, because they’ve had a lot of success so far in third and long early in the season. Another thing to watch out for — the Pirates don’t have any interceptions yet, but they do have 12 pass breakups in two games. Eventually they’re going to start picking some of these off.

Prediction

The Bulluminati may disagree, but I think East Carolina is getting better. They probably won’t make up the Virginia Tech game and their conference schedule is nasty. (They draw both Houston and Memphis in the West, in addition to this game and the one against C.) The improvement may not show up in the final record this season, but they are improving and they are definitely not the worst team in the East Division. Add in the rest/preparation advantage and a sizable special teams advantage, and this could be a closer game than most USF fans think it will be. I’m very confident USF’s offense will pace them to victory here, but I certainly don’t see a blowout or another 60-burger happening.

USF 37, East Carolina 21


P.S. I write the trivia questions for our home game ticket giveaways, so if you want to know the answers...

  1. USF is 7-1 against East Carolina. Wins in 2002-04, 2006 (bowl), and 2015-17, with a loss in 2014. The only teams USF has beaten more often than ECU are Syracuse (8) and UConn (10).
  2. Blackwell threw for five touchdowns in that game, a record he still holds by himself. He threw one to Hugh Smith, one to DeAndrew Rubin, two to Vince Brewer, and one to Huey Whittaker.
  3. Ironically, East Carolina beat the Miami Hurricanes 27-23. It was one of five wins the Pirates claimed over BCS opponents in 1999 (the others were West Virginia, South Carolina, Duke, and NC State). After beating Miami, the Pirates entered the AP Top 25 and stayed there for the rest of the regular season, finishing the year 9-3.