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View from the 'ville
Thursday, November 16, 2006

By Al Myatt

Owls overshadow Pack on ECU's priority list

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There is quite a contrast in terms of East Carolina's last two regular-season games in the 2006 season.
There will be no shortage of emotion in a couple of weeks when East Carolina visits N.C. State. All the Pirates need in terms of motivation will be provided by a vociferous sea of red and the implications of a regional rivalry when ECU takes the field at Carter-Finley Stadium.

The trip to Raleigh is a scant 85 miles, a stroll across the street compared to the trip of almost 1,300 miles for this week's game with Rice in Houston. The Wolfpack drew 56,837 for its last home game. The Owls drew 10,153.

Rice Stadium seats 70,000, which means every Rice student in the enrollment of 4,785 could bring 10 friends to the ECU game and the Owls wouldn't have as many fans as are typically on hand for an N.C. State game.

ECU has struggled at times when the game atmosphere has provided little in terms of external stimulation. Pirates senior cornerback Kasey Ross insists that won't be the case when ECU plays the Owls.

"This is it," Ross said. "If you can't get up for this game here, it's like Coach (Skip Holtz) said, 'It doesn't matter how many people are in the stands, where we're playing or who we're playing, we've just got to go out and sustain intensity every week.'

"It's the biggest game on the schedule because it's the next one on the schedule and a lot can go down the drain from this game. Yeah, North Carolina State is a state rivalry and everything but this game (Rice) means a lot to me as a senior in my last go around."

The State game will be about bragging rights. The Rice game is about a championship. East Carolina, 5-2 in Conference USA, can lock up the East Division title and play Houston for the league title on Dec. 1 with a win on Saturday.

The Pirates haven't won a conference championship since the 1976 team, coached by Pat Dye, captured the Southern Conference title. ECU has had seven wins in 16 games with the Wolfpack since that historical milestone was passed.

The Pirates roamed the wilds of college football as an independent from 1977 to 1996. Since joining C-USA in 1997, ECU is 0-for-9 in its annual pursuit of a conference football championship.

For the last three seasons, mid-November has been devoid of bowl or league title implications for the Pirates. The current 4-game winning streak has been a dramatic improvement from a 4-25 span that extended into the 2005 season, but the ECU players are trying to keep achievements in perspective.

"You have to realize that we're just 6-4 right now," Ross said. "We really haven't done anything spectacular. Coach always tells us, 'If the season ended today, would you be happy'

"We have made huge strides and it feels good, but at the same time, compared to my first two years here (2003, 2004), it makes you play hard because you don't want to see it go down the drain just like that when it's right at your fingertips. It makes you play hard because you know how it feels to be on the bottom."

Rice (5-5, 4-2 C-USA) knows how it feels to be on the bottom, too. The Owls were 1-10 last season with a 41-28 loss in Greenville. That led to a buyout of Ken Hatfield's contract and the onset of the Todd Graham coaching era.

Graham spent 2003 to 2005 as defensive coordinator at Tulsa, a blueprint for small enrollment success under Steve Kragthorpe. His unit stifled the Pirates in a 45-13 Golden Hurricane win in Tulsa last season.

Graham also was co-defensive coordinator at West Virginia in 2001 and 2002. ECU lost 37-17 to the Mountaineers in Morgantown in 2002 so Graham has seen the Pirates and had a high degree of success in previous matchups.

Hatfield's option attack produced 230 yards on the ground against the Pirates last season but the Owls are more balanced now, averaging 199.4 yards passing and 140.7 yards rushing.

"They're spreading it out," Ross said of Rice's new offensive style. "That quarterback (Chase Clement) they've got back there, he's still got that option-type mentality where he can run the ball. At the same time, he can throw it pretty good. He's a two-dimensional guy.

"They spread it out. They're going to run it and they will also test you deep and throw the ball."

Ross said the Owls' style resembles that of West Virginia.

"They're trying to get you to bite up on the run and hit you deep with a pass," Ross said.

The Owls' team stats are skewed to a degree by one-sided losses to Texas (7-52) and Florida State (7-55) in September, but one thing Rice does exceptionally well is win the turnover battle. The Owls are plus-11 for the season in turnover margin, the best in C-USA.

That has been a secret to Rice's success and that will be a challenge for the Pirates to deal with on Saturday. The Owls won't be changing their approach for ECU.

"Same old plan," Graham said. "We've got to not give up big plays. We take care of the football. ... That's the key for us. If we don't turn the ball over and we don't have stupid penalties, we're going to score."

The Owls are averaging 28.4 points per game, which has helped offset a defense that is allowing 34.7 points and 443.4 yards per game.

Holtz has simplified ECU's mindset and narrowed the focus very successfully since a 1-3 start.

"We've got to find a way to go 1-0 (this Saturday)," said the ECU coach. "It doesn't matter how we win, we just have to find a way to score more points at the end of the day. With the last two games being on the road we are back into our road warrior theme.

"We have challenges ahead of us. We are playing a very good football team this weekend with Rice. When you look at the job that they have done in turning that program around this year it has really been impressive. They are one of the better statistical teams from an offensive standpoint. They are really being productive right now. They have three guys that are really getting it done for them on offense."

In addition to Clement, who has a 20 to 4 touchdowns to interceptions ratio, the Pirates must deal with receiver Jarett Dillard, who has 16 touchdown catches, and Quinton Smith, who is averaging 89.8 yards rushing.

If the Pirates had any inclination to look past Rice, a 41-38 double overtime Owls win at Tulsa last week served to refocus ECU's attention on the task at hand. The Pirates have not had that kind of success against the Golden Hurricane, losing 31-10 at home this season.

"This team is good and they have gained our attention especially last week when they beat Tulsa," Holtz said. "This is going to be a really big game for us, but as I said before our focus right now just has to be to go 1-0."

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02/23/2007 12:30:53 AM


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