East Carolina has the opportunity to have
a November and December to remember beginning with this weekend's trip
The Pirates are in
position to claim their first league championship in football since the
1976 team won the Southern Conference.
ECU has never won a conference football
title since becoming a "major college" program in 1977. East Carolina
joined Conference USA for football in 1997. The Pirates have never gone
through C-USA with less than two losses.
The Pirates are currently 4-1 in
Conference USA and
control their own fate in the league race
since Central Florida won 34-17 at Southern Miss on Sunday night. That
outcome dropped the Golden Eagles, who hold a head-to-head tiebreaker
advantage over ECU, to 3-2 in the league.
Perhaps Pirates coach Skip Holtz should
send UCF coach George O'Leary a thank-you card. Then again, the Pirates
skipper has his mind on a lot of other things this week.
"It's exciting for us right now, but at
the same time we have to remain focused in order to get ready for
Memphis," Holtz said. "We needed the help to control our own destiny but
we always try to go 1-0 each week. The media and fans will do all the
predicting, projecting and forecasting."
C-USA Associate Commissioner Alfred
White was at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for last Saturday's 41-6 triumph over
UAB and used the opportunity to check out facilities as a prospective
host site for the league championship game on Saturday, Dec. 1.
That's exciting. The league
championship would be shown on ESPN or ESPN2 and the home field
advantage would be a considerable factor in favor of the Pirates. But
Holtz, who stands to realize incentive clauses in his contract for a
C-USA title and a bowl trip, knows there is still a lot of work to be
done before any bonus checks are cut.
He isn't hitching the cart ahead of the
"People have already started talking
about three games from now but we need to make sure we don't fall into
that trap," said the ECU coach.
The Pirates could see the light at the
end of the tunnel last season in terms of a division title but those
aspirations were derailed with an 18-17 loss at Rice on Nov. 18. The
Owls prevailed 18-17 on a 40-yard field goal by Clark Fangmeier with
three seconds remaining.
Holtz said there are lessons to be
learned from that loss at Rice last season.
"It is definitely a teaching tool," he
said. "We were in the same situation last year that we are in now,
controlling our own destiny. Hopefully the players remember that trip
and that feeling after losing the opportunity to play for the conference
"I always talk about taking two steps
forward and one step back. Last year we put ourselves in a position to
play for the championship and we stubbed our toe at the last second.
Hopefully that taught us to maintain our focus this year. If we don't
take care of business this week then we lose the opportunity to play for
it again next week."
ECU visits Marshall on Nov. 10 and then
gets a bye week before finishing the regular season at home on Nov. 24
Of immediate concern is Memphis'
passing game, which is producing 280.1 yards per game, good enough for
18th among 119 Bowl Subdivision teams. The Tigers' strength will match
up against an ECU weakness. The Pirates are allowing 289.4 yards per
game passing, which is 112th of 119 teams.
The teams have one common opponent,
Central Florida. A flurry of second-half turnovers helped ECU to a 52-38
win over the Knights in Greenville on Oct. 6. Memphis lost 56-20 to UCF
in Orlando on Sept. 22. That's the Tigers' only league loss.
The Tigers don't need a Halloween mask
to be scary, according to Holtz.
"We know that we have a challenge this
week," said the ECU coach. "Memphis is a 4-4 football team right now and
3-1 in the conference. They have won three of their last four and are
playing well with confidence.
"Offensively, they are scary because
they have three tailbacks (senior Joseph Doss, sophomore T.J. Pitts and
sophomore Miguel Barnes) that are playing by committee. All of them are
averaging four yards per carry."
Actually, Barnes is averaging 3.8
yards, but the biggest gun in Tiger coach Tommy West's arsenal is the
throwing arm of quarterback Martin Hankins, who hails from Hattiesburg,
MS, home of Southern Miss. Hankins has completed 123 of 196 passes for
1,493 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Hankins' numbers have been compiled in
just six games as he missed a 24-21 win over Marshall on Oct. 2 and a
21-7 loss to Middle Tennessee on Oct. 13.
"He has played well in the two games
since he came back," West said. "He's as sharp as I've ever seen him."
Holtz said he was glad the Pirates
weren't involved in a basketball game with UAB last week because of the
height of the Blazers receivers. ECU will face a similar situation this
week in terms of the size of the Tigers' receiving corps.
"We have been trying to teach Travis
Simmons and Travis Williams (ECU defensive backs) how to backpedal on
stilts in order to be able to play the jump ball with some of them,"
Both teams tend to take care of the
ball well offensively and generate turnovers with their defense. ECU is
seventh nationally in turnover margin at a plus-1.33 per game. Memphis
is tied for ninth nationally at plus-1.13 per contest.
"They've been really good in the
turnover game," said West of the Pirates. "They're leading the league
and we're second right now."
One factor that may help both defenses
on Saturday is the similarity of the two teams' offenses. The Memphis
defense won't have to learn a new scheme from the scout team this week
because the system they'll face will closely parallel one which they've
scrimmaged against and vice-versa for the Pirates.
"They look offensively like a very
similar offense," West said. "It's amazing watching it how similar both
teams are from an offensive standpoint."
The Pirates will be playing for the
tenth straight Saturday.
"East Carolina has played an absolute
brutal schedule," West said. "They've beaten Houston, UTEP and Central
Florida, which are three really good teams."
Pirates center Fred Hicks will likely
have ankle surgery this week. His absence at Memphis will force some
personnel shuffling. Stephen Heis is expected to play more snaps as a
"Heis is now in the position to where
he will have to play 75 plays a game," Holtz said. "He will need to
assume more of a leadership role."
While the offensive line has been
thinned and faces adjustments, Holtz has more confidence in his depth at
quarterback after Patrick Pinkney completed 6 of 7 last week for 159
yards and two touchdowns. Brett Clay also saw some action against UAB.
Rob Kass started and got the Pirates out to a 10-3 lead.
"Both quarterbacks will play," Holtz
said. "Who plays will be predicated on how we are moving the football
and the other team's defense."
Holtz wants to avoid any quarterback
"I think we have a very healthy
quarterback situation," he said. "The first guy off the sideline to
congratulate Patrick Pinkney after he threw that touchdown to Jamar
Bryant in the third quarter Saturday was Rob Kass.
"Everyone not just the quarterbacks
are talking to each other during the course of the game. It's a healthy
competition and a great thing for our football team. I feel that we have
two quarterbacks that merit some playing time.
"This is not Rob Kass versus Patrick
Pinkney, but East Carolina versus Memphis."
The Memphis defense that Kass and
Pinkney will face will give the Pirates a lot of looks. Adding to the
degree of difficulty will be a Homecoming crowd at the Liberty Bowl.
"We will have to be ready for the 4-4
or 4-3 and be really simple in what we do offensively," Holtz said.
"They are first in redzone defense, second in scoring defense and third
in passing defense, so we need to be ready. It will take one of our
better efforts, especially playing on the road."