This has been a week of anticipation
and preparation for the East Carolina program as the Pirates gear up to
play for the
Conference USA championship at
high noon on Saturday at Tulsa.
It should be a good day for football.
The advance forecast is calling for sunny skies and a high of 56 degrees
at H.A. Chapman Stadium.
The Golden Hurricane has home field
advantage by virtue of a 7-1 C-USA record. Tulsa got a helping hand from
Rice this past Saturday as the Owls defeated Houston 56-42 while the
Golden Hurricane was edging Marshall 38-35 in Huntington.
A Houston win would have allowed the
Cougars to host ECU in the league championship game.
Winning percentage in C-USA games is
the first factor in determining the host team for the championship. The
second factor is head-to-head results. The third consideration is BCS
Tulsa had the head-to-head tiebreaker
over Rice, which also finished 7-1 in league play, by virtue of the
Golden Hurricanes' 63-28 win over the Owls on Oct. 4. Houston, the only
team to top Tulsa in C-USA play, finished 6-2 in the league. The Cougars
have the distinction of having beaten both C-USA division champions.
a 41-24 winner at ECU on Sept.
27 and created a logjam in the West with a 70-30 victory at home over
Tulsa on Nov. 15.
The Pirates knew they would be playing
in the league title game, which will be shown on ESPN2, after
a 17-13 win at UAB on Nov. 22.
ECU went 6-2 in league play, also
losing at Southern Miss 21-3 on
ECU rose as high as No. 15 in the
Associated Press poll with a 3-0 start that included
a 27-22 win over then-No. 17 Virginia Tech
a 24-3 victory over then-No. 8 West Virginia.
Tulsa was 8-0 and ranked No. 19 before
losing 30-23 at Arkansas on Nov. 1.
After deflating losses
to N.C. State and
Virginia and a plethora of
injuries to key personnel, the Pirates became more conservative
offensively and managed to keep their conference title hopes alive with
low-scoring, overtime triumphs
over Central Florida and
Skip Holtz and the ECU coaching staff
did an excellent job of responding and adjusting to the dictates of
diminished personnel during the lean times of the 2008 season. The
Pirates lost their leading rusher and receivers but appeared to have
fully re-adjusted in
last week's 53-21 blowout of
Tulsa not only has the home field
advantage but significant experience in the championship game situation.
The Golden Hurricane won 44-27 at UCF in the inaugural C-USA
championship game on Dec. 3, 2005.
Houston won the 2006 title matchup
34-20 over visiting Southern Miss. UCF hosted Tulsa again for the title
in 2007 and took a 44-25 win.
Conference USA commissioner Britton
Banowsky feels the Pirates and Golden Hurricane will put on another
exciting show in this year's championship game.
"This should be an outstanding matchup,
Banowsky said. "Both teams have had strong seasons and have been very
exciting to watch all season long. We are looking forward to a terrific
atmosphere and a great game."
The contest will match the C-USA's
top-scoring offense against the league's stingiest defense. Tulsa is
averaging 49.3 points per game while ECU is allowing just 20.5.
Tulsa has scored more than 45 points in
eight games this season and has topped 60 points three times.
Senior quarterback David Johnson has
led the football bowl subdivision in passing efficiency for most of the
season and is among the national leaders in touchdown passes with 42.
Senior Tarrion Adams gives Tulsa offensive balance with his power and
elusiveness, having run for more than 1,000 yards for the second
Holtz said Tulsa's offensive numbers
are almost beyond comprehension.
"When you look at Tulsa, the numbers
are staggering," said the Pirates coach. "They're like video game
numbers, almost unrealistic. They're averaging 49 points a game. We
scored 53 on Friday, and to think that's what they've been doing for 12
weeks of the year is absolutely incredible. They are averaging 578 yards
per game, 259 rushing and 319 passing. They're a very balanced football
team as they average 5.6 yards per rush.
"They also convert 59 percent of their
third downs, which is absolutely unheard of. The next closest team in
Conference USA is at 50 percent, roughly 10 percent behind where Tulsa
is right now. They've scored 81 touchdowns, which I thought was a
misprint when I first read it. We've scored 33 and they've scored 81. To
put it in perspective, Ben Hartman has kicked 79 PAT's in his career,
and he's a junior. They've scored 81 touchdowns this year alone.
"This is kind of a
David and Goliath story when I
sit down and look at Tulsa's numbers and what they're doing right now."
One possible means of countering the
Golden Hurricane's production is to execute a clock-consuming,
ball-control offense. The problem with that approach is that Tulsa is a
tough team against the run.
"When you look at Tulsa's defense,
they're second in the conference in rushing defense and second in
kickoff returns," Holtz said. "This is a football team that doesn't have
many weaknesses. They're very strong in what they do.
"From a personnel standpoint, they are
huge on the offensive line, with tackles weighing 355 pounds, 308 pounds
and 305 pounds. They return four starters on the line and they're a
great zone blocking football team. They're big and get on you.
"I think they've also got a very
accurate passer in David Johnson, who is kind of running the show right
now as a senior. When you look at their tailback, Tarrion Adams, he's
averaging nearly six yards per carry. He's a physical slasher and great
zone runner who has great balance. He does a very nice job for them.
"Then they've got two of the best
big-play receivers in the conference in Damaris Johnson and Brennan
Marion, who averages 27.1 yards per catch. They drop back and throw the
ball way down the field and Marion goes and gets it. They give you some
scheme problems; when you get your secondary involved, they throw the
ball over the top. I think Coach (Todd) Graham has done a really nice
job of putting this thing together."
The Pirates definitely seem to have
their work cut out for them, but ECU has a tradition of rising to the
It would be nice if the championship
game were played on a neutral field as in conferences such as the ACC
and SEC or if C-USA would take bids to host the event as is done in
other sports. The team with the best league record is rewarded and a
decent crowd is assured. Tulsa managed to overcome the home field
advantage itself in the C-USA final in 2005.
Perhaps Holtz's David and Goliath
analogy will play out, and that old adage will ring true: "Offense sells
tickets and defense wins championships."
It has been 32 years since ECU
celebrated a conference championship.
For the ECU program, the seniors
especially, the opportunity is at hand to end a league title drought
that started with the Pirates' commitment to attain gridiron excellence
on the major college level. That goal resulted in an exit from the
Southern Conference after ECU's last league title in 1976 long before
the current Pirate players were born.