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View from the 'ville
Thursday, December 4, 2008

By Al Myatt

Pirates aim for high noon showdown

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

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 rankings.

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.

Houston was 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 Nov. 15.

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 and 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 Marshall.

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 Texas-El Paso.

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 straight year.

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 occasion.

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.

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12/04/2008 01:08:04 AM


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