Pirate Notebook No. 516
Monday, September 23, 2013

Denny O'Brien

Denny O'Brien

Offense balance key against Heels



By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

View the Mobile Alpha version of this page.

Misfortune has generally accompanied East Carolina on trips to Chapel Hill. Some of it has been self-inflicted, some not.

At times calamity has been the product of bizarre occurrences that some will insist were aided by a phantom, blue-clad 12th man. There have been touchdown-eliminating penalties, end zone fumbles, and sure interceptions that ricocheted into the arms of an unsuspecting Tar Heels tight end.

That was just the 2001 game. If you browse through the annals of this one-sided series, you are certain to find more.

But you also are more likely to uncover ECU teams that weren't quite as talented as North Carolina and didn't execute with the proficiency required to beat a better foe. The Pirates no doubt will need to play with offensive precision to have any chance against the Heels this Saturday, unlike they did against Virginia Tech last week.

Despite the Hokies gift-wrapping numerous opportunities, the Pirates never took advantage.

“I was proud of us for making those opportunities,” Pirates Coach Ruffin McNeill said following ECU's loss to Virginia Tech. “Our defense stepped in and forced those things to happen, so I was proud of that.

“We all want to take advantage of those opportunities. We all want to take advantage of turnovers. (Against Virginia Tech) we didn't get a chance to, and we didn't do as well as we could.”

McNeill is at least right on the latter. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that ECU tried to beat the Hokies with one hand tied behind its back.

That approach might work against Old Dominion, but it doesn't against a traditionally upper tier program from a privileged conference. Tech proved that much by feasting off a Pirates offensive game plan that featured 41 called pass plays and 13 runs.

(Note that, officially, ECU was credited with 31 passes and 23 rushes; remove the sacks and Shane Carden scrambles to get the intended total.)

East Carolina will not leave Kenan Stadium with a victory leveraging a similar offensive approach.

After Carden was inserted into the starting lineup last year, it seemed as if the offense was evolving beyond just its Air Raid roots. Running back Tay Cooper was getting more touches, and the read option had a place in the rotation of calls.

There hasn't been nearly enough of that this season, making the Pirates somewhat easy to predict. Outside of the opening drive against the Hokies, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster's calls made it seem as if he was receiving real-time intel from the ECU sideline.

The result was the Pirates' inability to extend drives and a nearly 14 minute difference in time of possession. And despite all its offensive shortcomings, ECU still was in position to win it in the end.

That won't be the case against North Carolina Saturday without a few wrinkles. A failure to introduce some offensive balance and control a little more clock will lead to a very long afternoon in Chapel Hill.

Just like it did in last season's 27-6 loss.

Defensive test

There is plenty to be encouraged about regarding East Carolina's defensive performance during its last two games. Since the Pirates' season opener, they've climbed the national defensive charts, now ranking 43rd in total defense, 10th in rush defense, 11th in sacks, and 13th in red zone defense.

Not bad for a group that ranked among the nation's worst last year.

Can much of the Pirates' defensive resurgence be attributed to the caliber of competition they've faced? Absolutely.

Florida Atlantic had the look of an offensive mess, and no one is accusing Virginia Tech of having the offensive skill and philosophy of a prolific, point-scoring machine.

Even so, there is no question that new defensive coordinator Rick Smith has the Pirates trending upward.

ECU will face by far its biggest defensive test Saturday with a Tar Heels group that brings a balanced blend with its spread attack. It also offers by far the best personnel ECU will have faced to date.

The keys Saturday will be to keep quarterback Bryn Renner under duress, especially on 3rd down. That's when the Pirates have been at their worst this season, and significant improvement is needed to have any chance against the Heels.

Official decline

N.C. State's 26-14 loss emphasized something that apparently isn't secluded to Conference USA. Poor officiating has become conference agnostic.

The Pirates surely have been bitten by several missed calls this year, with officials reluctant to toss flags for facemasks, holding, pass interference, and unnecessary roughness that is tied to the new targeting rule. They also benefited from an official not hurling a flag for targeting in the win over FAU.

The main problem facing officiating today isn’t so much that officials are missing the occasional call. That is to be expected.

But the fact that they are now making a huge impact on the outcome of games shouldn’t be tolerated. It’s clear that leagues need to enforce more quality control over their official.

E-mail Denny O'Brien

Denny O'Brien Archives

09/23/2013 04:02 AM