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Sept. 1, 2012 | Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium | Greenville, NC | Attendance: 49,023

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Game Slants
Saturday, September 1, 2012

By Denny O'Brien

Rio has room to grow

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

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GREENVILLE — We can officially dismiss the notion that East Carolina’s brand of offense is a plug-and-play operation at quarterback.

Rio Johnson proved that point with a shaky debut that ended in a 35-13 Pirates’ victory over Appalachian State that was much closer than the score would suggest. And much of that can be attributed to an offense and quarterback plagued by inconsistency at times.

Johnson, a junior who has spent the last two seasons in Dominique Davis’s shadow, looked indecisive early and struggled with accuracy and touch. On a couple of occasions he missed open receivers that should have led to easy ECU scores.

Those who could withstand the sweltering heat within Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium demonstrated their frustration vocally. But East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill wasn’t quite ready to pull the plug.

“I’m pretty patient,” McNeill said. “Especially when I see him handling it well on the sideline, and then coming back and making another throw.  The touchdown pass to (Andrew Bodenhiemer) was a big-time toss. He had another one there that should have been caught going towards the Boneyard on the fade route.

"He’ll complete those balls, and we’ll be a happy group.”

Through much of the first half, it looked as if Appalachian would be the happier bunch.

The Mountaineers played as if they were taking their defensive direction from Pirates offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. There very were few occasions when the Mountaineers looked uncertain, out of synch, or out of position.

They swarmed to the ball, tackled well, and limited East Carolina from executing big-play opportunities. For a while, it even looked as if the defense and special teams would have to provide all the scoring for ECU.

Both units did their part, too, with timely touchdowns that shifted the game’s momentum.

The first, a 45-yard fumble return by newcomer Chip Thompson, gave the Pirates their first lead. The second, a 90-yard kick return by transfer Lance Ray, extended a narrow lead to 21-13.

From that point forward Johnson performed with more confidence and poise. He responded with consecutive multi-play fourth quarter drives that ended in touchdowns that put Appalachian away.

During that critical stretch, Johnson hit receivers in stride and directed an offense that finally performed like many expected.

“I liked the fact that on the sideline, Rio was calm,” Ruffin McNeill said. “On the sideline, if you could have seen his demeanor and poise, he never waivered.

“On the field, he was able to take any kind of adjustments that Lincoln (Riley) made. I thought he ran the team efficiently. To go out the first game and to be able to, and at the middle of the game be able to take adjustments and to take them from the sideline to the field is hard.”

Anyone who witnessed Johnson’s debut as ECU’s quarterback can see that the talent is there. Johnson has a strong arm, good mobility, and a solid pocket presence.

He also seems difficult to rattle and is gifted with a short memory. That, combined with the physical tools, makes for a solid foundation.

The key now is for Johnson to put it all together.

Statistically, Johnson’s debut ended with him completing 28 of his 43 attempts for 242 yards and two scores. If that ultimately becomes the worst box score of his career, bright days await the Pirates’ new QB.

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09/02/2012 05:59:37 AM

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