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Game 13: USF 24, East Carolina 7


The Slants of the Game
Sunday, December 24, 2006

By Denny O'Brien

Bulls expose holes for ECU

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BIRMINGHAM — East Carolina's performance in the inaugural Bowl is an unfair gauge for the strides the Pirates have made since Skip Holtz arrived in Greenville.

But the 24-7 stampede South Florida unleashed on the Bucs can be viewed as a good barometer for future progress.

That's because the distance between the Bulls and Pirates is as wide as the margin on the Legion Field scoreboard — if not more. And that separation of skill was evident not long after the two teams unloaded their buses.

"They won the battle up front, especially early," ECU coach Skip Holtz said. "I think that's a combination of their speed, the way that they run to the ball on defense.

"I think the same thing would be true on the other side of the ball. The first play of the game for our defense, they go right up the middle for 16 yards and a touchdown. And every time they ran the ball, they got four or five yards."

Ten years ago this wasn't the case.

At the time, USF was a newborn program that barely had legs. Meanwhile, East Carolina was busy finishing a three-year stretch in which it averaged eight wins, many of which were against high-profile opponents.

That high-water era of ECU football featured standout performers and quality depth at most positions. That much was reflected by the number of Pirates who landed on NFL rosters.

In the ten years the Bulls have been in existence, they have quickly climbed to the level on which ECU once existed. Judging by the way USF's defense performed against the Pirates, you can certainly understand how.

The Bulls are big, fast, aggressive, and play with a reckless abandon on almost every snap. That's a powerful package that produced six sacks, two lost fumbles and a halftime margin comfortable enough to shift into neutral after intermission.

"They have a very good defense," senior tackle Eric Graham said. "They run around and chase the ball down very fast.

"They are a very quick team. They are one of the better defenses that we've faced this year."

Make that the best.

No outfit on ECU's schedule even remotely resembled the one pieced together by Bulls coach Jim Leavitt. That includes West Virginia, Virginia, and N.C. State, each of which is peppered with professional talent on defense.

From the depth of its personnel to its well-designed schemes, South Florida's defense paralleled the muscle of a Top Ten program. And it did most of its flexing whenever ECU made a serious threat to score.

"We just couldn't the ball in the end zone," Holtz said. "We were 0-3 and they were 3-3 in red zone scoring chances.

"I know that we were down there three times and never got a point out of it. I think when you look at that, it's hard to be successful. This was a game that came down to red zone chances."

Those opportunities were quickly closed by USF's superior speed. And before ECU can compete regularly with programs of USF's caliber, it must narrow the talent gap that was exposed in the Pirates' return to postseason play.

Doing so will be a challenge given the disadvantages often associated with membership in a conference outside of the Bowl Championship Series. A lack of access to the big money bowls has no doubt created a steeper recruiting hill for ECU and it's non-BCS brethren.

South Florida no longer deals with that issue, and its 17-point victory over the Pirates partially reflects that.

But ECU is in no way facing a peak too high to climb. It was again clear on Saturday that a healthy heap of its talent is tightly woven into the first two classes that Holtz signed.

That includes redshirt freshman quarterback Rob Kass (10-of-19, 138 yards) and sophomore running back Dominique Lindsay (85 yards), perhaps the starting backfield next season. It also includes the entire two-deep chart on the defensive front seven.

After Saturday it's clear that it isn't quite on par with South Florida. But considering where ECU was two seasons ago, it's a pretty good start.

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02/23/2007 02:03:53 AM

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