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Pirate Notebook No. 322
Monday, October 15, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

Defense keeps ECU vulnerable

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.


For the second year in a row, Denny O'Brien is a member of the voting panel for the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, commissioned by the Bowl Championship Series. O'Brien was nominated to the panel by Conference USA.

The Harris Poll is a component of the BCS Standings. The initial 2007 BCS Standings, which also take into account the USA Today Coaches Poll and an average of six computer service rankings, were released on Sunday, Oct. 14.

Here is this week's Harris BCS Poll ballot submitted by O'Brien on Sunday:

 1. Ohio State
 2. South Florida
 3. Oklahoma
 4. South Carolina
 5. Boston College
 6. Kentucky
 7. LSU
 8. Oregon
 9. West Virginia
10. USC
11. Arizona State
12. California (Cal)
13. Oregon State
14. Florida
15. Virginia Tech
16. Hawaii
17. Kansas
18. Missouri
19. Texas
20. Tennessee
21. Virginia
22. Texas Tech
23. Cincinnati
24. Auburn
25. Michigan

Complete BCS Standings


BVL: BCS Standings
O'Brien: Defense keeps ECU vulnerable

EL PASO, TX — Say what you want about life in Conference USA, just don’t call it boring.

That’s about the only label that doesn’t apply to the nation’s most geographically diverse conference.

Among the many solid choices, perhaps the Land of Misfit Defenses is most appropriate.

That’s certainly what was on display Saturday night in the Sun Bowl. And ECU’s improbable 45-42 comeback victory over Texas-El Paso had the look of an XBOX shootout, one in which scores occurred from nearly every potential computerized scenario.

There was a 52-yard field goal by ECU’s Ben Hartman, who just a few weeks ago couldn’t hit anything outside of an extra point. There was a blocked extra point that Pirates cornerback Travis Williams carted 90 yards for a rare two-pointer, a play that that occurs about as frequently as Halley’s Comet.

End arounds dialed long-distance scores both on the ground and through the air. Bubble screens, misdirection, and quarterback draws often extended drives in scenarios in which the defense typically owns the upper hand.

About the only defense either side could muster was a timely turnover or random sack.

“We didn’t play perfect. We made some mistakes,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said after the game. “We had some bad plays on both sides of the ball.

“We didn’t tackle very well. We had too many missed assignments on defense and gave up cheap plays. But at the same time, when they had to make the play, in overtime, our defense got the sack.”

In the first half alone, UTEP quarterback Trevor Vittatoe mined the Pirates for 216 yards on 21-of-26 passing — a full-night’s work on most occasions. All totaled, the Miners posted 275 yards before intermission, which is darn near what the Pirates limited Virginia Tech to for the entire game.

But that was six games and many yards ago, and East Carolina has held only one opponent to under 400 yards since.

“It is (a concern),” Holtz said about his defense. “It’s something that we’ll sit down and look at tomorrow. It’s not something that we’re going to beat ourselves up with tonight, when you can win on the road in this conference against the number one team in the West division, and to do it in the fashion that we did it.

“There were some mistakes, and we’re not perfect. We made way too many mental mistakes. Right now, Pierre (Bell) and (Jeremy) Chambliss are both nursing those shoulders, and with (Quentin) Cotton not here, you’re playing a lot of young guys at linebacker.”

To be fair, East Carolina has experienced no shortage of injuries, many of which have occurred to key veterans. In any program, coaches rely heavily on seniority, especially during the grind of a conference race.

And it’s not like defensive coordinator Greg Hudson has shown a reluctance to abandon the status quo when it simply isn’t working. The injury parade has put him into a constant plumbing mode, with a new leak occurring the moment he has another fixed.

We’ve seen a switch from ECU’s base 4-3 to a smaller 3-4, back to the 4-3. Linebackers at times have shifted to the defensive front, while almost every personnel combination has been explored.

Through it all, ECU’s inexperience in the secondary has proven too faulty for a fool-proof fix. The Pirates are repeatedly beaten over the top and underneath, with both corners and safeties chasing aimlessly after receivers in the open field.

But at some point you would think the experience gained from game repetitions might begin to eliminate some of those painfully familiar mistakes.

At this stage, the Pirates’ best defense is its ability to match scores. It would be helpful if the Pirates could consume clock with a consistent running game, but this is an offense that is relying more on big plays than extending drives.

Though Chris Johnson has experienced the most productive period in his record-setting career, the bulk of his yardage occurs in large chunks, not with clock draining four and five-yard plunges. That the running game is hardly automatic in third-and-short can’t be overlooked.

Nor can the fact that ECU’s defense makes it a candidate for defeat on a weekly basis. Even though the Pirates are tops in C-USA’s East Division and have already faced their toughest opponents, ECU’s 'D' has shown no evidence outside of Virginia Tech that it is capable of shutting down any offense.

Last season East Carolina made a strong push for the C-USA title largely because its defense was one of the league’s best. This year, it looks more like one of the worst.

That’s typically not a formula with which championships are won.

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10/16/2007 01:49:23 AM

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