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Game No. 8: ECU 38, Memphis 19


Game Slants
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

By Denny O'Brien

Offense ignites under pressure

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

MEMPHIS — East Carolina’s midweek visit to Conference USA East Division rival Memphis presented a simple, yet potentially slippery scenario.

With the wounds from a surprising loss to Southern Methodist still visible in the league standings, the Pirates found themselves at the type of competitive crossroads that could significantly adjust the ceiling on their season.

Win and ECU would retain a half-game lead in the East and maintain command of its quest for another league crown. Lose and there are enough landmines remaining to place the Pirates’ postseason hopes in serious jeopardy.

It was as close to must-win territory as anyone could have possibly envisioned back in August. That it occurred on the road against a struggling opponent in the mostly vacant Liberty Bowl was a fitting stage.

That’s because it was familiar to the ones on which the Pirates performed during much of their 2008 run to the C-USA throne. But the 38-19 victory over Memphis was fairly unfamiliar given the size of the margin that separated the two.

Much of ECU’s journey last season was defined by defensive battles in which it survived by forcing turnovers and nailing field goals. The Pirates had few opportunities in which their backup quarterback could close a game by running the final two series.

But ECU was able to do that while facing little wiggle room in the conference standings. In the end it was arguably the most impressive road performance of the Skip Holtz era.

“A little bit in the back of your mind, you sit there and you go, we already stubbed our toe once,” Holtz said. “You can’t do it again and you’re playing on the road. It’s going to take a complete performance.”

The Pirates got their best offensive performance of the season, compiling 497 yards, 275 of which came on the ground. Dominique Lindsay (139 yards) and Giavanni Ruffin (87 yards) carried much of the load, providing ECU with a punishing duo between the tackles.

About the only things that stopped Lindsay and Ruffin were halftime and the final horn.

“I think the offense is starting to come into its own a little bit,” Holtz said. “I think obviously Giavanni Ruffin keeps getting better. Dominique Lindsay keeps getting better. Darryl Freeney stepping up the way he did gives us another option and another weapon.

“Right now, you’re hopeful. We’re going to have a really tough (offensive) challenge against Virginia Tech. Then we’ll sit down and look at the final three conference games and kind of where we are and what we have to do at that point.”

Where East Carolina currently resides is in as good a position at this stage of the season as at any point over the past five seasons. Maybe even better. At 4-1 in C-USA, the Pirates don’t need help from anyone else to navigate to the league title game.

ECU also is relatively healthy and beginning to find a rhythm on offense. Though the Pirates didn’t faced the nation’s stingiest defenses in Rice and Memphis, their execution and confidence are encouraging signs for the challenging road ahead.

But there still are areas of concern.

To say that the Pirates are still vulnerable on the back end of their defense is stating things kindly. Will Hudgens, a below average quarterback by C-USA standards, at times performed as if he belonged in the same class as Houston’s Case Keenum.

An elite corps of receivers and little pressure in the pocket certainly didn’t hurt.

Special teams, specifically the return coverage, are a previous concern that again emerged against Memphis. So are the nine penalties ECU committed for 89 yards, a couple of which put the offense several yards behind the chains.

But neither that nor the Memphis mist could haunt the Pirates Tuesday night. Lindsay, Ruffin, and a dominating performance by the offensive line made sure that it wouldn’t.

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10/28/2009 02:13:42 AM

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