East Carolina head football coach Ruffin McNeill is a firm believer in the adage that teams make the greatest improvement from the first week of the season to the second.
Tonight, however, the Pirates – who will take the field in black uniforms for the first time – will have to prove that theory on just four days’ rest when they host Florida Atlantic at 7:30 in both teams’ Conference USA openers.
ECU out-dueled Old Dominion, 52-38, in an at times frantic back-and-forth game in Week 1.
Although the Pirates’ defense didn’t have a superb debut, the offense did. Quarterback Shane Carden ran up a school-record 447 yards and tied a school mark with five touchdown passes, while receiver Justin Hardy amassed a career-best 191 yards on 16 catches.
In order to better strategize playing on a quick turnaround tonight, McNeill said he sought the advice of a colleague down the hall from the football offices.
“I called (ECU men’s basketball coach) Jeff Lebo and asked for his advice. I’m not the smartest guy in the world but I am the most informed,” McNeill said, noting that ECU began preparing for FAU early in August camp. “We texted and talked about it and it was really ironic some of the things he told me, from keeping it simple to having a new wrinkle to keeping your subs ready and those types of things. It really applies to what he and (ECU women’s basketball coach) Heather Macy and ( head coach Billy Godwin) in baseball, playing back-to-back games and short turnaround games.”
ECU’s unexpected high-scoring shootout with the Monarchs also was a command performance by the Pirates’ offense, which saw touchdown receptions from junior Danny Webster (eight catches, 79 yards), freshman Isaiah Jones (2-11) and three from freshman Davon Grayson (4-28). Senior Reese Wiggins also reeled in seven receptions.
It was needed on a night when the defense allowed five TDs and the offense rushed for just 34 yards (senior tailback Vintavious Cooper was credited with a team-high 38 rush yards).
“Shane did a really good job of distributing the football to all five guys, and that’s the biggest thing about this offense is distribution of the football,” McNeill said of Carden, who already is on pace to match or top his 3,000-yard sophomore campaign. “I really like the way he’s grasped this offense.”
McNeill lauded Carden’s ability to extend plays when under the gun. According to McNeill, Carden is showing the same traits that he has seen in previous star passers under the same system at ECU and at Texas Tech.
“He relied on the pocket and stayed in the pocket to open up routes better,” McNeill said of Carden.
Better pursuit by the East Carolina defense will be key today against an FAU offense that’s still something of a mystery, and which put three different QBs on the field last weekend as proof. But the Owls will present the Pirates’ defense a different look than ODU offered, with more two- and even three-back formations.
FAU mostly used sophomore passer Jaquez Johnson (83 pass yards, no touchdowns) in last week’s loss, and the Mississippi junior college transfer figures to be the main man again today.
The Pirates’ defense produced a couple of sacks but just three tackles for loss total against ODU, often struggling to finish off good penetration into the backfield.
Despite the struggles in pursuing and containing Monarch QB Taylor Heinicke, McNeill championed the defense’s big play to start the second half, when senior linebackers Gabe Woullard and Ty Holmes combined to give the Pirates a defensive touchdown and a major shot in the arm.
“We ask them to start fast and on the first drive (of the third quarter). Gabe Woullard sacks (Heincke), Ty Holmes scoops and gets to the end zone to give momentum right there at the start of the half and that’s important,” McNeill said.
Despite being burned for a touchdown on a long pass play in the second quarter, ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith said he was very pleased with his team’s initial 60 minutes.
“I thought the secondary played very well,” he said. “We did give up a post route on a (missed assignment), and they got us on a reverse pass which we didn’t work on. We adjusted some things at halftime and the adjustments worked. The kids never doubted we would win and never pointed any fingers. There wasn’t any (complaining) or moaning and groaning, and I thought it was truly a team win.”
Due in large part to television exposure they provide for teams and universities, Thursday night games have become coveted in college football, even though they bring with them a short week. McNeill knows first-hand just how valuable TV time can be in recruiting.
“Any chance we get to expose the city of Greenville is always great for me … and our university and how we look, from our stadium to our fan support, they get a chance to witness the excitement that people talk about,” McNeill said. “We’ve signed kids and had kids flip just by watching our game on television, trust me.”