PapaJohns.com Birmingham Bowl Preview - East Carolina vs. South Florida
Pirates hope to top supreme season by delivering bowl win over South Florida Bulls
East Carolina can win eight games for the first time since 2000
Location: Legion Field (83,091); Birmingham, AL
Time: 1 :00 pm (EST)
Records: East Carolina (7-5 overall, 5-3 CUSA); South Florida (8-4 overall, 4-3 Big East)
All-Time Series Record: South Florida leads 3-0
Last Meeting: November 13, 2004 – South Florida 41 East Carolina 17
Last Bowl Appearance:
East Carolina (ECU)
South Florida (USF)
East Carolina vs. South Florida – Series History and General Overview
This will mark the fourth time that the Pirates and Bulls have met on gridiron. USF won the three previous games, two of which were played in Greenville. The last two match-ups were while both programs were in CUSA. The Bulls were an independent in 2002.
The schools met for the first time back in 2002 in Greenville. Marquel Blackwell lit up the Pirates and led the Bulls to a 46-30 win.
East Carolina went 1-11 in 2003, but it put forth a valiant effort—perhaps its best that season—in its 38-37 double overtime home loss to USF. Pirate running back Vonta Leach made the move from fullback to tailback and had a big day on the ground. Following a controversial Bulls touchdown in overtime where the USF receiver trapped the ball, ECU place kicker Cam Broadwell’s point after touchdown clanged off an upright and left Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium stunned.
In the Pirates’ lone visit to Tampa and Raymond James Stadium, they were thoroughly whipped by Jim Leavitt’s squad, 41-17. Second-year head coach John Thompson, who had a 3-18 record at ECU following the loss, was fired the following week.
USF has controlled the series, but it will be facing a much better East Carolina team this time around. Skip Holtz has the Pirates playing confidently and they are much more fundamentally sound than in the previous meetings.
Both teams boast strong defenses. The Bulls have the nation’s 24 th ranked defensive unit, while the Pirates have made drastic strides and are allowing only 20.1 points per contest.
Offensively, there are very good quarterbacks—one a youngster (Matt Grothe) and the other a veteran (James Pinkney)—on each side. The aerial attacks lead the way.
Each team has momentum as it heads to Birmingham. USF is coming off a 24-19 upset win at West Virginia and has won five of its last seven games. East Carolina collected a 21-16 victory at in-state rival NC State to close the regular season and has won five of its last six.
East Carolina Offense vs. South Florida Defense
Advantage: SOUTH FLORIDA
ECU faced a talented NC State defense to close out the regular season. The Golden Bulls are similar, but should pose even a more difficult challenge.
The Bulls have traditionally played solid defense under Jim Leavitt and this year they have one of the best, if not the top defense in the program’s brief history. USF has the nation’s 24 th ranked defense, which is allowing only 17.8 points 297 yards per contest. The Pirates have faced some strong defenses this season, but their last test will likely be the stiffest.
The Bulls’ strength is their linebackers. Stephen Nicholas, who has a NFL career in his future, leads this talented group. Nicholas is second on the team in tackles with 96, 12 of which went for losses. He is also tied for second on the team in sacks with 5.5.
The unit also includes another potential NFL linebacker in Patrick St. Louis, who has totaled 81 tackles on the season.
The talent at linebacker doesn’t stop there, as you can’t overlook redshirt freshman Chris Robinson (6’3”, 240). He has played in every game and leads the team with six sacks.
USF has done a good job of pressuring and sacking opposing quarterbacks. The Bulls have generated 31 sacks and 58 quarterback hurries.
The defensive line is led by 6’4”, 255-pound defensive end George Selvie, who has totaled 76 tackles in his initial season in Tampa. He has 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Junior Allen Cray, who stands six feet and weights 295 pounds, also has 5.5 sacks while posting eight stops behind the line.
The secondary, which has been the beneficiary of the strong pass rush, has produced 15 interceptions. Junior corner Trae Williams, who has seven of those 15 picks, leads the talented group. Fellow corner Mike Jenkins boasts a team-high 12 pass break-ups.
Senior quarterback James Pinkney has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,658 yards, but he essentially has a touchdown to interception ratio of one to one. He has thrown 11 touchdowns, but has been picked off ten times. This inconsistency, when combined with key receivers being out and an offensive line in progress, has led to much of the Pirates’ success coming when they’ve been able to establish their running attack.
It will be a tall task for East Carolina to get its ground attack going against this stern USF defense that is allowing only 3.4 yards per carry; however, it must produce a similar effort to the one seen in the second half of the victory over N.C. State. If the Pirates can’t get this done, the pass rush may be too much for their offensive line to handle.
Senior Brandon Fractious, who combines excellent speed and vision, has rushed for 4.5 yards per carry while racking up 675 yards and four scores. He’ll carry the bulk of the rushing load, but you’ll also see Chris Johnson, Dominique Lindsay and James Pinkney tote it. Johnson will generally carry the ball on sweeps, reverses and other outside runs. Lindsay is the Pirates’ short-yardage back.
ECU played four freshmen across the offensive front against NCSU and they performed beautifully. They will be without senior offensive tackle Eric Graham, who has missed the last game and a half with a knee injury.
If Pinkney has time to throw, the Bulls had better blanket future NFL-receiver-to-be Aundrae Allison. The Pirates’ senior wideout has hauled in 59 receptions for 684 yards and four touchdowns. His numbers are down from last year, but that is primarily because the Pirates have had other people step up and share the load.
Other threats in the passing game are Phillip Henry, Bobby Good, Kevin Roach and Steven Rogers. They have combined for nearly 100 catches and 1,452 yards. They are all averaging over 13 yards per reception.
South Florida Offense vs. East Carolina Defense
Advantage: EAST CAROLINA
Offensively, USF centers just about everything around 6’0”, 200-pound redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Grothe. Grothe, who was named the Big East Conference’s rookie of the year, accounted for approximately 75 percent of the Bulls’ offense. He is the team’s leading rusher with 607 yards on the ground and has also passed for 2,495 yards. The dual threat produced 23 of the Bulls touchdowns this year. He is human though, as he has thrown 14 picks on the year.
He leads an offense that is averaging 22.9 points and 368 yards per contest. It has turned the ball over 28 times, which has prohibited USF from being even better.
After Grothe, the next leading rusher is 5’7”, 190-pound Ben Williams with 369 yards.
The Bulls have six receivers with 18 or more receptions, and feature a balanced passing attack. Ean Randolph leads the team with 47 catches for 479 yards, which includes four scores. Taurus Johnson, Marcus Edwards, Amarri Jackson, S.J. Green and Amp Hill are other names that the Pirates’ secondary better be well aware of.
This unit will face an East Carolina defense that is the Pirates’ best in at least a half-decade. Greg Hudson’s simple schemes allow his players not to be overcome by thought, which results in precise execution and tremendous pursuit to the football.
ECU is surrendering only 20.5 points per game and has really excelled at stopping the run since allowing 403 yards to Navy in its opener. The Pirates have held their opponents to only 120.7 yards per contest in their last 11 games. The experienced secondary is allowing only 189 passing yards and has intercepted 16 passes. The opposition is converting only 39 percent of their third downs.
The secondary’s success has come despite a poor pass rush, which has produced only 17 sacks. Corner Kasey Ross and free safety Pierre Parker, both of whom are seniors, are tied for the team lead with four interceptions. ECU’s strong secondary also features veterans such as corner Travis Williams and safeties Jamar Flournoy and Kyle Chase.
The Pirates’ depth and team concept can be seen by the fact that leading-tackler linebacker Quentin Cotton has only 68 tackles. Fellow linebackers Fred Wilson and Van Eskridge both have over 50 tackles. Eskridge, who is really undersized for the position at 6’0” and 206 pounds, leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss.
Mark Robinson, C.J. Wilson and Wendell Chavis lead the defensive line. The trio has combined for 101 tackles, which includes 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss.
East Carolina has the advantage in the kicking and punting phases, but South Florida possesses the advantage in the return game due to the presence of Ean Randolph.
Randolph is averaging 14.7 yards per return on 22 attempts, which is good enough to rank him sixth nationally. He took one back 76 yards for a touchdown.
The Pirates have used multiple punt returners this season. These have included Aundrae Allison, Bobby Good, Steven Rogers and Travis Williams. Rogers and Williams have handled the duties lately.
Wide Receiver Taurus Johnson returns the kickoffs for USF and has a 22.6 average. The Pirates’ Chris Johnson was named first-team All-Conference USA as a kickoff returner. He raced 96 yards for a touchdown at Southern Miss and is averaging 24.9 yards on 17 returns.
The Pirates’ punter Ryan Dougherty, a first-team all-league selection, averages 43.9 yards per attempt. He has forced 14 fair catches while pinning the opponents inside their own 20-yard line 14 times. Dougherty also handles the kickoffs and has produced 17 touchbacks on 60 kickoffs.
Southern Miss’ Jasper Faulk scorched the East Carolina punt team. This led to ECU utilizing a rugby punt against NC State, which allowed the coverage team more time to cover. Expect the Pirates to use this approach against the Bulls’ Ean Randolph.
ECU place kicker Robert Lee suffered several near misses and a disappointing season, but the preseason Lou Groza Award candidate finished strong. He is 14-of-23, including 5-of-9 between 40 and 49 yards.
USF’s kicking game has been an adventure at times. Place kickers Mike Benzer and Delbert Alvarado are a combined 6-of-14 on field goals; however, Alvarado has the leg, as he made a 56-yarder against Syracuse.
Justin Teachey serves double duty, as he punts and kicks off for the Bulls. He averages 38.4 yards per boot, but often has very little hang time. This had led to opponents averaging 13.9 yards per return. Approximately 30 percent (15-of-52) of his kickoffs have been touchbacks.
USF is making its second bowl appearance in as many years. The Bulls were shutout by NC State last year in the Meinke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte and are attempting to collect the first bowl win in their young program’s history. According to linebacker Patrick St. Louis, the Bulls are excited about that opportunity and won’t be overlooking the Pirates.
“I don’t have anything against Conference USA or any conference. I’m happy to be playing in a bowl game. After you get your first taste you want to go to a bowl again.”
East Carolina certainly doesn’t have the bowl experience USF does, but it relishes the opportunity to play a Big East team. The Bulls (along with Cincinnati and Louisville) were chosen over the Pirates to make the jump to the Big East. That may or may not be in the backs of the players’ minds, but expect ECU to be ready for the wonderful opportunity it is presented.
One thing that undoubtedly will be in the Pirates’ players’ minds is the chance to accomplish half of their season’s goal, which was to get two rings. ECU came up just shy in the league championship race, but the bowl title obviously remains within its grasp.
Holtz’ squad may be more disciplined than its counterpart. USF is committing slightly over 70 yards in penalties per game, while ECU is at 40.5. This could play a role in what appears to be a closely contested, low-scoring match-up.
Final PapaJohns.com Bowl Prediction
These teams are very, very similar on paper. They are near mirror images of one another. One area where there is a noticeable discrepancy is the pass rush. USF has been much better at rushing the quarterback. Keep an eye on this, as the Pirates will need to throw the ball well in order to have a chance in this one. If James Pinkney doesn’t have time to throw, ECU will fall because they can’t win with strictly a running game. This approach failed the Pirates at Rice, as Pinkney was held to less than 100 yards through the air.
The game features two solid defenses and there will likely not be many points scored. Expect this one to come down to the wire. East Carolina’s kicking game and defense will win the field position battle. They will pin USF deep and the Bulls will commit a couple costly turnovers. The Pirates’ offense will capitalize, as James Pinkney throws for nearly 200 yards and Brandon Fractious runs it well enough to take the bite out of the Bulls’ pass rush. East Carolina will minimize Grothe’s damage, and make a near last-minute delivery of the PapaJohns.com Bowl inaugural title.
East Carolina 23 - South Florida 21