ECU braces for offensive show
East Carolina will enter Saturday’s Conference USA championship game against UH holding several advantages over the Cougars.’
The Pirates will be playing in front of their fans at home, are the reigning C-USA champions and boast a squad littered with upperclassmen – both starters and key reserves.’
But head coach Skip Holtz knows his team will also be facing an opponent that will test them defensively, in ways they haven’t been tested all year. The Cougars come into Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff in Greenville, N.C., ranked 1st in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total passing and scoring offense, so the Pirates know they will have to slow UH’s attack.
‘It’s going to be a heck of a challenge for us,’ Holtz said of trying to contain the Cougars. ‘Offensively, it starts with Keenum. It starts with his confidence and timing. (The UH offense) is explosive and can score from anywhere. They put up huge amounts of points and yards with what they do.’
With so much attention being paid to UH junior quarterback Case Keenum, Holtz also recognizes the importance of UH’s running game and its place within the offense.
‘Bryce Beall and Charles Sims are exceptional running backs,’ Holtz said. ‘As you try to stop the passing game, Beall and Sims are both averaging nearly 5 yards per carry.
‘They run a lot of screens to get the ball to their athletes in a hurry. They’re very in sync and know what they’re doing.’
ECU comes into the matchup after putting up one of its best offensive performances in last week’s winner-take-all C-USA East matchup with Southern Miss, in which the Pirates racked up 441 yards of offense, well above their then-season average of 356.8 yards per game. Not surprisingly, ECU held off the Golden Eagles, 25-20.’
Holtz said the team’s approach of utilizing a solid running game and converting on third downs was key. Both are areas the Pirates had struggled with throughout the season.
‘Offensively, having over 400 yards against (Southern Miss) was impressive,’ Holtz said. ‘Our points certainly didn’t equal our output. We had 172 yards rushing and were 50 percent on third down, allowing us to control the ball and the tempo of that game. That was huge for us.’
Holtz further discussed the importance of his offense maintaining a rhythm, adding that it can directly affect UH’s approach on offense.’
‘This game is not going to be won on just defense. It’s going to take all three phases of the game to win,’ Holtz said. ‘(The Cougars) base their offense on how many plays your defense has been in the game. They’ll go to a hurry-up tempo if they sense you getting tired. If you have a three-and-out on offense, they’re going to come out and really speed things up.
‘It’ll be a challenge. Our offense is going to have to help our defense, and our defense is going to have to help our offense.’
Respecting the ‘D’
Throughout UH’s meteoric rise this season, the Cougars’ defense has often been identified as the team’s Achilles’ heel. As high as the UH offense ranks, the defense ranks at the opposite end of the spectrum. UH is ranked 110th nationally in total defense and 113th in rushing defense. Holtz said those numbers can be misleading and has a healthy respect for the Cougars’ defense.
‘One of the reasons I think they’re so good on defense is because of their personnel. They also have a good scheme,’ Holtz said. ‘Their defensive success is also because it’s what they see every day in practice.’
‘We will have a hard time simulating Keenum, the speed they have at the receiver position and throwing the ball around. But their defense sees that type of speed every day. When they go to practice, the game is then almost in slow motion.’
Much has been made of ECU’s experience from last season’s championship and home-field advantage, and both teams know this Saturday’s game will be as much about who executes and minimizes mistakes. Still, Holtz knows having such a large portion of last year’s title-winning team suiting up Saturday can only help.
‘It probably helps more than anything from a confidence standpoint of our players. They’ve seen it before,’ Holtz said. ‘We have the opportunity to do something that has never been done in the Conference USA two-division format – become back-to-back league champions.’