By the numbers: Pirates’ defense a sinking ship
UH’s motto reads “You are the pride,” and its football team epitomized this mantra Saturday by delivering a 28-24 victory over then-No. 17 South Florida — a win to be proud of after suffering back-to-back losses over the last two weeks.
Instead of hanging their heads after disheartening losses to Tulsa on Oct. 14 and then Memphis on Oct. 19, Houston flew to Tampa Bay, Florida, to play spoiler to the Bulls’ nation-leading win streak.
The Cougars’ run defense limited senior quarterback Quinton Flowers to just seven yards – despite previously averaging 87 per game – and a switch of their own at QB to D’Eriq King proved to pay dividends for the Cougars’ offense.
Next up is a home game against the struggling East Carolina Pirates, which could represent a perfect opportunity for the Cougars to let their guard down. To come out on top in the trap game, let’s pinpoint the aspects of East Carolina’s team that Houston must monitor to come out on top this weekend.
Lone bright spot: Passing offense
The brightest spot in what has been an otherwise dreadful season is the Pirates’ passing game, despite losing last year’s starting quarterback, Philip Nelson, who placed among the nation’s top 10 quarterbacks by completing 68 percent of his passes.
This season, senior Thomas Sirk is at the helm of the Pirates’ offense.
East Carolina is not afraid to throw the ball, as seen by its average of 40 passes for 288 yards per game. Both marks place the Pirates among the top 25 teams in both passing volume and production.
The downside surfaces in ECU’s general lack of accuracy, which sees the Pirates outside the nation’s top 100 with a completion percentage of just 53.2 and 1.3 interceptions per game.
Luckily for Houston, East Carolina lost last season’s standout receiver Zay Jones to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills after leading all Football Bowl Subdivision receivers in both catches and yards per game.
Taking over the lead receiver role is the 6-foot-2 senior Davon Grayson, who is averaging six receptions for nearly 100 yards per game in addition to mustering six touchdown catches. Not alone, the Pirates’ other two members of the receiving corps are 6-foot-2 junior Trevon Brown and 5-foot-10 senior Quay Johnson, who have combined for 56 catches, 788 yards and five touchdowns.
Designed QB runs atone for underwhelming backfield
Stopping the East Carolina rushing attack — or lack thereof — has been a relatively easy task for Pirates’ opponents in 2017. The ECU rushing game ranks outside of the nation’s top 100 teams by averaging just 33 plays, 109 yards and less than one score per game on the ground.
This season, Sirk leads the team with 60 rushing attempts and three scores in the Pirates’ offense, which features a slew of designed QB power runs — something that the Cougars’ defensive front will need to watch for. Other backs such as Hussein Howe, Darius Pinnix and Derrell Scott have combined for an underwhelming 485 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
Defense of Pirates among worst in country
East Carolina’s defense stands out in the worst of ways.
The Pirates place dead-last at No. 130 in the nation with 46 points, 578 yards and nearly six TDs allowed per game. To fully realize the bleakness of that unit, add its bottom-20 ranking on per-game average of eight penalties and less than one turnover forced.
One may contest that the numbers are inflated due to an overwhelming 77 plays the defensive unit participates in each week on average, but the Pirates place safely at No. 129 on a per-play basis as well.
Not without talent, though, defensive playmaker senior linebacker Jordan Williams sits comfortably in his role. Note his team-leading 63 tackles, including a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
Senior defensive end Kiante Anderson led the team with three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss before missing time with injury.
Troubles on the road
Overall, the Pirates have gone 1-4 at home, including a loss to James Madison, a non-FBS member school, and are 1-2 on the road.
The team’s most convincing performance came two weeks ago in a 33-17 home win against BYU. Not even a third quarter injury to Sirk could deter ECU from closing the deal against BYU thanks in large part to two fourth-quarter TDs from backup QB Gardner Minshew.
East Carolina’s only road win came in a 41-38 shootout against the top-tier passing offense of Connecticut. The victory came after Sirk posted a clean performance of 426 yards, three scores and no picks to secure a 41-21 lead early in the second half, which proved to be the difference.
When considering common opponents, one should look no further than East Carolina’s home game against Houston’s opponent from last week — the South Florida Bulls. The Sept. 30 matchup resulted in a 61-31 blowout at the hands of the Bulls’ offense that tallied a staggering 575 yards and seven TDs.
Worth noting, however, the ECU offense did manage more than 400 yards of offense and four scores against the dangerous USF defense — yet another reason why Houston must stay awake while facing East Carolina.
Kickoff for Saturday’s Homecoming date with the Pirates is scheduled for 11 a.m. at TDECU Stadium.