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Opponent Preview: East Carolina Pirates

In the first two seasons under Scottie Montgomery, the Pirates have posted identical records. Unfortunately, despite strong passing offense, those records have been 3-9.

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Stagnation is a dangerous adjective, especially in college football. While a program like Alabama can get away with it since it is competing for national championships every year, most programs need to be constantly evolving and, if they have been struggling, there needs to be evidence of improvement.

For the East Carolina Pirates, back-to-back 3-9 seasons have left them in a bit of a holding pattern, as they search for the catalyst for a return to the days when bowl appearances and league title contention were expectations, not lofty aspirations. From 2006 to 2014, ECU went bowling eight times and even had a 10-win campaign. But then they slipped, leading to the departure of head coach Ruffin McNeil and a shake up of the program itself.

Since McNeil left, Scottie Montgomery has been at the helm. So far, things have come closer to flat lining than coming back to life, although ECU is still a place where passing offense comes to flourish. In Montgomery’s third year, there is mounting pressure for the Pirates to at least take some steps forward because of if stagnation is dangerous, regression could be lethal.

When Do They Play Cincinnati?

This game will serve as the regular season finale. It could very well be the difference between a bowl game appearance and an abrupt end for the Bearcats, assuming they are able to put themselves in such a position across the first 11 games of the schedule. If you need more specifics, this is a Friday kickoff on Nov. 23.

What They Do Well

Montgomery has done a superb job of putting together a staff and game plan that has helped ECU continue to be an excellent passing offense. Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen, who also coaches the quarterbacks, has played a major role as well. ECU ranked third in the American Athletic Conference in passing yards per game last season (317.9) while only four other teams in the country threw more often.

The problem for this year’s team is that the two quarterbacks that led the way are gone. Gardner Minshew transferred to Washington State (one of the few teams to throw more often than the Pirates last year) and Thomas Sirk is trying to cut it in the NFL.

While the quarterback situation is taking a big step in a different direction, ECU will try to make sure the offensive line work is still solid. The Pirates only allowed 15 sacks last season and they also were the rare pass-heavy team to dominate in time of possession, ranking third in the AAC.

Lastly, even though UC had the best punter in the conference in James Smith, ECU got great work from Austin Barnes, who led the AAC in punting average (44 YPP). The bad news is that he has since graduated.

What They Don’t Do Well

While the Pirates were good at moving the ball through the air, the rest of the offense was pretty bad. ECU couldn’t run the ball very well even when it wanted to, and all those throws led to fewer big yardage gains than you might expect. The team ranked last in the AAC in rushing yards, barely exceeding 100 yards per game, while only UC had fewer plays of 30 yards or more among AAC teams.

Those big passing numbers also didn’t produce enough points. The Pirates only scored on 75 percent of their red zone tries, with 54.6 percent becoming touchdowns. That’s a big reason for ECU’s rather sorry scoring average (24.9 PPG), even if they did throw up 48 when they faced the Bearcats.

Those weaknesses on offense pale in comparison to ECU’s horrendous defense. The Pirates finished dead last in the country in defensive S&P+. Projections don’t favor a marked turnaround either. Essentially, if you look at team rankings in the AAC for any defensive category, you can expect to find ECU at the bottom. That goes for yards allowed, sacks, tackles for loss and more. In fact, the Pirates were last in the country in yards allowed and tackles for loss (39), while managing to tie for 126th nationally with 11 sacks. Only Air Force sacked fewer quarterbacks.

The defense also failed to create many turnovers (11), which was compounded by far too many giveaways (21). With some quick math, we can see that is a turnover margin of -10, which was the worst mark in the AAC.

As if the defensive weakness wasn’t bad already, the Pirates lost their best defender from a year ago in Kiante Anderson, who led the team in sacks (4.0).

ECU also had some large problems on special teams, particularly in kick return coverage and returning punts. The Pirates allowed an average of 26.7 yards per kick return and on a season total of six punt returns — a terrible number in its own right — managed -4 yards combined.

Players to Watch

Trevon Brown, WR

The offense should still be predicated on passing if only because of how good Brown is. He was the only Pirate to be named to an all-league team (second) after turning 60 receptions into 1,069 yards and seven touchdowns while providing effective kick return talents as well.

Hussein Howe, RB

Howe might not be the star of the offense, but he is a back that can make plays as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught 30 balls last year and finished with 638 yards from scrimmage.

Devon Sutton, DB

Sutton is the top returning tackler (68) and did some decent work creating negative plays (5.5 tackles for loss).

Aaron Ramseur, LB

Ramseur had 57 tackles and a pair of interceptions as a redshirt freshman.

Series History

Even though the Bearcats finished with a better overall record than the Pirates last year, that didn’t seem to matter when they played each other. ECU looked like the far superior team, running away with a 48-20 victory on its home field. That snapped a six-game losing streak to UC for the Pirates, who lead the all-time series 13-8.

Would This Be Better as a Basketball Game?

East Carolina won 10 games in men’s basketball last year and hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 25 years (1993). In 13 all-time meetings, UC has lost to the Pirates just once. The Bearcats also own an average margin of victory of 14.2 points per game. This once again falls into the category of a fun game to watch as a UC fan, but not an objectively strong watch for a non-affiliated party.

Prediction Time!

ECU was pretty bad last year and it still crushed UC. However, the Bearcats seemingly have more reasons to be optimistic than the Pirates, who are going to be running an offense with a brand new quarterback while the defense tries to produce any type of resistance. Considering they also get to host this game, the Bearcats have the edge in this one.