Heading into the game, many ECU fans considered this game against UCF to be a test to see how good the Pirates really are going to be this season. Through five games of the season, ECU was sending out mixed reviews (Losing badly out of conference but somehow leading the Conference USA East division). The Pirates were facing a team that was like them: A top 50 team in the nation with a high-powered offense, a reliable defense and no clear definition following some strong out-of-conference scheduling.
The question heading into the game was: which team could rise up and take command of the C-USA East? After UCF’s resounding win, 40-20, the question is now: What did we learn about the Pirates?
Carden and the offense finally stretch the field
First let’s start with the good: Shane Carden is taking more chances down the field. Don’t get me wrong screen passes and dump offs are all well and good, but after a while, the defense starts to creep up towards the line of scrimmage. Against UCF, Carden threw the deep ball early and connected with Justin Hardy for a 76-yard touchdown. Not only did it give the ECU fans a great highlight, but it also swayed the momentum in the Pirates favor (for a play at least).
The pass was the longest of the season for Carden and he followed it up later with a 60-yard completion to Jabril Solomon, the second longest of the year. Another impressive stat? Carden finished for a career-high 298 yards passing and had 10 different receivers with at least one completion.
Pirates were effective in spurts; Knights remained steady
And now the bad: Of ECU’s 11 offensive drives, the Pirates scored on four of them. ECU’s first two drives of the first quarter ended in touchdowns, and its first two drives of the third quarter ended in field goals. The other seven? Five punts, an interception and a turnover on downs. The Pirates started strong, but couldn’t maintain.
Speaking of maintaining, UCF also had 11 offensive drives, but scored on eight of them. For dramatic purposes, here is the list of how the Knights’ drives ended against the Pirates: punt, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, field goal, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, fumble, end of game.
UCF’s first scoring drive ended with 5:55 left in the first quarter and the Knights didn’t end a drive without points until there was four minutes left in the game. Ouch.
Committee becoming a one-two punch
ECU running back Vintavious Cooper has taken over as the Pirates biggest rushing threat. Though ECU only had 64 rushing yards against UCF, Cooper had 58 of them on 18 carries (Carden finished with -18 including sack yardage). Between Cooper and Carden, they carried the ball for 24 of the team’s 29 rushing attempts. But with the team’s other five carries, Michael Dobson might have found his new role in the group.
With Reggie Bullock out with a concussion, that left only Dobson to relieve Cooper. Dobson was able to come in and provide a nice change of pace (5 carries, 24 yards for a 4.8 avg.) and the Pirates now seem to have an effective combo at running back.
Head coach Ruffin McNeill has voiced his intent to have a running back by committee approach this season on multiple occasions, but it seems like he will be leaning on Cooper and Dobson to carry the load.
All in all, the loss puts the Pirates at (3-3, 2-1) and the hardest half of the season is over. ECU’s final six opponents hoist a combined record of 8-23 and the Pirates will play four of them at home. The UCF loss hurt, but if ECU does what it is supposed to do, the Pirates still have a good shot at contending for a conference title.