GAMEDAY: Slumping ECU faces Bearcats
By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector
Saturday, October 22, 2016
Tasked with trying to avoid their football team's first five-game losing streak in 13 years, the East Carolina Pirates could use a little luck tonight in Cincinnati, where they are winless for an even longer stretch into history.
ECU (2-4, 0-2 American Athletic Conference) and first-year head coach Scottie Montgomery have had time on their side after last Thursday's scheduled home game against Navy was flooded away by Hurricane Matthew, time to address four consecutive losses in which the Pirates have largely been their own undoing.
Similarly, Cincinnati (3-3, 0-3), under veteran coach Tommy Tuberville, enters the 7 p.m. kickoff in Nippert Stadium on the heels of a bye week and with the bitter taste of three losses in the Bearcats' last four outings. Their only win in that stretch was a close in-state triumph over Miami (Ohio).
“They've had some games very similar to ours, where turnovers within about a minute-fifteen- to 2-minute time frame changed the outcome of some of their games,” Montgomery said of the Bearcats, whose last outing was a 20-9 setback at fellow East Division opponent Connecticut.
Montgomery hopes ECU senior quarterback Philip Nelson will be at 100 percent tonight after a lackluster performance in the team's 38-22 loss at South Florida two Saturdays ago, a game in which Nelson was knocked out with an injury for the second time in two games.
In both outings, Nelson (team-high 1,841 pass yards, 11 touchdowns, four interceptions) was replaced by sophomore junior college transfer Gardner Minshew (412 yds., two TDs, three INTs). Both could see the field tonight, though Nelson was back in full swing by Sunday night's practice.
The ever-versatile senior James Summers (team-high 359 rush yds., three TDs, seven receptions for 61 yds.) has now supplanted junior Anthony Scott (62 rushes, 306 yds., two TDs) as the team's lead tailback, with junior Devin Anderson (25-108-1) as the third option.
The man powering the Pirates offense, even in tough times, is senior receiver Zay Jones (84 catches, 840 yds., three TDs), who is on pace to break some of all-time ECU leading receiver and former teammate Justin Hardy's school and NCAA records.
Jones seems certain to break Hardy's single-season ECU receptions record of 121 and at the season's midpoint is well ahead of the pace to best Hardy's 1,494 yards the same season. In order to match Hardy's NCAA-best 387 career catches, Jones needs 62 more in his last collegiate campaign.
Already second to Hardy on the career yards list, Jones still would need 1,168 more this season to match Hardy, now with the Atlanta Falcons. The Austin, Texas, native is also unlikely to touch Hardy's 35 career TD grabs, entering tonight's contest with 18.
Also, Jones enters the game leading the nation by far with an average of 14 catches per game, is the Football Bowl Subdivision's active leader in career receptions (325) and yards (3,373) and fell one catch shy of the NCAA single-game record with his 22 versus South Carolina earlier this season.
UC is ninth in total defense in the American with an average yield of 418.7 yards, but most of that is coming through the air, and the Bearcats will present some challenges to ECU's rush.
The Cincy defense starts squarely in the middle with senior linebacker and co-AAC tackles leader Eric Wilson, who has 65 stops to go with 5.5 tackles for loss and a team-best three sacks. The 'Cats' 4-3 defense also has seniors on the outside LB posts with Antonio Kinard (45 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) on the weakside and Mike Tyson (25 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, team-high three INTs) on the strongside.
Up front, senior defensive tackle Alex Pace sets the tone and boasts five TFLs, while sophomore end Kevin Mouhon has been a force with a team-high 7.5 TFLs to go with 20 tackles and a sack. A young secondary features lone senior Zach Edwards (31 tackles, sack), who has been boosted by junior cornerback Linden Stephens and his team-best two picks and five pass breakups.
The Pirates, who have sunk to 10th in total defense in the AAC and still have just one sack all season, will get a big shot in the arm today with the return of senior nose tackle Demetri McGill, who missed the last two games with an injury.
The two biggest difference-makers in the Pirates' front seven, however, are OLBs Dayon Pratt (33 tackles, four TFLs, sack, three PBs, team-high three forced fumbles) and Yiannis Bowden (19 tackles, team-high 5.5 TFLs, INT, two QB hurries, FF). In the middle, Jordan Williams and Terrell Richardson have led the charge with a team-best 35 stops apiece and a combined six TFLs, with senior starter Cam White adding 25 tackles.
Sophomore cornerback Corey Seargent is also back from injury today, taking some of the heat off freshman fellow corner Colby Gore. Junior free safety Travon Simmons continues to bolster the backfield with 28 stops and an interception, while junior Bobby Fulp and senior DaShawn Benton have 19 tackles each at strong safety and senior nickelback DaShaun Amos has 20.
Today's game pits the American's worst rush defense (ECU allows 195 ground yards per game) against the league's worst rush offense (UC averages 124.8 per game).
But the Bearcats are always strong on the pass, this year led mostly by sophomore Hayden Moore (1,100 pass yads., seven TDs, four INTs), although Tuberville revealed Thursday night that senior third-stringer and former highly-touted recruit Gunner Kiel is slated for his first start of the season.
Kiel has attempted 11 passes this year, freshman Ross Trail has 70 and Moore 159. Kiel was 30-of-47 for 270 yards, a touchdown and an INT against ECU last year.
The Bearcats have four principal playmakers in the pass game: senior Nate Cole (team-high 35 rec. for 364 yds., four TDs), junior Devin Gray (29-442-1) and sophomore Khalil Lewis (24-299-2) at receiver and junior tailback Mike Boone (16-166).
Senior Tion Green leads the feeble UC rush with 360 yards and two TDs on 76 carries.
The Pirates have lost consecutive last-second heartbreakers to Cincinnati. Last year, UC kicker Andrew Gantz drilled a 42-yard field goal as time expired to break a 16-16 tie in Greenville. The year before in Paul Brown Stadium, Gantz connected from 47 yards with 15 ticks left to derail a 46-45 ECU edge the Pirates had stolen with 1:02 left in the fourth quarter.
“If you get going early in the game, which we need to do and which we think we have a really good chance to do against Cincinnati, it'll be a good night for the Pirates,” Montgomery said. “If we can continue to grow like we've grown since the week before South Florida.”
Contact Nathan Summers at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-329-9595 or follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.