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GAMEDAY: Pirates seek senior day win

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ECU's Hussein Howe jumps over BYU's Grant Jones during their game in Greenville on Oct. 21, 2017. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, November 18, 2017

When two teams that are 1-5 in their conference meet with just two games left in the season, motivation might seem like a needle in a haystack.

But just below the surface, and certainly in both locker rooms for today's Cincinnati-East Carolina clash in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, motivation actually comes in many different forms.

For 24 true ECU seniors and three graduated juniors, today is senior day, and in their case an opportunity for just a second home victory all season, the only other one a late-October win against a hapless BYU team.

Second-year head coach Scottie Montgomery can perhaps help to solidify his future by at least matching his three-win debut in 2016 before the team finishes the season against a Memphis team that entered this week 8-1 and riding at No. 18 in the Associated Press poll.

“We've got our work cut out for us but we're getting better, we're motivated to play,” Montgomery said of his 2-8 Pirates taking on the 3-7 Bearcats at noon. “We want to see our fans come back and support our seniors. … A lot of families are coming in. It's going to be sad for me to see some of these guys move along.

“It's also sad to see some of our guys who have played so hard and played so well to be injured.”

Last week, the Pirates stormed back against the Green Wave of Tulane on a cold night in Greenville, as junior quarterback Gardner Minshew tossed a game-tying touchdown pass to sophomore Deondre Farrier who held on before tumbling into the shrubs abutting the grandstand.

But despite arguably its best performance of the season, the ECU defense could not get a stop on the first possession of overtime and the ECU offense and freshman running back Darius Pinnix were stonewalled on fourth down at the 1-yard line to end another heartbreaking finish for today's hosts.

But this senior class largely came in as winners and they expressed determination in ending things on a high note.

“It's a bittersweet feeling. We've been through a lot, good and bad, in Dowdy-Fick, but it's brought me a lot of lessons so I'm grateful for that,” defensive lineman Demage Bailey said of his Dowdy-Ficklen finale. “Just seeing the crowd, seeing them get involved and being the 12th man on the field, that's the best thing I've felt.”

In order to break a six-game losing streak in the series that dates back to 2002, Minshew (1,345 yards, 10 TDs, four interceptions) will need to keep up a similar pace to the one the Pirates adopted when down 10 points to Tulane.

Montgomery did not indicate whether or not graduate transfer Thomas Sirk (1,655 pass yds., 165 rush yds., 12 total TDs, nine INTs), who started the balance of the team's games, would get any opportunities today.

Certain to get his chances will be sophomore tailback Hussein Howe (team-high 66 rushes and 324 yds. two TDs), who charged for a career-best 108 yards on 14 carries against the Green Wave. That included a powerful, dynamic 25-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Backing him again and looking for redemption will be Pinnix (57-190-2).

Also playing in their Ficklen finales today after exemplary careers are lead receiver Davon Grayson (team-high 57 receptions, 876 yds. and six TDs) and position-mate Jimmy Williams (28-376-1), who has been slowed all season by injuries. Similarly, senior Quay Johnson (47-464-3) has already seen his ECU career come to an end following a knee injury against Tulane.

At the very top of his game, especially when Minshew is throwing him the ball, is junior Trevon Brown (44-671-5). Continuing to develop behind that group are Farrier (18-141-2) and Howe (21-162) out of the backfield.

Up front, mainstay right tackle Brandon Smith will make his 34th career start and final on his home field today, as will tight end Stephen Baggett (6-64-1).

Unique motivation also finds ECU defensive coordinator Robert Prunty, who came to the Pirates from the Bearcats' defensive staff a year ago. The UC team the coach sees on film now is the same in many ways in terms of personnel, but yet so very different when it comes to scheme.

“You look at the personnel and I see myself because a lot of those guys I recruited, but they're doing a lot of different things,” Prunty said of playing his former team, where for three seasons he held the triple title of associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator/defensive ends coach. “They're getting better.”

Prunty's unit got its share of stops last weekend, including three turnovers that the offense turned into a meager three points.

Like the ECU offense, numerous freshmen and sophomores have invaded the Pirate defensive depth chart in recent weeks.

The group is still led at many positions by upperclassmen, including grad transfer safety and leading tackler Korrin Wiggins (80 tackles, three tackles for loss, INT) and linebacker Jordan Williams (78 tackles, three TFLs, forced fumble). Also, senior end Kiante Anderson stormed back into the lineup from a long-term knee injury last week, and he still is tied for the lead on the team with 5.5 TFLs to go with his team-best 3.5 sacks.

Sophomore Devon Sutton (62 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, sack, FF, fumble recovery) continues to help reshape the team's five-man secondary along with freshman Davondre Robinson (33 tackles, 1.5 TFLs). Senior safety Bobby Fulp has 45 tackles, a sack and an INT.

The Bearcats have jumbled personnel time and again under first-year coach Luke Fickell in hopes of creating their own momentum. It hasn't happened yet, despite winning a 17-16 cliffhanger two games ago against the same Tulane team that outlasted the Pirates last week.

But Cincinnati's only other wins came against Austin Peay on opening day and Miami (Ohio) two weeks later.

The same Hayden Moore who appeared poised to start against the Pirates in Cincinnati last season, but was replaced that week by Gunner Kiel for a rousing 31-19 Bearcat win, most certainly will get the nod tonight.

Now a junior, Moore (2,176 pass yds., 272 rush yds., 18 TDs, seven INTs) has attempted to spark an offense that nonetheless ranks last in the American in scoring (20.9 points/game) and last in total offense (356.0 yds./game).

Behind him, four different rushers have been employed in a stable similar to ECU's this season. Redshirt freshman Gerrid Doaks (87 carries, 513 yds., two TDs) and senior mainstay Mike Boone (81-318-4) head the group, followed by Moore and true freshman Michael Warren (45-260-1). Boone also has 22 catches for 160 yards and a score.

The UC wide receiver group that last season gave the ECU secondary fits still is led by junior Khalil Lewis (53 receptions, 528 yds., four TDs), who nailed the Pirates for three TDs in that game. Also prominent in the pass game are senior Devin Gray (25-427-3), sophomore Thomas Geddis (23-323-3) and senior tight end Tyler Cogswell (20-124-2).

The Bearcat defense has mostly defied its offensive counterpart's season-long struggles, despite not getting more results. UC boasts the second-best pass defense in the conference (209.6 yds.) and has the fifth-ranked total defense (411.5 yds.).

Senior middle linebacker Jaylyin Minor has surpassed the century mark in tackles, entering today's game with 103 stops, 4.5 TFLs and a sack. He is followed by sophomore weakside LB Perry Young's 86 tackles and a team-high 8.5 hits behind the line.

Junior interior lineman Marquise Copeland has cornered opposing quarterbacks for a team-best three sacks to go with 7.5 TFLs, while junior end Kevin Mouhon has added 5.5 TFLs and two sacks.

Despite their strong play at the back end, the Bearcats have just four picks this season by four different players. Senior safety Carter Jacobs has 61 tackles, three passes defended and a forced fumble to lead the unit.

The Pirates have not beaten the Bearcats at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium since a 48-34 decision in November of 1999.

Behind honored in today's senior day ceremony will be Anderson, DE Randall Anderson, Baggett, Bailey, offensive lineman Des Barmore, punter Austin Barnes, TE Devin Carlos, ILB Joe Carter, DE Gaelin Elmore, Fulp, Grayson, ILB Anthony Gutierrez, defensive back Tre Hicks, Johnson, OL Erik Lenzen, DB Chris Love, DT Mike Myers, deep snapper Colton Oliver, DB Travis Phillips, OL Justin Sandifer, Sirk, Brandon Smith, DB Xavier Smith, DB Austin Teague, Wiggins, Jimmy Williams and Jordan Williams.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 and follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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