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East Carolina Preview: Another Shootout Coming?

David Hunter and the Cougar defense have been the target of a lot of criticism in recent weeks. Can they step up against a high-flying Pirate offense?

East Carolina Pirates (1-3, 1-0 C-USA) at Houston Cougars (5-0, 1-0 C-USA)

Kickoff: Saturday, September 8th, 6:00 PM Central

The Line: Houston by 13.5

All-Time Series: ECU leads, 6-4 (Pirates 4-1 in Houston)

There have certainly been some entertaining games in the ECU-UH series in recent years. In 2007, the Cougars suffered a rare home loss when they missed two field goals in the last three minutes to lose by 2 points. The next year, the Pirates opened the season with wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia, and were ranked #23 in the country when the teams faced off in Greenville. The Coogs dismantled 10-point favorite ECU, 41-24. Then in 2009, the teams faced off for the conference championship. This time it was the Cougars who were nationally ranked, but the Pirates held off a late Cougar rally for the win.

This year, the Pirates went up against their typically tough non-conference schedule, looking fairly impressive in competitive losses to open the season against South Carolina and Virginia Tech. But they haven't been quite so impressive as of late. They barely pulled out a victory over hapless UAB, and then suffered a 35-20 loss to rival North Carolina, in a game even less close than the final score might indicate.

But the Pirates remain dangerous. They've hurt themselves with turnovers (they're worst in the nation with 17 giveaways after only four games), but they've shown a potent offense, led by quarterback Dominique Davis, who has thrown for 778 yards in the past two games. So Houston's defense, which hasn't been too impressive thus far, is in for a long night, right? And ECU's defense was dead-last nationally last year, so we're just hoping to win the duel of teams lighting up the scoreboard, right?

Maybe not.

While it may be hard to believe, Houston's defense is actually top 25 nationally in a major category - tackles for loss. The Coogs have accumulated 7.4 tackles for loss per game. (Houston recorded "just" seven against Georgia State, so don't assume that it's that game skewing the numbers.) That figure is good for #21 in the country. There actually is some talent on defense. There have certainly been a high number of players out of position on plays, leading to large gains, but that seems like something that can be coached.

Not buying it? Consider that ECU's offense probably isn't as good as you think it is, either.

The Pirate passing game, big numbers in the last two weeks notwithstanding, has averaged just 6.0 yards per pass attempt on the year. That's 1.4 yards per attempt worse than the national average. But ECU has faced some good defenses so far, right? Yes, but the teams ECU has faced so far are giving up 7.1 yards per attempt to everybody else. The Pirate pass offense putting up big numbers is more indicative of a large number of pass attempts than it is indicative of actual offensive efficiency.

The ECU run game isn't any better, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, a whole yard worse than the national average, and half a yard worse than what ECU opponents have given up against everybody else.

So if the Houston defense shows up, the Cougars win in a blowout, right? After all, East Carolina had the worst defense in the nation last year, didn't they?

Not so fast, hypothetical reader who asks convenient questions for the purposes of my article. The Pirate pass defense has surrendered just 6.5 yards per pass attempt, significantly better than the national average of 7.4. (ECU opponents have averaged 7.3 yards per attempt against other competition.) East Carolina may actually have one of the best pass defenses Houston has faced this year. I don't expect they'll shut down Case Keenum and company, but they won't be a UTEP-level pushover.

ECU's run defense has been pretty bad, so Michael Hayes, Bryce Beall and Charles Sims could have big games.

Both teams run very high-tempo offenses, so we're likely to see a high number of total plays, and the game probably won't end up being what you might call low-scoring. But don't be surprised to see the defenses get some stops.

Expect to see two extremely motivated teams on Saturday. East Carolina needs some wins to prevent their season from getting away from them. Houston badly wants to stay undefeated, and wants revenge for the 2009 loss. The Cougar defense, which has suffered a lot of criticism despite the 5-0 start, will have to step up. And hopefully a rowdy home crowd will help make the difference.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.