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2009 Liberty Bowl: A look at the East Carolina Pirates

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Kentucky fan itinerary: Graceland, Beale Street, barbecue, B.B. King's joint, the blues, and a big bowl win (actually, any size bowl win will do).  The Liberty Bowl may not be what Rich Brooks and Crew dreamed of after Kentucky's 5-2 start, but after an avalanche of injuries and one pre-season forced defection, the 'Cats managed to scratch their way to a 6-6 record and a third straight bowl bid.

One thing the Liberty Bowl provides the football 'Cats is a chance to redeem themselves after disappointing losses to Vanderbilt and Tennessee which ended the regular season.  But, as with everything football related this year, it won't be easy; Randall Cobb is recovering from knee surgery, and running back Moncell 'Turtle" Allen has been deemed academically ineligible for the game.  Neither Dicky Lyons nor Derrick Locke will be available, although Dicky allegedly pulverized 'em with his pulsating pelvis in winning the Elvis impersonator contest earlier in the week.  

Alas, UK is not alone in having no vacancies on the training table.  East Carolina has suffered through an unusually high number of injuries and suspensions, as well: Wide receivers T.J. Lee and Dwayne Harris endured season-ending surgeries; projected starting running back Dominique Lindsay was lost in the pre-season; top wide-out Jamar Bryant was suspended for a violation of team rules in mid-season; running back Jon Williams was suspended for violating team rules in late October. 

ECU offensive coordinator Todd Finch bemoaned his fate; "Our top five skill guys haven't played the second half of the season for us."  Join the club, coach Finch.  I say we rename the 2009 Liberty Bowl, the M.A.S.H. 4077 Bowl.  But, enough of the pity party. 

Instead, let's take a look at the East Carolina Pirates, beginning with ...

Head Coach Skip Holtz

Holtz took over a program that has a tradition of winning (ECU has produced two NFL quarterbacks in Jeff Blake and current Jaguar David Garrard), but was only 7-28 the three seasons leading up to his hiring.  Since Holtz was hired in 2004, the Pirates have posted the following records: 5-6, 7-6, 8-5, and this years 9-4.  As with UK, the Conference USA champs are playing in their third straight bowl game.  Last year they defeated #24 Boise State 41-38 in the Hawai'i Bowl for ECU's first bowl win in seven years.

Interesting Holtz tidbit -- He was hired in December of 2004 by former Virginia Cavaliers head basketball coach Terry Holland (yeah, the guy who recruited Ralph Sampson away from UK) who is now the athletic director at ECU.

The Pirate Season

Wins -- #17 Virginia Tech 27-22, #8 West Virginia 24-3, Tulane 28-24, Memphis 30-10, Central Florida 13-10, Marshall 19-16, UAB 17-13, UTEP 53-21, Tulsa 27-24.

Losses -- N.C. State 30-24, Houston 41-24, Virginia 35-20, Southern Miss 21-3.

ECU began the season with the two upset victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia.  They then beat Tulane, which was followed by three straight losses.  Since their 3-3 start they have bounced back to win six of their final seven games.

Pirate Offensive Personnel

Quarterback Pat Pinkney: 6'0", 198 lb senior -- This season Pinkney was 205 of 327 (62.7%) through the air, for 2,379 yards, with seven interceptions and 12 touchdown passes.  He ran the ball 80 times for a gross of 206 yards, but he lost 156 yards due to his 18 sacks, so he posted only 50 net yards rushing.  As I noted, Pinkney has been sacked 18 times this year (Virginia got to him six times), but he's only been sacked four times in the last seven games (a result of a change in the offensive game-plan, due to injuries).

Pinkney, having lost his top receivers, relies heavily on the running game to set up the pass.  Pinkney has endured multiple shoulder surgeries, but has been injury-free this year. 

Running back Norman Whitley: 5'9", 187 lb sophomore -- Whitley rushed 135 times for 667 yards (4.9 yards per carry).  He averaged 51.3 yards rushing per game, and scored four rushing touchdowns. 

Whitley ran a 4.47-40 in high school.

Running back Brandon Simmons: 6'1", 223 lb, senior -- Simmons rushed 124 times for 430 yards (3.5 ypc).  He averaged 33.1 yards rushing per game, and scored six rushing touchdowns.  He also caught 24 passes for 149 yards (6.2 yards per catch) and three touchdowns.

Whitley and Simmons (a former walk-on) form quite a formidable combination in the Pirate backfield.  With the loss of so many receivers, Holtz has gone to a two-back set on most plays, relying on the run more than ever.   

Receivers and Tight end

Tight end Davon Drew: 6'4", 260 lb senior -- Drew pulled in 38 receptions for 575 yards (15.1 ypc) and three touchdowns.  He averages 44.2 receiving yards per game.

Wide receiver Alex Taylor: 6'4", 210 lb junior -- He snagged 23 catches for 310 yards (13.5 ypc) and one touchdown.  He averages 23.8 receiving yards per game.

Wide receiver Darryl Freeney: 5'11", 196 lb redshirt freshman -- Freeney made 17 catches for 240 yards (14.1 ypc) and one touchdown.  He also returns punts -- 13 on the year, for a 7.3 yard average return.

Freeney ran a 4.47-40 in high school.

Wide receiver Joe Womack: 6'1", 195 lb true freshman -- Womack grabbed 16 receptions for 215 yards (13.4 ypc).

Field goal kicker Ben Hartman: 5'11", 210 lb junior -- Hartman was 19 of 29 (65.5%) on his field goal attempts.  He was 15 of 18 from 20 to 39 yards, but only 4 of 11 beyond 40.  For his career Hartman is 35 of 56 (62.5%). 

He bears a remarkable likeness to UK's own Dicky Lyons, Jr.

Pirate Defensive Personnel

Defensive end C.J. Wilson: 6'4", 271 lb junior -- Wilson is fourth on the team with 64 tackles.  He also has an incredible 18.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and five quarterback hits.

Wilson was named First Team All-Conference USA.  He was also named Conference USA Defensive Most Valuable Player by The Sporting News. 

Defensive end Zack Slate: 6'5", 221 lb senior -- Slate recorded 45 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five sacks and five quarterback hits.

Wilson and Slate have been honored with a nickname: "Lumber and Lightening."  Wilson is the "Lumber" and Slate is the "Lightening."  In ECU's 4-3 defensive set they have proved to be quite an effective combination in rushing and pressuring the quarterback; they have combined for 109 tackles, 26.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. 

Linebacker Pierre Bell: 6'2", 233 lb senior -- Bell leads the team with 92 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, one sack two interceptions and five pass break-ups.

Bell was named Second Team All-Conference USA.

Linebacker Nick Johnson: 6'1", 215 lb junior -- He is tied for second on the team with 89 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions and three pass break-ups.

Free safety Van Eskridge: 6'0", 200 lb junior -- Eskridge also had 89 tackles, four interceptions and three pass break-ups.  He returned one of his INT"s for a touchdown.

He was named First Team All-Conference USA.

Defensive back Emanuel Davis: 5'11", 190 lb freshman -- Davis recorded 42 tackles, two tackles for loss, four interceptions and seven pass break-ups.  He also returned one of his INT's for a touchdown.

Davis was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team.  The Sporting News named him to their national All-Freshman Team.

Punter Matt Dodge: 6'2", 220 lb junior -- Dodge punted 65 times for an average of 43.5 yards (16th nationally).  He had 22 punts travel over 50 yards.  He also kicks-off: 66 kick-offs, with four touch-backs.

Dodge was named an Honorable Mention All-America by

UK National Ranking Comparison to ECU

Total Defense -- UK - 34th (327 yards allowed), ECU - 43rd (334 yards allowed) ... Scoring Defense -- UK - 38th (21.7 points allowed), ECU - 31st (20.8 points allowed) ... Rushing Defense -- UK - 66th (142 yards allowed), ECU - 52nd (138 yards allowed) ... Pass Defense -- UK - 28th (184.6 yards allowed), ECU - 48th (196.7 yards allowed) ... Team Interceptions -- UK - 56th (12 INT's), ECU - t5th (21 INT's) ... Total Offense -- UK - 105th (298.4 yards per game), ECU - 83rd (336.0 yards per game) ... Scoring Offense -- UK - 87th (22.4 points per game), ECU - 79th (23.8 points per game) ... Rushing Offense -- UK - 78th (129.3 yards per game), ECU - 83rd (128.3 yards per game) ... Pass Offense -- UK - 98th (169.2 yards per game), ECU - 64th (207.7 yards per game).

Miscellaneous ECU Information

ECU is +5 in the takeaway department, but they've turned the ball over 27 times ... In the red zone ECU has converted 35 of 41 chances (85%), but they've only scored touchdowns on 22 of those 41 opportunities (54%) ... ECU's red zone defense has been effective; in 42 opportunities their opponents have scored a touchdown 20 times (48%) ... ECU has executed 30 sacks in 13 games ... ECU averages 3.4 yards per rush as a team. 

Tennessee Titan rookie, and former ECU Pirate Chris Johnson, was recently named to the Pro Bowl.

ECU's victory over Boise State in last year's Hawai'i Bowl, coupled with the two season-opening victories over ranked opponents this year, marks the first time in Pirate history that they have defeated three straight ranked teams. 

Thoughts and a Prediction

This is a game with two teams who are going to attempt to execute very similar game-plans; both teams are going to look to run first, and pressure, pressure, pressure the quarterback on passing downs.

I think the game hinges on UK quarterback Mike Hartline's performance.  If Hartline plays up to the praise he's been recently receiving, then I feel UK wins the game.  But, if he goes 12 for 25, for 140 yards (or something similar) the the 'Cats are in for a long evening.  With ECU knowing that Kentucky wants to run, if Hartline and his receivers aren't on the same page, then Holtz will stack eight in the box and dare UK to handoff.

There are reports that say that Hartline and his stable of colts have progressed nicely over the last few weeks.  I want to believe, but in a year as strange as this, I'm hopeful, but not expectant.

Three straight bowl wins for the first time in school history?  I can't pick against that -- UK 23 ECU 20.

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!