This post continues our series previewing the East Carolina game. The last post discussed ECU's defense. Today, we're talking about the Pirates' offense.
Air Raid. Prior to last season, ECU hired former Mike Leach disciple Ruffin McNeill as head coach, and McNeill installed Leach's Air Raid offense. If you haven't read much about the Air Raid, I would recommend this synopsis at Smart Football. You might also look at this article at Shakin the Southland on Chad Morris at Clemson, who is installing Air Raid-like concepts this year. The long and short of the Air Raid as ECU runs it is that whereas most traditional offenses use the run to set up the pass, the Air Raid uses the short pass--bubble screens and quick slants--to set up the run and the downfield pass. You've probably heard a lot about ECU and the three-step drop. You'll see Pirates QB Dominique Davis get rid of the ball quickly on most plays, oftentimes to a pre-chosen, designated receiver. These plays, in a sense, function like running the ball does in many traditional offenses--they earn short gains and they soften the defense up for more deadly surprise attacks. You can also expect ECU to spread the field; most sets will have several wideouts.
The greatest benefit of the Air Raid for ECU in this game is that it's a neutralizer. A program like ECU can't hope to line up against a quality defensive front and pound the rock. By spreading the field, though, they make it possible to get fast players the ball in space. Once that happens, all it takes is a good block or a busted assignment for a nice gain to occur. The drawback of the offense, of course, is that putting the ball in the air a lot is risky; that said, many of ECU's passes will be of the safer variety.
Keep reading after the jump.
Negation of USC's advantage on the defensive line. Although it throws the ball 50+ and 60+ times per game, ECU gives up very few sacks due to its use of three-step drops and quick passes. Unfortunately, that plays against South Carolina's defensive strength, which lies along the defensive line and, particularly, in the pass rush. However, that doesn't mean that Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram, and Jadeveon Clowney can't have an effect on the game. While it's hard to sack ECU, it is possible to put pressure on Davis, and even a little pressure can disrupt the passing game. Last year when ECU played UNC, the Tar Heels' elite defensive line managed to pressure on Davis, leading to three costly interceptions that allowed UNC to break the game open. USC will hope to do the same, which should be possible against an inexperienced offensive line.
Challenge for South Carolina's secondary. As has been frequently discussed, ECU's sophisticated passing game will pose a tough challenge for South Carolina's secondary, which comes into the season with much to prove and will be without some key cogs in this game due to injuries and disciplinary reasons. Certainly, much of the challenge will be limiting ECU's downfield passing game. However, the secondary's biggest challenge may be in the tackling department. You'll see ECU attempt to get the ball to its receivers in space. Carolina's LBs and DBs will then have to limit ECU's ability to gain yards after the short catches. Doing so is the key to slowing down the Air Raid; once we eliminate the short passing game, we force ECU to throw down field, at which point our pass rush can wreak havoc. Therefore, good management of assignment, tackling fundamentals, and physical play against blocking schemes by our secondary are absolutely key to this game.
Quick starts. Quick starts are characteristic of ECU. Last year against UNC, VT, and NCSU, ECU took early leads, including a 21-0 first-quarter lead against the Wolfpack. In each game, ECU would give up those leads, although it did manage to hang on and beat the 'Pack in overtime. What this tells me is (1) that McNeill knows how to draw up a good first couple of series, and (2) that more physically gifted, well coached defenses oftentimes manage to figure out ECU before too long. Although this all suggests that we shouldn't worry too much if ECU gets a little lead early on, I would say that I would prefer to see us put these guys away early rather than later.