CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 03: Head coach Ruffin McNeill of the East Carolina Pirates cheers on his team against the South Carolina Gamecocks during their game at Bank of America Stadium on September 3, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
After presumably going on the road and beating the Vanderbilt Commodores on the opening Thursday of the season, South Carolina returns to Columbia in Week Two for its home opener against the East Carolina Pirates. Last year, Carolina's contest with ECU was quite a bit more dramatic than expected. Steve Spurrier made a surprise decision to start Connor Shaw while promising to give Stephen Garcia the second quarter, with whichever quarterback had the better quarter getting the second half. Shaw's time was a disaster, although not entirely because of his own play. Then, Garcia, while not spectacular, helped settle down the offense, making some good runs in the process. Carolina's defense and special teams lent a hand with some big plays, and Carolina ended up winning comfortably after being down 17-0 at one point.
A number of other things led to the shaky performance, particularly the combination of opening game jitters in an unfamiliar locale (last year's game was played in Charlotte at BOA Stadium), but Spurrier's decision to have in-game QB try-outs was particularly problematic. In hindsight, it's easy to see that Spurrier was likely right that Garcia had lost it and that Shaw was playing better. However, what I really would have liked to have seen in this situation would have been for Spurrier to have made a more decisive choice between the two. If Shaw is playing better, give him the reins. If you're understandably not ready to give up on the long-time starter, then go with Garcia, but give him a short leash if he starts putting the ball up for grabs. But don't go in planning to play musical quarterbacks. Spurrier has said before that he believes it's fine under certain circumstances to plan on playing two quarterbacks, and his resume at Florida gives him a bit of ammunition for this position. However, games like last year's edition of ECU-USC show why the philosophy has its drawbacks. The team clearly didn't respond well while Shaw was in the game. That was partially because they preferred Garcia, but it was also likely because Spurrier didn't truly put his confidence in Shaw by giving him a more solidified starting role. If he had done so, one can only speculate how the season might have turned out.
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In any event, with less drama entering this year's game, I expect a more balanced performance and a more convincing win. And it's not just that we will have more stability on offense. It's also that I don't see ECU improving significantly on last year's 5-7 record, and nor do I see them matching up well with Carolina. Last year, ECU's biggest problem on defense was its lack of an effective front seven. The Pirates ranked 81st in the nation in that category, giving up over 170 ypg on the ground. They also ranked 102nd in the nation in tackles for loss, and a respectable-but-not-good 59th in sacks. Those numbers will have to get better for ECU to have any kind of success against South Carolina, considering how well Shaw has tended to play when not threatened by a pass rush, as well as how strong our running game should be next year. The Pirates do hope that a somewhat healthier Matt Milner will help them in this regard. Milner is a DE who had a breakout year rushing the passer in 2010 but struggled last year do to nagging injuries. However, this team needs help across the board defensively, so it's going to take more than Milner to do the trick. I don't see the playmakers on the roster who are going to make that happen, at least not in this game.
On offense, things also look shaky for the Pirates. ECU's attack was inefficient and turnover-prone last year, ranking second-to-last in the nation in turnover margin, largely due to giving up a stunning 35 turnovers on the year. (USC fans will remember that we had some momentous takeaways in last year's game.) Can they improve on those numbers? Well, the team does return some experienced players at RB, WR, and OL (maybe ECU shouldn't want some of these players back, considering the fumbling problems they had last year), but it loses its best and most important player, QB Dominique Davis. Davis was an experienced, generally capable leader for ECU's Air Raid offense (ECU coach Ruffin McNeil is a disciple of Mike Leach). Davis is now gone, and no one managed to tie the spot down in the spring. Needless to say, that's a problem for a team that runs this kind of offense, one that will likely lead to some confusion. Even if ECU does eventually achieve stability at QB, it'll likely still be finding its way in Week Two. The one thing I don't like about how our defense stacks up against this offense is that the Air Raid negates our biggest defensive strength, our pass rush, but, for the time being, ECU doesn't appear to have the weapons it needs to capitalize on this advantage.
The other schematic point to keep in mind when comparing this game to last year's contest is where the game comes in the schedule. Last year, the game's placement was problematic for two reasons. First of all, it came before Georgie, which was arguably the biggest game of the season. USC-Georgia was, at the time, thought sure to determine the SEC East champ, even if things didn't work out that way. It's likely that Georgia was on our minds during the ECU game. Additionally important was the striking difference between the three offenses we faced off against over the first three weeks: ECU's Air Raid, Georgia' pro-style, and Navy's triple-option. This scheduling oddity presented a challenge to our defensive staff, who had to develop highly unique gameplans for each of the three games. This year, the Air Raid will still be a deviation, but without Georgia and Navy on deck (indeed, with a layup game against UAB in Week Three), the staff will be able to take the Air Raid a bit more seriously in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the season, even if planning for Vanderbilt will certainly take precedence over planning for ECU.