This post begins our series of previews on ECU. Today we're talking about the Pirates' defense.
--The big question coming into this game is whether or not Connor Shaw will play. Reports are currently favorable that he will. However, if Dylan Thompson gets the nod for Carolina, it will be interesting to see how ECU responds. Conventional wisdom says that the answer here is to sell out to stop Marcus Lattimore and to force the unproven backup to beat you. However, ECU's defensive achilles heel is its back four, which had to replace a few starters from a year ago. ECU only gave up 13 points to Appy State last weekend, but it gave up 300 yards passing. Luckily for them, ECU's defense was able to force some turnovers and hold steady in in the red zone, which kept Appy from scoring more points. However, the secondary breakdowns were still there. You have to wonder if ECU coach Ruffin McNeil feels that even if Thompson starts, he'll be forced to compensate for his weak secondary, which would keep him from stacking the box against Lattimore. In short, I'm not sure that ECU has the personnel on hand to make us pay for not having our starter, at least not unless Thompson comes out and so thoroughly struggles to throw the ball that we have to abandon the downfield passing game.
--During the Vandy game, the ESPN announcers continually referenced how much bigger our offensive line was than Vandy's defensive line, which both attests to the fact that we finally have an SEC offensive line, as well as that Vandy still has a ways to go at some positions. USC will continue to have an advantage here against ECU. The Pirates play a 3-4 defense in McNeil's scheme. Typically, lineman in a 3-4 a bigger than their 4-3 counterparts, as they must cover a wider area along the line. One of the most statistically productive of their linemen is end Matt Milner, but Milner weighs in at around 260, compared to a more typical 3-4 290. That might be enough to be productive in the CUSA, but size may hurt him against USC, as it did last year, when he was far less involved in the play-making than he was typically in CUSA play. Typically, it's difficult for mid-majors to find the kinds of hybrid DT / DEs that you need to play end in a 3-4, and that puts such teams at a disadvantage when they play teams with high-end offensive lines. That's likely to be the case Saturday between ECU and USC.
--The defensive position where ECU excels is linebacker, where they're led by sophomore ILB Jeremy Grove. Grove won CUSA Freshman-of-the-Year Award last season, and he picked up where he left off against Appy State, recording 10 tackles. In a game where ECU is likely to be outmatched at both defensive line and secondary, it will be Grove's job to lead a linebacking corps that will be tasked with the challenge of slowing down Marcus Lattimore.