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ECU @ UAB: The Edge

"The Edge" is the second installment of HTC's three-part preview of the upcoming ECU-UAB contest. In this segment, we take a look at the key phases of the game and who has "The Edge" in each of them.

ECU celebrates Justin Hardy's first-quarter touchdown versus Memphis last Saturday.

ECU Passing Game vs. UAB Pass Defense

East Carolina’s passing attack finally had the breakout game it was looking for against UTEP as first-year starter Shane Carden threw for 308 passing yards and five touchdowns on 25 completions. It was the best statistical game from Carden, who threw all five of his touchdown passes against Memphis to the receiver combination of Justin Hardy and Justin Jones.

Hardy’s 137 receiving yards led to two receiving scores on six catches, while Jones’ five grabs led to 80 yards and a career-high tying three touchdowns. Carden completed passes to 10 different targets as the Pirates’ passing attack continues to rise (58th in passing yards per game) after a slow start to the season.

The one low point of the passing offense against Memphis was the performance of the team’s offensive line and running backs in pass protection. ECU gave up six sacks to a Tigers’ team that had just three sacks total coming into the game.

The pass protection will have to be better against a UAB front seven that’s averaging just under two sacks a game. The Blazers are led by linebacker Marvin Burdette (2 sacks) and Diaheem Watkins (1.5 sacks) in the pass-rushing department, while six additional players have combined to produce a total of 10 sacks in six games.

On the back-end of the defense, a young secondary that features two freshmen starters in safety Jake Ganus and cornerback Lamarcus Farmer has struggled to stop the big play at times.

UAB is surrendering 225 yards a game through the air, which has them No. 60 overall in the nation in pass defense. Though that isn’t bad, they’ve struggled to stop good passing teams, as evidenced by last week’s Houston aerial output of 380 yards.

Who has the edge? ECU

The Pirates appear to be clicking in the passing game and – as long as the pass protection holds up – should have success against a UAB secondary that has been beaten at times.

ECU Running Game vs. UAB Rush Defense

Despite only totaling 61 rushing yards in all against Memphis due to various sacks, ECU got another successful outing from upstart running back Vintavious Cooper. Cooper racked up 96 yards on just 16 carries and is now at 454 rushing yards on the season on 85 attempts, an average of 5.4 yards per attempt.

Backup Reggie Bullock is expected to miss his third straight game with a concussion, so expect Michael Dobson to get the majority of the carries in the No. 2 slot at running back behind Cooper.

UAB’s defense allowed 186 rushing yards to Houston last weekend, right on par with its season average of what it has given up all season.

Burdette, the team’s middle linebacker, leads a strong linebacking corps with a team-best 63 tackles and 5.5 TFL. The senior is a likely All-Conference USA candidate.

Despite the linebackers’ strong play, the defensive line has not done its part to hold down opposing team’s running games. Defensive tackle Deric Scott has been the team’s best impact interior lineman with 15 tackles, including two tackles for lost yardage.

Who has the edge? ECU

The recent emergence of Cooper has brought a different dimension to the ECU offense that makes it tough for defenses to defend.

UAB Passing Game vs. ECU Pass Defense

Despite major pass protection problems, UAB has had one of the country’s most explosive passing games under new first-year head coach and former Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee. The Blazers are averaging over 300 yards passing a game behind the strong play of first-year starter Austin Brown.

Though veteran Jonathan Perry (53-of-94, 726 yards, 4 touchdowns) began the season as the starter, Brown has since taken over and performed well, throwing for 1,130 yards and five touchdowns to just three interceptions on 81 completions. Against Houston last week, Brown threw for 302 yards and a score on 20 completions.

UAB has a good mix of receivers to help out Brown, including the explosive and dangerous Jackie Williams, who’s leading the Blazers in catches (26) and receiving yards (424). Nick Adams helps to form a great one-two punch with Williams having caught 23 passes for 267 yards and a touchdown.
Another senior receiver in Patrick Hearn is questionable to return this weekend after missing the past few games with an injury.

ECU did an effective job of holding a struggling Memphis passing attack to just 166 yards total last week, but should get a much stiffer test against UAB on Saturday.

The Pirates have struggled against good passing teams all season, though the recent return of senior cornerbacks Jacobi Jenkins and Leonard Paulk have helped to bolster a previously-thin secondary alongside fellow corners Adonis Armstrong and Joshua Hawkins, and safeties Damon Magazu and Chip Thompson.

Part of the reason ECU’s defense was so effective against Memphis’ passing attack was thanks to a strong pass rush, especially from JUCO transfer Gabe Woullard, who had a breakout game with 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The ECU pass rush has been steady all season with 13 sacks in seven contests and will have a chance to do some real damage against a UAB offensive line that got manhandled to the tune of eight sacks against Houston last week.

Who has the edge? UAB

UAB’s passing attack has a chance to put up big numbers through the air if it can give its quarterback enough time to throw. The Pirates have to find a way to get some sacks and hurries to disrupt the timing.

UAB Running Game vs. ECU Rush Defense

The Blazers come into this game as one of the worst running offenses in all of college football, ranking 117th in the country with just an average of 82.8 yards per game.

A UAB offensive line that is in the midst of replacing four starters from last year’s squad has struggled to open holes for the duo of Darrin Reaves and Greg Franklin. The Blazers are averaging just 2.3 yards per carry as a team, though Reaves has found the end zone four times on the ground at a pace of 3.9 yards a carry.

ECU, meanwhile, has been one of Conference USA’s best teams at stopping the run. The Pirates are 41st in the country in run defense, giving up just 129 yards per contest on the ground. The stout play of a defensive line that includes all-conference candidates in Michael Brooks and Terry Williams along with plenty of other depth has helped to clog lanes in the trenches against opposing running backs.

The work being done up front has made it easy for linebackers such as Jeremy Grove (team-best 51 tackles), Kyle Tudor (39 tackles) and Derrell Johnson (26 tackles) to rack up a high number of tackles.

The Pirates’ two starting safeties – Magazu and Thompson – have also been crucial to the success against the run.

Who has the edge? ECU

ECU’s front seven should be able to dominate UAB in the trenches, plain and simple. Don’t expect much success from UAB’s ground game.

Special Teams

East Carolina’s kicking game turned in another solid performance last weekend, with Trent Tignor booming four punts for an average of over 42 yards a kick and placekicker Warren Harvey converting both of his field goal opportunities, giving him six straight makes after missing a few earlier in the season.

While the Pirates continue to excel in that aspect of special teams, their coverage and return units have struggled for the most part. After giving up kick returns for touchdowns in back-to-back weeks against UTEP and UCF, the coverage unit did a solid job against Memphis, but the return unit failed to do much.

UAB has two of the league’s better special teamers in kicker Ty Long (8-of-9 on field goals with a long of 54) and punter Hunter Mullins (44.2 yards per punt average).

In the return game, Williams has handled most of the punt and kick return duties for the Blazers this season with solid success.

Who has the edge? UAB

UAB has the slight edge on paper in special teams thanks to a fairly strong return game and decent coverage units.

The Edge - Recap

ECU Passing Game vs. UAB Pass Defense - ECU
ECU Running Game vs. UAB Run Defense - ECU
UAB Passing Game vs. ECU Pass Defense - UAB
UAB Running Game vs. ECU Run Defense - ECU
Special Teams - UAB

Upcoming in this game preview:

1. Setting the Stage
2. The Edge
3. Final Pre-Game Analysis – Friday, October 19, 2012

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