Tudor: ECU's McNeill needs defense to rise to occasion in a big way

ctudor@newsobserver.comNovember 3, 2012 

UNC22-SP-092212-RTW

East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill congratulates his players after a 22 yard field goal in the first quarter against North Carolina at Kenan Stadium on Saturday September 22, 2012 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

With just decent defense – even by Conference USA standards – ECU’s three-season league record under Ruffin McNeill would be 17-4 rather than the 13-8 (4-1 thus far in ’12) mark the Pirates take into Saturday’s game against favored Houston in Greenville.

A four-win swing in those games – losses to Marshall last season and to SMU, Rice and Central Florida in 2010 – would put McNeill (5-4 overall this season) at 20-14 overall, rather than 16-18, and in a far higher regard within the fan base.

Developing an acceptable defense has been such a challenge for McNeill and his staff that it’s fair to question if it can be accomplished.

But unless meaningful improvement occurs Saturday against Houston and during the final two games – at Tulane on Nov. 17 and versus Marshall in Greenville on Nov. 23 – the popular former Pirate defensive standout will be on shaky ground.

There’s no prevailing reason to think athletic director Terry Holland would make a change if McNeill can finish the regular season 6-6 and reach what would be his second bowl in three seasons.

But the defensive trend under McNeill obviously is a concern. Although the numbers are slightly better thus far this season than in ’11 and ’10, the Pirates still gave up 40 in a C-USA loss to Central Florida and 35 in a seven-point win at Alabama-Birmingham. They did hold Southern Miss to 14, Texas-El Paso to 18 and Memphis to 7.

That was all before the 58-26 humiliation in Greenville last week against Navy – a performance that left much of the fan base in a foul, exasperated mood and created a significant loss of confidence in McNeill’s ability to turn the defensive corner.

The defensive starters last week against Navy included 10 seniors and/or juniors and sophomore linebacker Jeremy Grove – a clear indication that youth and inexperience aren’t at the root of the ineffective play.

It’s among the strangest dilemmas in the nation for a coach nearing the end of his third season.

In most cases, a coach with a 16-18 record could look back on any number of reasons for losses. For McNeill, at least 75 percent of the trouble goes to one source.

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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