Let’s get physical. That’s been the theme for the East Carolina defense this week as it prepares to take on No. 21 South Carolina and its star running back, Mike Davis, on Saturday night in Columbia, S.C.
“I’ve been hearing they want to run the ball and things like that, and we’re happy they want to run the ball,” said East Carolina inside linebacker Zeek Bigger. “We’ll be there for that and we’ll show them that we can stop the run.”
In 2013 the Pirates allowed just 116.7 rushing yards per game, 13th-best in the nation.
The trend continued in their season opener, as the Pirates (1-0) held N.C. Central to 70 rushing yards during their 52-7 victory.
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However, South Carolina (0-1, 0-1 SEC) is no FCS team. Davis injured his ribs in the opener, but he’s dangerous and likely a bit angry after the Gamecocks’ 52-28 loss to Texas A&M. Davis was held to 15 yards on six carries. The Gamecocks rushed 22 times for just 67 yards, something coach Steve Spurrier said can’t repeat itself this weekend.
“We didn’t do very well last game,” Spurrier said. “We’d like to run more than we throw. That didn’t happen in the last game.”
Though Spurrier and Co. will attack with innovative spread formations, Bigger said the key for the Pirates will be to play old-school, smash-mouth football.
“We have to play physical and do the same thing we do every day: tackle, fill in the gaps, make sure there’s no running lanes,” said Bigger, who led ECU with 11 tackles against N.C. Central. “We have to be intense. That’s an every Saturday thing for us.”
South Carolina is guided by fifth-year senior quarterback Dylan Thompson, who made his first career start against ECU in 2012. During that contest Thompson threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns to spearhead a 48-10 victory.
With wideouts such as 6-foot-1 junior Shaq Roland, a former South Carolina “Mr. Football,” along with former Havelock High School star Pharoh Cooper, a 2013 SEC all-freshman team member, USC’s passing game has the potential to be potent. Despite that, ECU’s main focus will be on the Gamecocks’ running backs.
“My primary concern will be can we stop the run,” Pirates defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “They have an offensive line that has four returning starters that are all over 300 pounds. The four of them have played a lot of football so we’re worried about that.”
Coming in at a close second on Smith’s list of worries is how well his secondary will defend the Gamecocks’ deep passing game.
“Their wide receivers on our corners is a concern,” Smith said. “They run a lot of deep routes. They go max protect and will have three guys running way down the field. They have some cross country routes and if we’re not very disciplined they’ll be wide open.”
The main task of slowing down the USC receivers will fall on starting corners Josh Hawkins and Detric Allen, along with safeties Lamar Ivey and Domonique Lennon.
Smith has always been a big fan of rushing the quarterback, but said that USC’s mammoth offensive line, coupled with their skilled quarterback and speedy wideouts, will cause him to carefully consider how and when he goes after Thompson.
“When you pressure you have less people in coverage. So when you pressure you have more one-on-one matchups,” Smith said. “So that concerns you because if you pressure and don’t get there, I worry about our corners matching up with their speed.”
Ivey, the starting strong safety, said he’s up for the task of defending the deep pass.
“I’m ready for that challenge,” Ivey said. “I’m very ready.”
The Pirates will find out Saturday night.