A stiff jab from Temple might have knocked East Carolina to the ground, but the Pirates have risen up off the canvas and used their third bye week of the season as a standing eight count. ECU has returned to battle mode as it prepares for a national televised heavyweight showdown against Cincinnati in a game that has tremendous American Athletic Conference implications.
“We’re ready to fight back. Like we always say, we have to get our face back,” said linebacker Zeek Bigger, whose 10.8 tackles per game ranks 12th in the nation. “This is a game that we have to play, and we have to be ready to play and we will be ready to play.”
The Pirates enter the matchup a half-game behind division leader Memphis (6-3, 4-1) and locked in a three-way tie for second place with the Bearcats (5-3, 3-1) and Central Florida (5-3, 3-1).
East Carolina nose tackle Terry Williams, who had five tackles and three tackles for a loss against Temple, is fully aware of the magnitude of Thursday’s game.
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“It’s exciting. It’s national exposure; it’s a game that will be on ESPN2,” Williams said. “It’s a race for the conference title now. Our boys are disappointed about our performance last week as a team, so we’re pretty pumped for this week.”
The Pirates refuse to dwell on the loss to Temple that snapped a five-game winning streak and significantly weakened their chances of being invited to a premier bowl game.
“You win some and you lose some, but we come out here and push. We can’t put our shoulder pads back on and go out there and play (Temple) again. It’s over,” Bigger said. “So everybody just came out here this whole week with a different fight. If we come out and play like we’ve been practicing and been playing all year, we’ll be good.”
ECU’s defense was good its last time out. Really good, as it held the Owls to 135 yards of total offense during their 20-10 defeat. It was the fewest amount of yards the Pirates have surrendered since 1978.
Although known for its offense, ECU has quietly put together an impressive season on defense. The Pirates rank eighth in the nation in run defense (96.8 ypg), 24th in total defense (339.4) and 37th in points allowed (23 ppg).
“This defense rallies, 11 men to the ball,” Bigger said. “This defense feeds off each other. We got a lot of players that are playing real good right now.”
The defense will be put to the test on Thursday as it faces an offense led by quarterback Gunner Kiel, a 6-4, 208 pound Notre Dame transfer who is a former high school all-American.
Kiel, who only played one snap during the Bearcats 38-14 win over Tulane because of a rib injury, has helped Cincinnati post 34.8 points per game (31ist in the nation) and rack up 465.9 yards of total offense per contest (28th in the nation).
Kiel ranks third in the American Athletic in passing yards per game (256.1) and leads the league with 20 touchdown passes.
“They’re a very good offense,” ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “I think the players realize this is a great challenge. I think it’s the best offense that we’ve seen to this point.”
Kiel was listed atop the Bearcats depth chart for Thursday’s game, but if he can’t play, Cincinnati’s second-year coach Tommy Tuberville has plenty of faith in backup Munchie Legaux. The senior QB completed 16 of his 24 attempts for 211 yards and three TDs to lead the Bearcats past Tulane.
With wide receiver like Shaq Washington and Chris Moore coupled with a capable backfield, the key for the Pirates defense lies in their ability to limit the Bearcats’ playbook. To do that, ECU must stand strong on first down.
“We’re hoping that we can play great on first down so we can get them into passing situations so we can do our pass rush games on second-and-long,” Smith said. “... We have to affect the quarterback and get him rattled and hopefully we can get some picks.”