Things don’t appear to look any easier for the 2-3 Pirate football team, as it will have to travel to South Florida Saturday, reeling from its first loss in American Athletic Conference play.
To add salt to the wound of a three-game losing streak, the Pirates have seen neither leading receiver Zay Jones or starting quarterback Philip Nelson take a snap in practice this week.
“We feel pretty good about [Nelson] at this point in time, I’m a little happier than I was yesterday,” said ECU head coach Scottie Montgomery.
Jones, who was seen in a walking boot after losing to Central Florida, currently seems to be the healthier of the two and the more-likely player to be suited up for Saturday’s noon kick-off. Receivers Jimmy Williams, Quay Johnson and Deondre Farrier will have to fill the void if Jones doesn’t get the nod.
“We think we’re going to have [Jones]. This is more preventative at this point in time with him,” said Montgomery. “It’s not one of those deals where it’s a strain or sprain, it’s more he got stepped on and he got a little bit of a bruise so we think he’ll be okay.”
Nelson, who checked-out in the third quarter after being on the receiving end of a roughing the passer penalty, was relieved by sophomore Gardner Minshew.
Following Nelson’s early departure, Minshew likely blew all hopes of obtaining a redshirt this season and will likely now be expected to take on more of a workload as he inherits the true backup quarterback duties, even with a healthy Nelson.
“[Minshew] knows a lot of what we want to do,” Montgomery said. “Phil was able to be out [in practice] and go through everything mentally, but Gardner, it’ll probably be a little easier for him this week to come into play if he knows he’s going to be called on.”
The Pirates will play guest to a USF (4-1, 1-0 AAC) team that suffered its only loss to a highly-touted Florida State team. Besides giving up 55 points in their loss to the Seminoles, the Bulls defense has been impressive in all four wins, never allowing more than 20 points.
Showing the same 4-5-2 defensive look the Pirates and defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson use, the Bulls rely heavily on their safeties to clean up a lot of plays. USF head coach Willie Taggart went far enough to say that his defense’s motto was to “keep everything in front,” hinting at the possibility of a weak secondary.
ECU will try to get the ground game rolling and try to blow the top off of the coverages through the deep ball.
“Defensively we’ve seen a lot of multiple front teams. This is one of those situations where hopefully we’ll know the front a lot more, but we’ve got to get the run game going,” said Montgomery. “If we get the run game going early we think we’ve got a lot of good calls for this game.”
Switching sides of the ball, USF presents ECU with likely its toughest running-duo ECU has faced yet. Taggart, a product of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, predicates everything his offense does off of the power running game using an up-tempo style in multiple formations.
Starting junior quarterback Quinton Flowers, who had 2,290 passing and 991 rushing yards last season with 34 total touchdowns, is already averaging a yard more per-rush and pass this season. Pair the duel-threat QB with two-time first team all-AAC running back Marlon Mack, and the Bulls often dominate on the ground.
In the air, the Pirates will be tasked with guarding one of the faster AAC receiving corps, led by Second-Team All-AAC returner and receiver Rodney Adams. He led the AAC in kick return average last season with 29.1 yards per return. The threat Adams brings on special teams is far more concerning to a Pirate team that’s allowed two punt return touchdowns in back-to-back weeks.