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The Big East Carolina at USF Preview

Can the Pirates stay hot on the road against the upset-minded Bulls?

Grant Halverson

WHO: The 4-1 East Carolina Pirates will be taking their number 19 ranking on the road to square off with the 2-3 USF Bulls. Both teams are currently 1-0 in American American Conference play, though they've had drastically different seasons to date: ECU stands at 4-1 with wins over ACC foes in Virginia Tech and North Carolina, while USF is 2-3 with a 17-14 victory over UConn as their only FBS win.

WHEN & WHERE: Saturday night, 7 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

LINE: East Carolina is currently listed as a 15 point favorite.

F/+: ECU is 44th, while USF is 119th.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: An early leg up in the conference race, for starters. On a grander scale, ECU is currently the highest-ranked Group of Five team, and as such would qualify for a New Year's Day bowl if they finished there at the end of the season. They can't afford any losses to sub-100 F/+ teams. USF, meanwhile, is looking for a signature win under second-year coach Willie Taggart that would solidify the gains the Bulls have been gradually making over the past two seasons.

TELL ME MORE: This is about as huge a difference in offensive styles as you're likely to see this season. East Carolina boasts one of the nation's top passing offenses, led by senior quarterback Shane Carden. Carden is averaging over 375 yards per game through the air to complement a 15-3 TD-INT ratio and has a pair of weapons at wideout in Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones, both of whom are are on pace to shatter the 1,000 yard mark by the year's end. USF, meanwhile, will look to establish the power running game behind true freshman halfback Marlon Mack, the AAC's leading rusher with over 100 yards per game on the ground.

Any and all hope for the Bulls' offense to keep pace with the Pirates' attack likely lies not in the hands of Mack, but true sophomore quarterback Mike White, who's been inconsistent behind center for the Bulls thus far. Despite completing an ugly 40 percent of his passes on the season, White has strung together a pair of decent games in a row and will be getting his favorite weapon back for the first time since the Bulls' opener-- senior Andre Davis, the team's leading receiver for two straight seasons. If Davis can reignite the USF passing game, the Bulls could put up points on an iffy ECU secondary that allowed 339 passing yards to 0-5 SMU last week.

Still, the USF offense has averaged just a hair over 15 points per game against FBS competition, and will be hard-pressed to go touchdown for touchdown with Carden and the Pirates. No one's been able to hold ECU under 300 passing yards, and halfback Breon Allen is a dangerous Plan B, averaging an electric 8.8 yards per carry. The Bulls' defense has performed admirably in bottling up the power running games of UConn and Wisconsin in their last two games, but will face another animal entirely in the Pirates' spread attack. The closest equivalent to ECU's offense that the Bulls have seen-- Jacoby Brissett and NC State-- shredded their defense for 589 yards and 49 points.

EAST CAROLINA WILL WIN IF... Carden puts up his usual numbers. Even with a perfect game from Mike White, there's no way that the Bulls' offense will be able to keep pace if Carden is shredding the USF secondary. He's thrown for over 400 yards three games in a row now. The Bulls... well, they've yet to put up 300 total yards of offense against an FBS opponent.

USF WILL WIN IF... More than a few things have to go right here, but it starts with the defense flustering Carden and forcing a few turnovers. No one's really been able to do that yet, but the Bulls do have a young, fast defense that's had a nose for the ball. Even if that occurs, the Bulls will likely need a virtuoso performance from either White or Mack on offense.

WHAT'S PROBABLY GOING TO HAPPEN: USF is coming off a bye and is hungry for a win after playing Wisconsin close on the road for three quarters, and ECU looked vulnerable at times against winless SMU... but this is just a dreadful matchup for the Bulls, who have yet to show that they can shut down spread offenses. USF may hang around early, but Carden and the Pirates should be able to pull away and put up big points on the Bulls' secondary. If White is able to move the ball through the air consistently and keep the game competitive, that would be an encouraging sign for Bulls fans.