WHO: The 18th-ranked East Carolina Pirates--the frontrunner for both the American Athletic Conference title and the Group of Five access bowl slot-- will be returning home after a bye week to host the UConn Huskies. The Pirates are currently 5-1 with an unblemished 2-0 mark in AAC play, while the Huskies have had a rough go of it in Bob Diaco's debut season thus far, coming in at 1-5 and 0-3 in the AAC.
WHEN & WHERE: Thursday night, 7 p.m. at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
LINE: East Carolina is currently listed as a 28-point favorite.
F/+: East Carolina is 40th, while UConn is 105th.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: For the Pirates, just one loss could knock them out of contention for the Group of Five New Year's Day bowl, especially one to a team that's winless in conference play. As for UConn, the Huskies are still looking for their first FBS win under Diaco. A solid showing-- or an upset-- against ECU would certainly help build some momentum down the stretch.
TELL ME MORE: Both teams will be plenty rested after byes last weekend, which helps us to forget that East Carolina has actually not played much like a Top 25 team as of late. In the Pirates' last two games, they needed a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to pull away from 0-6 SMU (128th-- last-- in F/+) and had to overcome a ten-point halftime deficit to dispatch 3-4 USF (109th in F/+). ECU won both games by double digits and are still unblemished but for a Week Two loss to South Carolina, but neither performance was particularly encouraging.
Will it matter much against the Huskies, though? UConn has a solid defense, but they've yet to be tested by an offense of ECU's caliber. The big names are senior quarterback Shane Carden, who's averaging over 350 passing yards per game, and receiver Justin Hardy, who's on pace for over 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns, but the Pirates showed they could move the ball on the ground just as effectively against USF. Halfback Breon Allen led the team with 18 carries for 124 yards against the Bulls, keeping the Pirates' attack in business when the passing game was stifled. The ECU Air Raid averages 41 points per game, and has only been held below 28 points once all season.
Even if UConn manages to slow down the Pirates, they'll need to get more out of their offense to keep pace. Senior quarterback Chandler Whitmer has shown flashes of competency-- a 209 yard, two-touchdown performance against Boise State was a highlight-- but has eclipsed that 200-yard mark only once all season. The running game is equally uninspiring, as the Huskies' top two backs, Max DeLorenzo and Arkeel Newsome, have combined for just 3.5 yards per carry. The Huskies do have a legitimate weapon at receiver in Geremy Davis, who with 431 yards on the season has accounted for a rather ridiculous 40.2% of the team's receiving yards.
UCONN WILL WIN IF... they play a near-perfect game? The best place to start for the Huskies would be protecting the football. UConn has gotten into a bad habit of spotting opposing offenses points, and may have actually knocked off Boise State earlier in the season if not for some poorly timed turnovers. If they can limit the turnovers against the Pirates and run the ball effectively so as to keep the ECU offense off the field, the Huskies can hang around.
EAST CAROLINA WILL WIN IF... they put up an early lead on the Huskies' defense. Mind you, ECU will probably be just fine even if they don't get out ahead early, but UConn isn't built to play from behind, and a couple first-quarter touchdowns will probably put this one away.
WHAT'S PROBABLY GOING TO HAPPEN: East Carolina has opened AAC play with games against SMU, USF and UConn. The sledding is going to get tougher for the Pirates soon, and they're going to have to start playing better if they want to keep winning. That said, they'll probably be just fine on Thursday. It's not hard to see the scrappy Huskies hanging around for a quarter or two, but ECU should pull away and win this one handily.