We are officially at the midway point of the 2015 East Carolina Pirates football season with the Pirates holding a respectable 3-3 overall record. What have been the highlights for ECU in the first six games of the season? What have been the lowlights? How would you rate the season as a whole for East Carolina.
Running Game: When ECU can run the ball, they do it extraordinarily well. When they struggle, they are among the worst in the nation. Chris Hairston (93/378/6TD) is the main man in the run game, but saw a significant boost with quarterback James Summers (41/310/5TD) behind center. When Summers entered the game versus Virginia Tech, they Pirates got a huge spark in the run game that extended to the SMU game. Anthony Scott (29/129/1TD) has become a steady and reliable backup running back. BYU shut down the ECU running game, but it is hard to think ECU will face another defense as stout as BYU.
Passing Game: Blake Kemp (146-204/1,478/10TD) has the arm to be an excellent passer and generally does an excellent job. His biggest weakness is giving the ball up via turnovers. Six interceptions and four lost fumbles have kept him from staying in the lineup as a full time starter. Summers (19-28/290/3TD) has not had as much of an opportunity with his arm. Isaiah Jones (48/568/3TD) and Bryce Williams (28/319/3TD) have been excellent in catching 80% of passes thrown their way. Kemp had his best game of the season coming in for Summers and going 28-36 for 371 yards and two touchdowns.
Run Defense: The ECU run defense has improved significantly since giving up 415 yards to Navy. Since then, the Pirates have given up 182 yards to Virginia Tech, 40 to SMU, and 167 to BYU. ECU is 2-1 in those games and had a chance to beat BYU in the final moments of that game. Linebacker play has been very good with Zeek Bigger (45 tkl, 1 tfl), Jordan Williams (45 tkl, 4 tfl, 2 sacks), and Montese Overton (41 tkl, 7.5 tfl, 6 sacks) all over the 40 tackle plateau. The Pirates will be tested in the final six games by Tulsa (#37/200.2 ypg.), USF (#18/224.6 ypg.), and Cincinnati (#32/201.4 ypg.).
Pass Defense: Other than being taken apart by BYU and the force that is Tanner Mangum, the Pirates have been very stout versus the run in 2015. The BYU game was the first time an offense was able to break 300 yards passing in a game versus the pass defense. Four interceptions is a number that needs to be increased, but led by Overton, the pass rush has been good. Four players have 2+ sacks and the team has 17 total sacks in six games played. Free safety Travon Simmons (20 tkl, 1 tfl, 4 pbu, 4 pd) and cornerback Josh Hawkins (25 tkl, 1 int, 3 pbu, 4 pd) have been standouts for the ECU secondary. Only Tulsa and Cincinnati have great passing games down the stretch.
Special Teams: Worth Gregory (24 punts, 43.6 avg.) has been one of the MVPs of the first half of the season for ECU. His ability to drop punts inside the ten-yard line versus Virginia Tech was a major reason for the Pirates win. With nearly half of his punts ending up inside the 20-yard line, ECU is winning the field position battle. Caleb Pratt (35 KO, 23 TB) is drilling 65.7% of his kickoffs for touchbacks this fall. Not having to worry about kick coverage, and forcing offenses to start on the 25, on over 60% of kickoffs is a huge advantage for the Pirates. Field goals are a wash as the Pirates are 2-4 on the season with Davis Plowman (2-3 FG) leading the way.
Overall: Despite losing a starting quarterback before the season ever began, the Pirates have been a good football team that could easily be 4-2 or 5-1 if a few breaks went differently. The combination of Kemp and Summers has been a great 1-2 punch and I would expect the coaching staff to go with the hot hand weekly. 3-3 is a good record at this point considering there are four bowl teams from 2014 in that stretch. The second half of the season is lighter with UConn, South Florida, and a disappointing Central Florida on the slate. If they can get by a tricky Tulsa team, then I see no reason why ECU cannot get to 7-8 wins. My prediction down the stretch is: win over Tulsa, upset win over Temple, win over UConn, win over South Florida, win over UCF, and loss to Cincinnati. That would give the Pirates an 8-4 record with a 6-2 AAC record, putting ECU in a nice bowl.