The East Carolina Pirates, coming off of an 8-5 season in 2014, are looking to improve this fall and win the coveted American Athletic Conference title. Several factors combined to keep the Pirates from achieving that goal in 2015 but if these eight goals are accomplished, the Pirates should be celebrating a 2015 AAC title.
Cut down penalties: The old saying goes, "Penalties are due to a lack of discipline." If that saying is true, East Carolina was one of the least disciplined teams in the nation in 2014. The Pirates averaged 77.2 yards per game via penalties with only seven teams worse. While cutting the penalty yards by half is way too much to ask, cutting to the low 50s could help ECU with more control of the football and fewer punts, leading to a fresher defense in the second half and holding on to the games that slipped away in 2014.
Keep the offense rolling: The East Carolina "Air Raid" offense was the most potent in the AAC last fall, leading the league in total offense and passing yards while finishing in the top four in scoring offense, rushing offense, red zone offense, and third down percentage. The ability of the offense to move the ball quickly under Shane Carden in 2014 allowed for East Carolina to put pressure on opposing defenses to play super aggressive with blitzes and give up even more large chunk plays. The Pirates have lots of question marks on offense with a new quarterback but have players ready to step up with wide receiver Isaiah Jones, running back Chris Hairston, as well as J.T. Boyd and Ike Harris on an offensive line that should be very good in 2015.
Win third down: The importance of being successful at converting third downs cannot be understated in today's football. East Carolina was one of the better teams in the nation in 2014 on both sides of the ball with opponents converting 34.2% of their chances while the Pirates converted 46.9% of third downs. Putting an average starting point of a drive at the 30 yard line with teams normally facing a third down before midfield, East Carolina had over a 60% chance of stopping opponents from crossing midfield. The nearly 50% conversion rate for ECU's offense allowed for the Pirates to flip the field and force opponents to go the length of the field for scores, thus dramatically cutting opponent scoring. If those numbers can stay anywhere near that level, ECU will be very successful.
Fill the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium: Of the entire Group of Five programs, East Carolina has the highest average home attendance with 44,786 tickets sold per game. That number is nearly 7,000 more than the second place team in the AAC. The Pirates brought in a higher average attendance than Power Five Conference programs Colorado, Boston College, Duke, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Northwestern, Oregon State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Syracuse, TCU, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt, Virginia, and Washington State in 2015. That is 16 teams of the Power Five, more than one full conference worth that East Carolina outdraws. For teams in conference play that are used to no more than 25-28,000 per game, a hostile crowd of 44,786 can be a huge advantage for East Carolina and must be used.
Fix the turnover margin: When looking at why early wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina did not help East Carolina to an AAC title in 2014, the biggest reason comes down to turnover margin. The Pirates struggled with their margin last fall and ended the season at -4, a difference of 15 from the league leading Memphis Tigers. Memphis was not expected to compete as it did in 2014 but going +11 in turnover margin allowed the Tigers to win some games that they normally wouldn't and earn an unexpected share of the AAC title. While the offense does need to limit its fumbles and interceptions, ECU's defense must get more aggressive at forcing fumbles and flipping the field via turnover. 14 defensive interceptions was impressive but the Pirates need to force and recover more than 5 fumbles this fall. On the same accord, 12 lost fumbles in 2014 seems like a bit of an anomaly and should come back to the mean in 2015.
Lean on offensive line: While the rest of the East Carolina offense is replacing players from the 2014 season, the offensive line could be one of the best in school history. Ike Harris (25 career starts) and J.T. Boyd (11 career starts) are the glue that holds together the East Carolina line and are both on the Outland Trophy Watch List. In addition to Harris and Boyd, the Pirates return Dontae Levingston (10 career starts) and Quincy McKinney (13 career starts). The duo came from the JUCO ranks and immediately found spots on the ECU offensive line to give the Pirates four offensive linemen with 10+ starts in 2014. Rounding out the group is Tre Robertson and his 6 starts from 2014. Overall, the Pirates bring back 53 offensive line starts from the 2014 season and should be the class of the AAC in the trenches.
Go .500 out of conference: East Carolina is not joking around with the 2015 non-conference slate with trips to Florida and BYU on the schedule while hosting Towson and Virginia Tech. Towson is the only "guaranteed" win of the season in the home opener for the Pirates. This game is important to give the offense, especially at quarterback, time to adjust to game speed and another team on the field. Sophomore Kurt Benkert will most likely get the first shot and getting a chance at home versus a FCS program is one of the best ways to get true game experience. After Towson, the schedule gets tricky with a trip to The Swamp to face Florida, ECU's 2014 bowl opponent. With the game being at Florida so early in the season, getting out of that game healthy and playing the SEC foe close will help with confidence. After its AAC opener, ECU heads back home to face a very angry Virginia Tech team with revenge on its mind. The Pirates know they can play and beat Virginia Tech but this is a tough game with the Hokies circling on their calendar as a revenge game. As tough as games versus Florida and Virginia Tech are, ECU has one of the tougher road trips for any Group of Five team with an October 10 trip to BYU. The Cougars are very good and have quarterback Taysom Hill back along with a very talented defense. It will not be easy to go to Provo and pull out a win versus BYU. If East Carolina can pull out a win versus Florida, BYU, or Virginia Tech, this could be a great 2015 season.
Trust Bigger to lead the defense: For East Carolina, the inside linebacker spot is not a glamour position with the sacks and tackles for loss an outside linebacker earns. Instead, inside linebackers are built to be tackling machines with Zeek Bigger being one of the best. Bigger was in the top 10 nationally in tackles per game at 10.8 while making a team and league-high 140 tackles and eight games with double-digit tackles. Bigger earned Walter Camp National Defensive-Player-of-the-Week honors for the North Carolina game with 17 tackles and a pick-six versus the Tar Heels. Bigger will be essential for the Pirates with a Florida team that is currently better rushing than passing, the triple option of Navy, as well as the rushing attacks of Virginia Tech and BYU. Bigger could easily make 12-14 tackles in each of those games. Not only is Bigger the main tackler, he is also the leader of the East Carolina defense and will be needed to get players in the right spots and get the correct defenses called for the Pirates to slow down some of the high powered offenses on the 2015 schedule.
Stop the option: After two non-conference games, East Carolina gets the privilege of welcoming Navy to the AAC with a September 19 matchup. With Navy comes the option and a guaranteed top five rushing attack. Navy is tough because they are disciplined and they run an offense that ECU will only see once this season. The two teams have played three times in the Ruffin McNeill era with Navy holding a 2-1 advantage. While losing two out of three isn't ideal, the more worrying part is the inability of ECU to stop the option. The Midshipmen put up 76 on the Pirates in 2010, 35 in a loss in 2011 and 56 in 2012 to average 55.7 points per game in the last three meetings. East Carolina cannot allow that to happen again but it will unless it plays a disciplined game with every player filling his role and not looking for personal glory. The option thrives on players trying to make a play and abandoning their rules for covering the option. One open slot and the Midshipmen are down the sideline for a 70 yard touchdown run. Discipline is key.