- Time and date: Saturday, October 15 at 7:30 p.m. ET
- Network: ESPNU
- Location: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — Greenville, NC
- Spread: East Carolina (-5)
- ESPN FPI: East Carolina has 55.1% chance to win
- All-time series: East Carolina leads, 16-8
- Last meeting: East Carolina 30, Memphis 29 — November 13, 2021
- Current streak: East Carolina, 1 (2021)
Setting the scene
Earning a win in Greenville, NC feels pivotal for both teams’ seasons.
Memphis is fresh off a heartbreaking 33-32 loss to Houston in which it held a 26-7 advantage in the early final frame. Now, the Tigers need all the momentum they can get after ending up on the wrong side of the largest fourth quarter comeback this season. Meanwhile, East Carolina was stifled by Tulane in 24-9 fashion last Saturday and the Pirates are off to a 1-2 start in AAC play. ECU needs to regain rhythm and revert to plus-.500 territory before running through the gauntlet of UCF, BYU, Cincinnati, and Houston.
The Pirates stunned the Tigers in overtime fashion at the Liberty Bowl last November, securing bowl eligibility for East Carolina for the first time since 2014. Memphis hopes to exact revenge as the series moves to the house of the Pirates this weekend.
Memphis Tigers outlook
It was a tough pill to swallow. Memphis stood one play away from a 5-1 overall record and 3-0 AAC record several times in Week 6. All the Tigers needed to do was prevent one of two Houston fourth and long conversions or recover an onside kick in the waning minutes of last Friday’s contest. Instead, Memphis is dealing with the aftermath of squandering a 19-point fourth quarter lead.
It’s not unfamiliar territory for the Tigers, which watched 21-0 and 17-0 leads over UTSA and Temple evaporate in back-to-back weeks last year. But Ryan Silverfield’s squad cannot let the result of the Houston game carry over into another week. Memphis remains 4-2 overall and 2-1 in league play in a wide-open AAC, so the Tigers still have a bevy of goals on the table as they travel to Greenville.
As usual, Memphis’ greatest asset is its offense. True sophomore quarterback Seth Henigan shined in his first year removed from high school, but he has elevated his game to another level in 2022. Henigan is one of nine FBS quarterbacks with 10+ touchdowns combined with one or fewer interceptions this year, and he has simultaneously seen his accuracy spike by a considerable amount. While his passing output has come with some variance, Henigan demonstrated his ability to take over with 415 and 360 yard outings in Weeks 2 and 3.
Having one of the conference’s top quarterbacks is certainly not unusual for Memphis. But what is unusual is that the Tigers are one of the last remaining teams in the FBS without a 100-yard rusher or receiver this year, which is unfamiliar territory considering the skill position talent which has passed through this program — Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard, Calvin Austin, Anthony Miller, and Kenneth Gainwell have all donned Tiger colors since 2017.
The backfield is split between three options, as Jay Ducker, Asa Martin, and Brandon Thomas have 225, 223, and 221 yards on the year, respectively. Martin has been the most explosive tailback thus far, averaging 6.4 yards per carry while playing the largest role in the receiving game. Meanwhile, Thomas thrives as the short-yardage specialist, punching in a team-high seven rushing touchdowns this year.
In the receiving unit, Gabriel Rogers has done the dirty work by matriculating Memphis downfield with 302 yards on 22 receptions, while tight end Caden Prieskorn typically reaps the benefits in the end zone. Prieskorn is one of the AAC’s most potent red zone threats with six touchdown catches in six games, so East Carolina’s linebackers and safeties must key on him as the Tigers approach goal line situations.
Although Memphis remains in search of a dominant skill position player performance, the offense’s most glaring issue is pass protection. Only 15 FBS teams yield more sacks per game than the Tigers’ 3.17, and improving this pass protection is needed to avoid dryspells like they had in the third quarter against Houston.
The Tigers haven’t been renowned as a defensive power this season, but the unit has shown incredible fluctuation in performance from week to week. Memphis suffocated Temple’s defense in every manner possible in a 24-3 victory to usher in the month of October, but the Tigers have also been susceptible to less-than-stellar showings this year. While containing the run is one of the team’s strong suits, Memphis ranks seventh-to-last in passing defense this year and this aspect of the secondary was beyond evident during Houston’s two late touchdown drives last Friday.
However, Memphis trots out a few star defenders with great havoc fundamentals, which explains why the team ranks ninth in the FBS in turnovers secured. Outside linebacker Xavier Cullens has etched his name all over the field with a 2022 résumé featuring 47 tackles, five tackles for loss, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. In the secondary, free safety Quindell Johnson is one of the nation’s top pass catchers on defense with three interceptions, and the 2021 All-AAC selection ranks second on the squad with 39 tackles. These program veterans are the primary names East Carolina must keep an eye on when trying to resurrect its offense.
East Carolina Pirates outlook
Similar to Memphis, East Carolina enters Week 7 fresh off a defeat and can use all the momentum it can get. The Pirates had been in the cellar of the AAC for quite some time, but that all changed last November when Mike Houston’s team knocked off Memphis to claim bowl eligibility for the first time in seven years. Due to COVID-19 issues within Boston College’s program, East Carolina did not participate in that bowl game, so actually living that goal remains on the 2022 bucket list. However, the schedule amplifies in difficulty for the regular season’s second half, so emerging victorious over Memphis is essential to qualifying to the postseason.
East Carolina longs for more consistency on the offensive side of the ball. This team is knowingly capable of producing frequent explosive plays and posting 41 points in a single half, as demonstrated in a blowout win over South Florida. But offensive shortcomings plagued the team in a 23-20 overtime loss to Navy and in last Saturday’s 24-9 defeat at the hands of Tulane.
To improve the offense, first, the Pirates must cut their turnover output. In its three wins, East Carolina has remained nearly turnover free with just one lost fumble. In three losses, the Pirates average two per game and these turnovers have been major momentum swingers. When quarterback Holton Ahlers is on his A-game and remaining turnover free, this offense is difficult to counter. The longtime starter is two weeks removed from an efficient 465-yard, 6-touchdown performance and that is the type of showing the Pirates hope materializes when pitted against Memphis’ 125th-ranked passing defense.
Another issue which has limited scoring output is the kicking game. While East Carolina can demonstrate improvement on finishing drives, the Pirates often come up empty-handed in scoring position due to an onslaught of missed kicks. They convert just 80 percent of extra points and 62.5 percent of field goals, and the kicking struggles are the difference between a 5-1 and 3-3 record right now — missing an extra point and game-winning field goal against NC State and an overtime field goal against Navy.
To reignite the offense, East Carolina needs a stronger showing in the run game. Keaton Mitchell is possibly the fastest player in college football, clocking in at 22.6 miles per hour on an 81-yard touchdown run in Week 2. The speed back impressed earlier in the season with two 160+ yard showings while breaking out for long gains on the regular. But in two games of AAC action, Mitchell has exchanged 15 handoffs into 52 yards, so East Carolina must emphasize refueling the sophomore tailback, especially with his second fiddle Rahjai Harris out for the remainder of the season.
Memphis’ defense has met opposing rushing defenses with a degree of success, so while establishing the run with Mitchell is important, East Carolina can optimize its scoring output with a big showing from one of its top two wideouts. Isaiah Winstead holds the team lead in receptions and yards with 43 and 562, while C.J. Johnson serves as the home run deep threat with 471 yards and six touchdowns on roughly 19 yards per catch. Three receivers have successfully posted 100 yards on the Memphis defense this year, so both members of this tandem will look to add to that club under the lights in Greenville.
East Carolina has quietly excelled on the defensive side of the ball this season. Signs of promise were shown when limiting NC State to 21 points in Week 1 and through six data points, no opponent has generated more than 28 points on the Pirates. East Carolina allows a respectable 21.2 points per game with a specialty in countering the run, and this unit alone could prevent this one from shootout territory. Defensive coordinator Blake Harrell has this run defense yielding just 3.2 yards per carry — situated within the top 25 of the FBS in the category.
The senior inside linebacker duo of Myles Berry and Xavier Smith has been instrumental in stuffing opposing running backs, combining for 58 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. And when it comes to penetrating the backfield, East Carolina doesn’t have one specific superstar who consumes the attention of an entire offensive line. But still, the Pirates are rather effective in getting stops behind the line of scrimmage as 11 different players have been credited with a sack this year.
This game has the makings of an even back-and-forth contest with Seth Henigan and Holton Ahlers taking advantage of the opposing secondaries. While both teams should thrive in the passing aspect of the game, expect East Carolina to have a slight edge when it comes to grounding the ball, as the Pirates pick up 5.1 yards per carry compared to Memphis’ 3.9, while fielding a stronger run defense than the Tigers.
East Carolina’s advantage on the defensive side of the ball should play a major role in this one, so expect the Pirates to rely on this unit and homefield advantage to chalk up one extra stop and revert to above-.500 territory.
Prediction: East Carolina 35, Memphis 31