Ohio (7-5) vs. East Carolina (9-3) Dec. 23, 2:00, ESPN
Here's The Deal … It's off to the American for East Carolina following Monday's game in St. Petersburg. The Pirates can carry a note of thanks to the league offices on behalf of Ohio, whose season would likely be over if not for the American's futility.
The conference formerly known as the Big East failed to fill all of its automatic bowl tie-ins, which created an opening for the Bobcats that might not have otherwise existed. Ohio began the season as a heavy favorite in the MAC East, but it was unable to match expectations, getting crushed by Buffalo, Bowling Green and Kent State on three consecutive Tuesdays. The Bobcats do own a win over Marshall, the team that capped ECU's postseason ceiling just a few weeks ago.
The Pirates appeared to be coasting to a Conference USA title and a date with an SEC opponent in the Liberty Bowl, when they got sucker-punched by the Thundering Herd in Huntington. The dynamic of the season changed in an instant for a program that had already beaten up on North Carolina and NC State of the ACC. East Carolina hopes to use its seventh bowl game in the last eight years to woo Sunshine State recruits, win 10 games for just the second time in school history and shift the climate before entering the offseason.
Players to Watch: QB Shane Carden is the leader of an offensive trio that's fueled ECU's 40-point-a-game offense during the regular season. The junior is a smart and accurate passer on short and intermediate routes, completing 71% of his throws. Carden gets ample support on offense from RB Vintavious Cooper and WR Justin Hardy, who've both accounted for more than 1,200 yards of offense in 2013. Playing a MAC schedule has not prepared the Bobcats for what they'll see at Tropicana Field.
It's fortunate for Ohio that it does a solid job of defending the pass. The Bobcats are tied for third in the MAC with 14 interceptions, and both cornerbacks, Devin Bass and Travis Carrie, earned all-league recognition. Carrie has four picks, two of which he's taken back for touchdowns. The secondary is liable to get help this week from the pass rush. Rookie Tarell Basham is the front man of an underrated pass rush that'll cause problems for an East Carolina offensive line that's given up 28 sacks so far this season.
Decent defenses have given fits to the Bobcats this season. Heck, during the three-game losing streak, they scored just 16 points. However, Ohio can put its weight on a handful of seniors who are no strangers to big games or bowl games. QB Tyler Tettleton and RB Beau Blankenship are seeking redemption following mediocre finales, and WR Donte Foster earned a spot on the All-MAC Second Team this season. All three Bobcats, ironically enough, played their high school ball in the state of Oklahoma.
For all of the attention that the East Carolina offense has generated this season, coordinator Rich Smith's D has been rather effective as well. The Pirates lead Conference USA in run defense and sacks, fueled by a feisty front seven of defenders. It promises to be an interesting chess match between an Ohio line that's given up only 16 sacks and an ECU team that thrives on pinning its ears back and letting loose. Not only are the Pirates nasty at the point of attack, but outside linebackers Derrell Johnson and Montese Overton, who've combined for 13.5 sacks, must be accounted for at all times.
Ohio will win if … it locates the creases in the East Carolina run defense.
While there aren't a lot of holes in the Pirate front seven, it's incumbent upon the Bobcats to find them. Ohio is at its best when it has success on the ground on first and second downs. However, the team got stuck in neutral in November, because the linemen were unable to get off their blocks in order to create daylight for Blankenship. When the Bobcats averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry, they went 1-5; over 3.5 yards, on the other hand, resulted in a 6-0 mark. Success starts on the ground for Ohio in St. Pete.
East Carolina will win if … Carden has time.
The only way the Pirates are going to stumble, especially on a fast track, is if the O-line fails to carry its weight. If the blockers block, the balance of Cooper's sprints and Carden's darts will be too much for the Ohio defense. Heck, the only time ECU was held below 28 points this year was when Virginia Tech dominated at the line of scrimmage. The team has also reached 52 points on five separate occasions, testament to its firepower. Carden gets a rare opportunity to make some national noise. He won't squander it, provided he gets help up front.
What Will Happen: Ohio has the right mix of veterans, from Tettleton and Blankenship to head coach Frank Solich, to flirt with an upset. Actually following through, though, requires better offensive execution.
The Bobcats cannot be overlooked, nor will they be. East Carolina will arrive prepared and bolstered by better athletes on both sides of the ball. Ohio's quest to slow down the pace of the game will prove unsuccessful. The Pirates possess too much overall firepower, and they'll be able to pin their ears back once it becomes obvious that Tettleton must throw. ECU will send a three-hour reminder why it was close to being ranked before the late-season collapse at Marshall.
Prediction: East Carolina 41 … Ohio 23
Line: East Carolina -13.5 o/u: 62
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