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FAU will face East Carolina for the first time in program history Thursday night. With so many questions surroudning the Pirates and what they bring to the table, ECU Insider Stephen Igoe joined us to give us his perspective on the game. Igoe covers the team for Hoist the Colours.
Q: There have been some rumblings from FAU fans about the initial 21-point spread, how good is East Carolina this season?
A: They are good on paper, but just how good is the question. Everybody knows the offense can put up points and that unit alone should be good enough to get ECU to a bowl game this season with a pretty weak schedule, but the thing that will determine if this team can win a Conference USA title and achieve possibly even more is the defense. Last year's defense struggled mightily - especially against the pass - and there wasn't much sign of improvement in the season opener against Old Dominion.
Nonetheless, ODU has a really good passing attack, led by the best player in the FCS in quarterback Taylor Heinicke. So I'm waiting to reserve judgement as a whole on the defense until the team is about a quarter of the way through the season. They brought in a new defensive coordinator in Rick Smith, who was actually the team's secondary coach under Skip Holtz when ECU won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009, so the right man for the job is there. It's just going to take some time.
Q: Night game, national television, new black uniforms – what type of environment will FAU see on Thursday?
A: Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is always a great environment, and probably the best among the non-BCS schools. The recently expanded stadium holds 50,000 and it gets very loud. One thing FAU does have going for it is that it's a weekday night game, so a sellout shouldn't be expected. The 44,000+ that the team drew against ODU was the lowest attended ECU game since Ruffin McNeill took over as head coach in 2010, and a Thursday night game will be even tougher to get to for some fans.
That said, the whole "Paint It Black" campaign in support of the new black uniforms has stirred up tremendous excitement around campus. ECU fans have been calling for black alternates for a while now - and while it may have come a few years later than everybody hoped - they're here now and people will go nuts when the team walks out to "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix in all black.
Q: Quarterback Shane Carden threw the ball 54 times for 447 yards against Old Dominion, is he the backbone of the offense?
A: Without a doubt. Carden (pictured) was good last year in his first year as the team's starting quarterback, but this past Saturday showed that he's clearly taken the next step under offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's "air raid" scheme. Not only did he make 54 passing attempts, but he completed 46 of those for an 85 completion percentage. He probably made two to three bad throws in 54 pass attempts all night long, and that's incredible. It was one of the best games I've seen in person by an ECU quarterback.
Now the key is getting the running game going along with Carden's mastery. ECU's rushing attack netted just 34 yards last week due to the passing game's success, but the talent is there. Returning starter Vintavious Cooper rushed for 1,049 yards last season, but only got 12 carries in the season opener.
Q: The Pirates lost two wide receivers in the offseason, has that impacted the team in any way?
A: Not as much as people think. The coaching staff knew it would likely be without Justin Jones and Jabril Solomon dating back to the beginning of the summer, so it had time to game plan around it and find other playmakers. True freshmen Davon Grayson and Isaiah Jones caught four touchdowns between them in the season opener, and tight end/inside receiver Bryce Williams has emerged as a productive player as well. The passing game was just as good, if not better, than it was last season in the opener.
Q: FAU simply couldn't stop the big play against Miami, does ECU's offense have some firepower?
A: The firepower is certainly there, though the Pirates are typically more of a "dink and dunk" their way down the field type of team. Justin Hardy is a legitimate Biletnikoff Award candidate. He had 88 receptions for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and he started this season off with a bang by tying his own school record for receptions in one contest with 16 for 191 yards in week one. Danny Webster is another experienced receiver that has big-play capability in the slot. On the outside, Reese Wiggins has 4.3 speed and can break one at any time if he gets some space.
Q: The Owls will rotate two athletic quarterbacks in Jaquez Johnson and Greg Hankerson. What will they see from the Pirates defense?
A: They will see a 3-4 scheme that has quite a bit of speed and size, but a defense that is still trying to find its rhythm. The front seven is the strength of the defense, though that group had trouble keeping its pass rush lane integrities against a mobile QB in Heinicke versus ODU. That has been a major emphasis in practice this week with two more mobile QBs on tap in Johnson and Hankerson.
The passing game is where FAU will likely have to have most of its success, as the run defense for ECU is solid. Nose tackle Terry Williams and inside linebackers Jeremy Grove and Kyle Tudor are as good a middle core of a defense as you'll find in C-USA.