(18) Houston (10-2) at East Carolina (8-4)
Saturday, December 5th, 12:00 p.m. (et)
From The Sports Network
By Ralph Lauro, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The East Carolina Pirates go for their second straight Conference USA title this weekend, as they host the 18th-ranked Houston Cougars in the championship game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
While Houston has grabbed most of the headlines in C-USA this season, the Pirates have just gone about their business and quietly finished with the league's best record at 7-1. The team's hopes for a second straight East Division title, however, came down to the final weekend, as ECU needed a 25-20 victory over Southern Miss to secure its spot in the championship game.
"It was a great win," said head coach Skip Holtz. "I'm really proud of these players. We said it was going to go all the way down to the end. There were a lot of great individual performances tonight."
The Pirates have now won 10 of their last 11 home games in conference play, so it was rather big that they earned home field advantage for this game. Last season, ECU played for the C-USA title on the road and emerged with a 27-24 victory at Tulsa. A conference title on their home field this season would certainly be even sweeter.
As for the Cougars, they too needed to win their final game of the regular season to earn a spot in this game and they did so in convincing fashion, routing Rice by a 73-14 score over the weekend.
"Everyone knew what was at stake here tonight from a big-picture standpoint," said head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Our guys came out today and showed how important this game is to them."
The 73 points were the second-most scored in a C-USA game, as Houston tied the program record for regular-season wins with 10. The Cougars, who are 6-2 within the conference, are making their second C-USA championship game appearance, with their first resulting in a 24-20 win over Southern Miss in 2006.
With respect to the all-time series, ECU holds a 5-4 edge over Houston, but the Cougars have won two straight at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Last season, the Cougars knocked off 23-ranked ECU, 41-24, in Greenville, giving Houston its first road win against a ranked opponent since 1984.
Tyron Carrier returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and the Cougars never looked back. Houston built a 59-0 halftime lead and could have possibly broken the century mark if the starters weren't removed, as it coasted to a 73-14 win over Rice this past weekend.
Putting up big offensive numbers is nothing new for the Cougars though, as they are averaging 44.9 ppg and 583.2 total ypg for the season. Leading the charge is quarterback Case Keenum, who threw for 323 yards and a pair of scores on 25-of-31 tosses last weekend. One of the most prolific quarterbacks in the nation, Keenum has just been off the charts this season, completing an efficient 70.5 percent of his pass attempts for 4,922 yards, with 38 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
Keenum's favorite target is James Cleveland, who has 82 catches and 11 scores, but he has missed the last two games with a leg injury and is listed as questionable. Options are plentiful for Keenum though, as Carrier and Patrick Edwards have both totaled over 70 catches and 900 receiving yards on the campaign. Carrier is also a threat on special teams, having returned three kickoffs for touchdowns this season.
Bryce Bell and Charles Sims share the workload in the backfield and the duo have combined for 1,283 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground this season.
Where the Cougars have been vulnerable is on defense, as they are giving up 445.2 total ypg on the year. Houston has really had issues stopping the run and that is certainly a cause for concern this weekend. Opponents are averaging 226.9 rushing ypg against his defense, which has permitted 28 touchdowns on the ground. The unit has compensated some by coming up with 17 fumbles, although it is still giving up way too many rushing yards.
Last weekend against Rice, the Cougars allowed 377 total yards, with 243 coming via the run. It wasn't a great measuring tool though, as the game was well out of hand when Rice was finally able to move the ball. Houston also picked off three passes, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Brandon Brinkley. It was the fourth interception of the season for Brinkley, who is now one behind Jamal Robinson for the team lead. Robinson had two picks in last weekend's win.
Houston also has a trio of players that have topped 100 tackles for the season in Marcus McGraw, C.J. Cavness and Nick Saenz and they figure to be busy trying to stop ECU's ground attack this weekend.
The Pirates ran the ball for 172 yards and threw for 269 more, using their balanced attack to defeat Southern Miss, 25-20, over the weekend.
"The offense had a really good day and put up some big yards," said Holtz. "I thought Patrick Pinkney was really dialed in."
Pinkney, who led ECU to the title last year, threw for 269 yards on 25-of-41 pass attempts last weekend. Not a big-number type of guy, Pinkney makes plays when he has to and he has thrown for 2,476 yards and 13 scores on the season.
Dwayne Harris is his main target through the air and he leads the squad with 70 receptions for 791 yards and five scores. The versatile Harris also has five touchdowns on the ground, to go with three more on kickoff returns. Clearly one of the most explosive players in the league, look for Harris to make an impact this weekend.
Another player that will surely see his fair share of touches is tailback Dominique Lindsay, who has rushed for 954 yards and three scores in 10 games. ECU will certainly look to keep the ball from the Houston's offense and the best way to do that is by eating up the clock behind the strong running of Lindsay.
C.J. Wilson blocked an extra-point and then scooped the ball up and brought it back for a score, giving ECU a 22-20 lead midway through the final quarter of last weekend's game. Southern Miss had just tied the game before Wilson's return that proved to be the game-wining play.
"We talked about how special this defensive line is and how strong their push up front has been," said Holtz.
The line has certainly played a big part in this solid defense, which has posted 26 sacks and forced a whopping 29 turnovers on the campaign. ECU however, has shown some vulnerability to the pass, allowing 240.2 ypg, and that is an area Houston will surely try to attack this weekend.
Van Eskridge is the leader of the secondary and he will be counted to make big plays this weekend. The safety leads the team with four interceptions and is tied for first in tackles with 83. Wilson will also try make things uncomfortable for Keenum with a strong push and he has 9.5 TFLs and a team- high 5.5 sacks to his credit.
ECU slowed down Tulsa's high-powered attack in last year's title game, so this is a rather familiar situation for the squad. The Cougars though, are just too hot right now and Keenum should be able to carry them past the Pirates for the league title this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Houston 34, East Carolina 24
12/02 11:10:38 ET