What's this list all about, and which one of these is not like the other?
1. Michigan State (2.1)
2. Louisville (2.6)
3. Ohio State (2.9)
4. Virginia Tech (2.9)
5. East Carolina (3.0)
6. Stanford (3.0)
7. Alabama (3.1)
8. Baylor (3.1)
9. Wisconsin (3.1)
10. Michigan (3.2)
If you guessed FBS defenses ranked by yards allowed per rush and East Carolina, you deserve a great big self-hug of congratulations. Go ahead, put that beer down and wrap those arms around yourself.
Not only are the 8-2 Pirates the only non-BCS school on the list, but also...since when is an ECU product known for something other than its offensiveness? Well, since this year. The Football Outsiders' F/+ metric pegs the Pirates as the nation's 35th best defense, or basically a tad bit better than Duke. Much like Duke (which has seen a meteoric rise from 116th to 41st), ECU has enjoyed an incredible defensive turnaround in a short time, going from 91st last year in the F/+ rankings to being in elite company against the run and very good overall.
Much of the improvement against "the run" comes from negative yardage the Pirates have saddled opponents with through sacks, which count against rushing totals in the NCAA. ECU is fourth in the nation with 3.2 sacks per game after registering just 1.9 per contest last year (65th). But that's not enough to explain away all the 1.3 yards less per carry that opponents are managing on the ground this year compared to last, and, even with the sack yards removed, the Pirates allow opponents a shade under four yards per carry. Why? Mainly due to the emergence of sophomores Montese Overton and Terrell Stanley. Overton, a 6-3, 220-pound outside linebacker, leads the team with six sacks and has nine total tackles for a loss. Stanley, a 6-2, 266-pounder who plays multiple positions on the line, has added 5.5 sacks and 8.5 total tackles for a loss.
The maturation of that duo combined with standout senior Derrell Johnson has made life very hard on opposing running backs and quarterbacks alike. Johnson, a massive outside linebacker in the mold of LaMarr Woodley at 6-2, 264, has a team-high 62 stops, 10.5 of which have come behind the line of scrimmage (including 4.5 sacks). And it will make things all the more difficult for [insert whoever the quarterback is this week...this play...oh I give up...here] because ECU employs a 3-4 front, something the Pack simply hasn't seen very much of this season.
But, and this is a but the size of Dallas, if, and this is an if the size of all of Texas, an offensive line that has allowed 2.9 sacks per game (111th in the FBS) can somehow figure out where the pressure is coming from against a 3-4 front that could send anyone from anywhere at any time, and then actually stop that pressure from getting to the quarterback, the Pirates' secondary can be had. Outside the confines of the shitty Conference USA slate of its schedule, ECU allows 342 yards passing per game (7.2 yards per attempt) and a 9-2 TD-INT ratio. Against CUSA foes, that dips to 191.3 yards per game (5.2 yards per attempt) and a dead even 12-12 TD-INT ratio.
But CUSA is basically on par with...well no other FBS conference. Warren Nolan ranks the league dead-fucking-last in his power index and CUSA teams are a combined 18-36 outside of conference play. To get a handle on just how sad the CUSA is, consider this: La. Tech, a team State rolled by 26 points, is .500 in the league, and Tulane, a team that hasn't had a winning season in a decade, is already bowl eligible (thanks in large part to a win over who? East Carolina). It says a lot about a league when you can pick on its middle of the pack teams and don't even have to bring up Florida International House of Getting Pancaked and Southern Miss's 21-game losing streak (oops, I just did).
A team outscoring its opponents by 20 points per game should be favored by a gazillion against this State squad; alas, the Pack are just touchdown dogs at home. If these Pirates were in the ACC this season (sorry, I know it will take a long time for you to get that taste out of your mouth), I have little doubt that they would have two or three conference wins and be on their way to Belk for some purple slacks, but they are not so much better than the Pack as the out-of-context stats make it look, and obviously Vegas takes that into account.
But what Vegas can't quantify is the kicking that sumbitch while he's down factor. Do the Wolfpack bow their backs and come out fighting to salvage a shred of dignity in an otherwise lost season, or do they roll over against a team that will be hungry for its second win over an in-state BCS team? If it's the former, and Dave Doeren and Matt Canada thwart convention for a second week with a reliance on the pass*, then the Pack might hit enough big plays to make this one interesting (only to crush us all with the heavy burden of yet another fourth-quarter-find-a-way-to-lose finish).
Keep it glued to BTP tomorrow as I make irrational arguments supporting N.C. State's defense's chance to slow the Pirates' spread offense.
*Pete Thomas, Garrett Leatham, and Rashard Smith combined to complete 26 of 40 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns last week (while State ran it just 26 times, by far a season low). If the Pack can pool together 300 passing yards and eliminate sacks, while falling forward for three or four yards on running plays, hey, who knows, we might get to 20 points again!