Pirate Passing Vs. Pack Pass Defending

The Pack will probably need a lot of big pass plays, like this 61-yard screen to Matt Dayes, to keep pace on Saturday. - Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Pack do a Hokie-like hunkering down on the Pirates' pass-first offense?

Interesting stat: East Carolina and N.C. State both average a sack-adjusted 4.3 yards per carry. That's not very good, but it's not terrible. The problem for the Pack is that they are styled as a run-first team that wants to keep it on the ground for 40+ plays a game. It's hard to sustain drives for a pass-challenged offense unless you're consistently breaking off Wisconsin-like chunks of seven yards a carry.

For the 8-2 Pirates, the run game is more of a thing they do when the wide receivers need a second to catch their collective breath. If we assign sack plays to the passing game rather than the run game (NCAA, are you listening?), the Pirates have thrown the ball on 56% of their snaps despite being in shut-it-down mode in the fourth quarter of numerous blowouts over Conference USA opponents. This is basically a 60-40 pass-run offense, or the exact opposite of what the Wolfpack would be if it could run it well enough not to have to throw it.

This pass-happy strategy may be good news for a Pack team that was utterly embarrassed by Andre Williams last weekend in Chestnut Hill. Williams, the nation's leading rusher, padded his stats with a career-high 339 yards against a defense that became less and less willing to try to match his physicality as the game wore on. Vintavious Cooper is a good back who packs some power on his 5-9, 200-pound frame and boasts 798 yards and nine touchdowns this season, but I have met Andre Williams (in fact, he flogs me nightly in my nightmares), and you, Vintavious Cooper, are no Andre Williams. Evidence of this fact is that Cooper averages just 4.6 yards per attempt and has an explosiveness-lacking long rush of just 28 yards. He's not going to go all one man wrecking crew on the Pack, and that won't be the game plan anyway.

Pirate plundering is dependent on the capable right arm of quarterback Shane Carden, who leads a passing attack that has put up at least 299 yards in seven straight games. The junior Texan has thrown for 29 of the team's 30 touchdowns, and the latter mark is good for fifth in the FBS. The Pirates average 341.2 yards per game through the air, which is eighth in the nation and more than the Pack have managed in even one game this year. Carden's move from good to whoa there buddy damn is the reason ECU has moved from the nation's 77th best offense to 34th from last to this year in the Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings. Consider these 2012 stats in comparison to this year: 143.0 passer rating improved to 158.0, 66.1% completion percentage improved to 72.5% (second in the FBS), and 2.4% INT rate down to 1.7%.

The last time Carden failed to stimulate the scoreboard repeatedly was in a dreadful 158-yard, one TD, three-pick performance in a 15-10 home loss to Virginia Tech. The Hokies boast an opponents' passer rating of 99.1 (4th in the FBS) and allow just 6.2 yards per attempt (19th), so it would be a fool's errand to compare the Pack's respectable pass defense with their elite unit. Right?

Hmm. It looks like it's time for a handy-dandy table:

Game

Cmp/Att

Cmp%

Yards

Yds p. att

TD/INT

Rating

UNC v. Va. Tech

23/35

65.7

277

7.9

2/2

139.6

UNC v. NCSU

24/38

63.2

275

7.2

2/1

136.1

Duke v. Va. Tech

7/26

26.9

107

4.1

0/4

30.7

Duke v. NCSU

20/34

58.8

198

5.8

0/3

90.1

BC v. Va. Tech

11/14

78.6

93

6.6

1/0

157.9

BC v. NCSU

8/15

53.3

53

3.5

0/0

83.0

When we compare cumquats to cumquats (or at least like opponents), we see that N.C. State was arguably better against UNC versus the pass than Virginia Tech, and the numbers against the Tar Heels would have been a lot better if not for the Switzering the Pack allowed on trickeration. The Pack were far and away better against BC (though why BC ever bothered to throw at all is anyone's guess). Va. Tech was way more dominant against Duke, but State was still quite good defensively against Cutcliffe's not always so dynamic duo. The Hokies were 1-2 in these games despite all that slobbernockering, and of course the Pack were 0-3.

In the end, all a defense can do (aside from the rare game that ends 7-0 on a fat guy touchdown) is give the offense a chance to win it. N.C. State's offense has had that opportunity nine times this year and made good on it only three times. The Pack pass defense will be the second best unit (or, if the table above is to be trusted, perhaps on par with the best unit) the Pirates have faced all season and could well force Carden and company off the field enough to make this a game. Shit, I've almost convinced myself to get excited about it.

But then I remember yesterday's piece on the ECU run defense. Even if the Pirates' rush defense is inflated by its Charmin CUSA slate, the Pack are not likely to push them around on the ground like they were able to do against La. Tech and CMU. I think there will be two barometers to watch Saturday: will the Pack flip the playbook upside down for a second straight week, abandoning the run-heavy approach for shots at big plays in the passing game, and will the Pack indeed prove capable of slowing Carden and keeping the Pirates in the 20s? If it's yes to both and the Pack again connect on multiple big plays in the passing game, this should be yet another maybe possibly winnable in the fourth quarter game.

Perhaps it will even come down to a late field goal, and, provided Wil Baumann catches the motherscratching football, that's the one spot where the Pack own a clear advantage. Niklas Sade is 19-for-22 and perfect inside 40 yards, while Warren Harvey is a woeful 12-for21 with three misses inside of 40 yards and five more in the 40-49 range.

(Bonus parenthetical thoughts: I vote Brandon Mitchell moves to holder because he has excellent hands and it might scare ECU into wasting a timeout due to fear of a fake. Mitchell might not be healthy enough to contribute at QB, so this will give him a chance to do something, and I never understood the logic behind making the punter the holder in the first place.)

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