FACTS & STATS: Site: FIU Stadium (20,000) -- Miami, Florida. Television: WITN. Home Record: ECU 3-1, FIU 0-4. Away Record: ECU 2-1, FIU 1-2. Neutral Record: ECU 0-0, FIU 0-0. Conference Record: ECU 3-1, FIU 1-2. Series Record: First- ever meeting.
GAME NOTES: On the verge of becoming bowl eligible for the second straight season, the East Carolina Pirates get set to take on the FIU Panthers in a Conference USA tilt at FIU Stadium.
East Carolina improved to 5-2 overall on Oct. 19 with a 55-14 rout of Southern Miss before having a bye last week. After missing the postseason in his first two seasons at the helm of the program, coach Ruffin McNeill guided the program to an 8-5 finish with just one C-USA loss in 2012. ECU defeated North Carolina, 55-31, and Middle Tennessee, 24-17, in its first two road games of the season before a heartbreaking, 36-33, loss at Tulane.
FIU fell to 1-6 in its first season under Ron Turner last week as it suffered a 23-7 setback to Louisiana Tech at home. The Panthers are winless in four games at FIU Stadium this season. Despite the slow start, they are still not far behind in the conference standings at 1-2. FIU defeated Southern Miss, 24-23, in its C-USA debut before falling to UAB (27-24) and LaTech in its last two appearances.
The Pirates control their own destiny as they pursue their first C-USA title since 2009. ECU is currently leading the East Division with a 3-1 conference record. However, there is little room for error with Marshall very close behind with a 2-1 C-USA standing.
This will be the first meeting in history between the schools. While FIU is in its inaugural season as a member of the C-USA, ECU will be departing to join the American Athletic Conference in 2014.
ECU is one of the top non-BCS conference schools in the nation due to its high-powered attack that yields 37.1 points and 447.1 yards per outing. Shane Carden is one of the top field generals in college football this season. The junior quarterback has become the leading passer in the C-USA across the board by completing 74.5 percent of his attempts for 2,325 yards and 16 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Carden was on point in the team's most recent outing versus USM as he finished 30-of-37 passing, for 308 yards and three scores with no interceptions.
Carden's strong performance this season is in large part due to junior wideout Justin Hardy, who is leading the conference with averages of 9.6 receptions and 109.3 receiving yards per game. He has been on fire recently with 35 catches, 441 yards and two touchdown catches over his past three games. Hardy has proven he is nearly impossible to contain by making at least three catches in all 30 games of his career so far. He and freshman wide receiver Davon Grayson are tied for the team-lead with four touchdown catches each.
ECU's second leading receiver is tailback Vintavious Cooper, who has compiled 30 catches for 289 yards. The 5-foot-9 senior has also been the team's most productive rusher with 513 yards and five touchdowns on 117 attempts. Although Cooper surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground in 2012, the Pirates' heavy focus on the aerial attack has left them with the 113th ranked rushing offense among FBS schools at 106.9 ypg this year.
McNeill's defensive unit is surrendering only 342.1 total yards per game, which is the second lowest average in the C-USA. ECU is especially strong against the run as its opponents are netting just 2.8 yards per carry and 87.0 ypg on the ground. The Pirates held USM to just 233 total yards of offense their last time out. The Golden Eagles managed to convert only 4-of-16 third- down plays in the lopsided affair. Brandon Williams and Derrell Johnson are tied for the team lead with 44 total tackles apiece. Johnson has also registered 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and five quarterback hurries.
The Pirates should have no trouble keeping FIU in check as the Panthers are ranked second to last in the nation in scoring with only 11.1 ppg. FIU was limited to only 197 total yards of offense by Louisiana Tech last week. Jake Medlock was picked off twice and sacked five times in the loss. Medlock finished 11-of-26 for 128 yards and a touchdown. The junior quarterback has completed only 50.4 percent of his pass attempts and has only four touchdowns to six interceptions in six games. When Medlock began his college career in 2011, FIU had an elite wide receiver in T.Y. Hilton and reliable tailback in Kedrick Rhodes. The Panthers have not been able to find an adequate replacement at either skill position, although hope is on the way with Bowling Green transfer and former MAC Freshman of the Year Anthon Samuel becoming eligible next season.
Silas Spearman is FIU's top offensive weapon with 252 rushing yards and three touchdowns through five games, but he is gaining only 2.9 yards per carry. T.J. Lowder and Jonnu Smith are tied for the team-high with 16 receptions each. Smith caught two passes for 54 yards including the Panthers' only touchdown last week versus Louisiana Tech.
Defensively, FIU has shown improvement since entering league play. It surrendered 34 points or more to its four non-conference foes with most of the damage coming from a 72-0 loss to Louisville. The Panthers have held their first three C-USA opponents to 27 points or less, however none of those schools had a quarterback as talented as Carden running the show. Senior linebacker Markeith Russell is the anchor to FIU's defensive unit with 55 stops.
The rebuilding Panthers have a long way to go before they will be competitive against a team as balanced as ECU. Medlock rarely has enough time to work in the pocket and FIU's unsatisfactory rushing offense will not be able to take any pressure off of him against this Pirates' defense. This one could get out of hand in a hurry if ECU comes out of its bye week without any rust.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: East Carolina 42, FIU 10
Saturday, November 2, 6:00 p.m. (et)