Two teams will be looking for their first American Athletic Conference win on Saturday as the East Carolina Pirates heads to Tampa to take on the USF Bulls. With the exception of the Bulls' season-opening win over The Citadel, neither school has been competitive against FBS competition.
Since opening the year with a win over an FCS team, USF (1-2) has been outscored by Notre Dame and Cincinnati by a combined 80-7 margin. East Carolina has been slightly more proficient offensively, but worse defensively. The Pirates are 0-2 with losses to UCF and Georgia State — each by at least 20 points.
ECU and USF combined for just three conference wins a season ago. Under second-year head coach Mike Houston, the Pirates are just 4-10 and 1-8 in conference. First-year USF head coach Jeff Scott will be looking for his first conference win. The Bulls have won the last five in the series, including a 45-20 victory last season in Greenville.
East Carolina at USF
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: USF -4.5
When East Carolina Has the Ball
The Pirates come into Saturday's contest ranked sixth in both scoring and total offense among the nine AAC teams to play a game this season. After a decent year as a sophomore, quarterback Holton Ahlers has struggled early on. Ahlers is completing fewer than 54 percent of his passes and has just three touchdowns to four interceptions.
The diminutive (5-7) Tyler Snead and Blake Proehl each have 13 catches for more than 100 yards for the Pirates. On the ground, East Carolina is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, but freshman speedster Keaton Mitchell has provided a spark. Mitchell has a team-high 66 yards on just nine carries, good for 7.3 yards per attempt. Snead scored a 31-yard touchdown on his only carry of the season and is the only Pirate with multiple touchdowns thus far. Snead returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in last season's matchup with USF.
Despite yielding 52 points to Notre Dame last month, USF is actually allowing the second-fewest yards per game in the AAC. The Bulls held Cincinnati to 332 yards and forced four turnovers in last week's 28-7 loss. East Carolina is a team that will throw the ball quite a bit, but USF hasn't generated much of a pass rush. In three games, the Bulls have just two sacks and both belong to linebacker Antonio Grier.
Grier and safety Nick Roberts are tied for the team lead with 23 tackles on the young season. USF has forced seven turnovers this season. Despite playing just two games, East Carolina is tied for the conference lead in turnovers with seven. USF forced two turnovers in last season's meeting.
When USF Has the Ball
Offensively, the Bulls have been nothing short of anemic. Despite opening with an FCS school, USF is averaging less than 12 points per game. Among AAC teams, only Navy averages fewer yards. The Bulls turned the ball over five times in last week's loss to Cincinnati. Behind center, Jordan McCloud has taken most of the snaps but has also struggled as a passer. McCloud is completing 61 percent of his attempts and is averaging just 5.3 yards per pass.
McCloud and fellow quarterback Noah Johnson will aid USF in the running game. The Bulls have more rushing yards than passing this season. Johnny Ford and Kelley Joiner are two promising running backs. USF gained 347 yards on the ground in last season's win over East Carolina. Converted safety DeVontres Dukes leads the team with eight catches for 100 yards and has the lone touchdown catch for the Bulls.
Through two games, East Carolina has yielded 50 points per contest. The Pirates haven't stopped the run or the pass. They're allowing 323 yards per game through the air and 5.6 yards per carry. When it comes to getting to the quarterback, that's something ECU hasn't done. The Pirates are one of just two teams to have played a game and not tallied a sack.
Safety Jireh Wilson and linebacker Xavier Smith each have 16 tackles and a forced fumble for the East Carolina defense. Senior cornerback Warren Saba had an interception return for a touchdown on the first play of last week's loss to Georgia State to give the Pirates their only lead of the season.
Saturday's contest in Tampa will feature two evenly matched teams. USF's offense has been putrid so far this season, but playing against East Carolina might just be the remedy. The Bulls should be able to generate enough push up front to control the ball and stay out of obvious passing situations for whoever is at quarterback. If the Bulls can force Holton Ahlers to have to win the game with his arm, they should like their chances on Saturday.
Prediction: USF 29, East Carolina 24
— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.