Rice-East Carolina: Five Things To Watch

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GREENVILLE, N.C. - Every time David Bailiff recalls the time he spent in Afghanistan with U.S. military this past summer, the pitch of his voice changes and the look in his eye intensifies. He truly underwent a life-changing experience while stationed with American troops, and his will participate in a somber reunion at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium when he hosts roughly a dozen members of the Air Force 336th Rocketeers squadron he met during his visit.

That particular squadron returned to North Carolina in September minus two members who were killed in a crash of an F-15 E Strike Eagle only days after Bailiff returned stateside. The squadron buried one pilot on Thursday, a fact that left Bailiff reflective as the Owls readied to board their flight here. Assistant strength and conditioning coach Rusty Whitt, an Army Ranger who served in Iraq, will also host members of his military family on the Rice sideline. If the Owls are in need of motivation and inspiration, they won't have far to look Saturday afternoon.

1. Calling All Linebackers. Just prior to the team buses departing campus for Hobby Airport Friday morning, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach boarded the bus reserved for support staff and playfully asked if anyone could play linebacker. Well, he was half kidding, for after losing Terrance Garmon (lung, concussion) and Matt Nordstrom (foot) to injuries last week against Navy, the Owls lost Tanner Shuck (knee) in practice on Tuesday. That leaves them with four linebackers - starters Justin Hill and Trey Briggs, a true freshman, and reserves Aaron Williams and Ronnie Lillard. Williams worked with the scout team before the rash of injuries and Lillard contributed on special teams. Good luck, fellas.

2. Bring The Heat. Remember the first half against Tulsa? Do you recall how the Owls blitzed the dickens out of Golden Hurricane quarterback G.J. Kinne? Given the success the Owls enjoyed before Tulsa made an adjustment at the break (five sacks) and the questionable decision-making of East Carolina quarterback Pat Pinkney (his 103.06 passer efficiency rating doesn't rank in the top 100 nationally), it would make sense if the Owls brought the house and forced Pinkney to think on the run. Is he capable? The Owls should repeatedly test his wits.

3. The Value of Experience. The Pirates opened the season with the third-largest senior class in FBS (28), and they will start eight seniors on defense against Rice. Left end C.J. Wilson, middle linebacker Nick Johnson and free safety Van Eskridge are earning their fourth letters with East Carolina, and they represent the heart and soul of a physical unit that ranks fourth in C-USA in total defense (354.0 yards/game) and fifth in scoring defense (24.8 points/game).

4. Non-Traditional Scoring. With the Owls ranking dead last in C-USA in scoring and total offense and the Pirates ranking 10th and 11th in those categories, respectively, points might be hard to come by for both offense. The team that can vulture scores via returns (kickoffs, punts, turnovers) will earn the edge. The Pirates recorded six returns for touchdowns last season, and got a 77-yard kickoff return from Dwayne Harris last weekend against SMU. The Owls have recorded just one interception all season, and their previous returns for touchdowns via kickoff (Nov. 17, 1984) and punt (Nov. 8, 1997) came a long, long time ago.

5. Wildcat! Maladies suffered by freshman tailback Charles Ross (asthma attack, groin strain) have slowed the Owls' introduction of the Wildcat to their offensive repertoire. With Ross dinged again (he is listed as questionable against East Carolina), it's anyone's guess how often the Owls will run the Wildcat with senior tailback Jeramy Goodson. The Pirates are fond of the formation, and now that senior tailback Dominique Lindsay is back from a shoulder injury, look for East Carolina to liberally utilize the formation as an aid to its rushing attack.

Thoughts? Questions? Concerns?

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Now would be a good time for the offense to get itself in gear. They've had plenty of reps to find their groove and even without Ross there's plenty of talent in the backfield. The defense is seriously hurting and some energy from the offense would go a long way towards bringing the whole team up a notch.

I wish the off week was after this game and if it were then I think our first win would be against UCF. We desperately need the time off to heal ourselves physically and mentally.

I'd like to see the first half fire of the Vandy/Tulsa games today as a start. If we don't see at least some excitement towards this game I think an "0-fer" is possible.

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