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From the Sidelines: ECU is the real deal

The unequivocal top story through the first two weeks of the college football season has been the surprising play of the East Carolina Pirates. The squad opened its campaign in Charlotte two weeks ago with a win over then No. 17 Virginia Tech before lambasting then No. 8 West Virginia 24-3 in week two.

The victories have catapulted the Conference USA favorite to No. 14 in the polls, its highest ranking since it occupied the No. 9 spot at the conclusion of an 11-1 season in 1991. As the team prepares to take on Tulane this weekend, the talk of the college football is permeated with the debate as to whether or not ECU is now overrated.

BCS conference sticklers still have a hard time digesting that “non-major” schools can be both competitive and legitimate, feeding the notion that the Pirates are a fluke.

Granted, it can yet be determined how ECU will fare on the road or against opponents they are expected to beat. However, the fact is that East Carolina is as legitimate as any team can be two weeks into the season.

The Pirates have excelled in many of the stat categories that “experts” consider to be the true indicators of a good football team.

Against Virginia Tech, ECU was an impressive 7-for-13 on third down conversions. One week later against the Mountaineers, the Pirates managed an almost equally as impressive 8-for-16 on third down chances. Conversely, opponents are only 8-for-24 on third down tries thus far in 2008.

The Pirates moved the sticks 19 times in Charlotte two weeks ago before amassing 20 first downs in week two.

Their ability to perform in clutch situations coupled with their penchant for taking care of the football (only two turnovers in two games) has helped the Pirates to play defense with their offense. ECU held the ball for 33:08 against Blacksburg’s best and dominated the time of possession the following Saturday by keeping its offense on the field for 35:41 against WVU.

The Pirates have managed to find offensive consistency despite not reaching the 400-yard mark in either game this season. Quarterback Patrick Pinkney has done a stellar job of spreading the ball around, hitting seven different receivers against Virginia Tech before finding six different targets against West Virginia.

Pinkney has also shown an ability to take what the defense gives him, refraining from making ill-advised throws while displaying a keen ability to pull the ball down and pick up yardage with his feet.

He has proven wildly efficient as a passer, completing 41 of his 51 attempts for 447 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions so far this year.

The Pirates have also exhibited balance in their ground attack, employing Brandon Simmons and Jonathan Williams as the leading men in a true two-back system. Simmons has 33 carries through the season’s first two games while Williams has 27.

So they can control the ball with a balanced attack on offense, but what about their defense?

Well, the Pirates limited their first two previously ranked opponents to modest offensive outputs. The Hokies came up with only 243 yards of total offense while Pat White and Noel Devine led the Rich-Rodriguez-less Mountaineers to 251 yards.

Moreover, the Pirates are plus-2 in turnover ratio after having plucked two passes from Virginia Tech before following up the performance with two fumble recoveries against Big East favorite WVU.

Additionally, East Carolina has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher or receiver this season. White posted 97 yards on the ground while Devine racked up 94 of his own. However, that production was offset by a stingy Pirate pass defense that allowed West Virginia only 72 yards through the air.

In fact, the ECU secondary has not allowed any pass catcher to accumulate more than 62 yards in a game. One busted coverage against Virginia Tech allowed Hokie freshman wideout Dyrell Roberts to claim 62 yards on a single pass play on his only catch of the game. No other receiver has managed more than 32 yards against a Pirate secondary that has yet to surrender a passing touchdown in 2008.

ECU has added strong special teams play to its stiff defense and efficient offense to complete the recipe that has resulted in its Top 15 ranking. T.J. Lee’s game-changing performance in which he blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown against Virginia Tech has been the special teams highlight for the Pirates to this point. However, the most notable point is the fact that the Pirates have played and won the field position game. Punter Matt Dodge has averaged 42 yards per kick, enlarging the field for opposing offenses.

But even more impressive than ECU’s on-field production this season is the manner in which the program has set itself up for success. Understanding the perceived ineptitude of its conference, the Pirates have utilized aggressive non-conference scheduling to elevate its national prominence.

They played VT in 2007 and will keep the Hokies on the schedule through 2013. Last weekend’s triumph over West Virginia came in the front half of a home-and-home series that will wrap up in Morgantown in 2009. Additionally, the squad has inked a home-and-home deal with South Carolina that is set to take place in 2011 and 2012.

While those games will certainly serve to promote the team nationally, the powers that be at ECU have also taken steps toward establishing the program within North Carolina.

The Pirates played UNC in 2007 and will contend with the Tarheels again in 2009, 2010 and 2011. In addition to the Heels, ECU will try its hand with North Carolina State this season and next season before resuming its rivalry with the Wolfpack in 2010 and 2013.

Victories in these national and in-state games will help the Pirates improved upon a 2008 recruiting class that No. 81 according to Rivals and No. 93 by Scout.com standards.

The team already has 12 commits this season including two three-star players. The Pirates managed only three three-star athletes in its entire 2008 class. East Carolina is also reportedly on the short list of potential destinations for offensive tackle Travis Bond of Windsor, N.C.’s Bertie High and cornerback Taikwon Paige and linebacker Tony Straughter of Milledgville’s Georgia Military. All three are ranked as four-star players.

And, as off the radar as the Pirates were before the season, their success should come as much less of a surprise considering the professional achievements of Jacksonville Jaguars’ starting quarterback David Garrard and Tennessee Titans’ rookie phenom running back Chris Johnson, both East Carolina alums. That does not even take into consideration the fact that head coach Skip Holtz has had the team on the upswing since his arrival in 2005. The 2004 Pirates won a paltry three games before Holtz’s arrival. They took five in their first season under Holtz before making a PapaJohns.com Bowl appearance after a seven-win season in 2006. The Pirates righted the ship even more in 2007, posting eight wins in a season that culminated with a Sheraton Hawaii Bowl win over Boise State.

So, while it may be difficult for power conference fans to wrap their heads around a Conference USA team making legitimate waves, the East Carolina Pirates have earned their way to the No. 14 ranking and all the attention they have achieved.

But if recent events are any indication, the Pirates are likely to have way longer than 15 minutes in the spotlight. And if the Big East is serious about upgrading its status as a football conference, East Carolina’s tenure as a member of Conference USA should be drawing to a close.