PHOTO: USA Today Sports
East Carolina Pirates (9-3) vs Ohio Bobcats (7-5)
Monday, Dec 23rd @ 2 pm (ESPN)
Line: East Carolina by 13.5
How East Carolina got here: The Pirates had a strong season in which they went 2-1 against ACC opponents. They beat UNC (55-31) and NC State (42-28) and barely lost to Virginia Tech (15-10). Unfortunately, they lost their season finale at Marshall by 31 and that game was essentially a play-in for the Conference USA Championship Game. With back-to-back winning seasons, Ruffin McNeil has this team on the right track.
How Ohio got here: The last two years for the Bobcats have played out very similarly. They get off to a strong start but then fade down the stretch. This season, they started out 6-2 but then got blown out in three straight games before finishing the season with a win over lowly UMass.
For East Carolina to win: The Pirates finished the season second in C-USA in total offense and points scored. They need to push the pace in this game against a Bobcats offense that struggled to score points down the stretch (they averaged just 5.3 ppg in losses to Buffalo, Bowling Green and Kent State). Shane Carden needs to spread the ball around to his playmakers so the Bobcats can't focus in on stopping one player. On defense, the Pirates need to get off the field on third down. It sounds easy but they were 13th out of 14 teams this season in C-USA letting opponents convert 46.6%.
For Ohio to win: The Bobcats need to get out to a quick start. They need it for their psyche and they need it because they will have a difficult time keeping up with the Pirates offense. On defense, the Bobcats need to get after Carden and make him get rid of the football before he's ready. In wins, the Bobcats averaged 3.7 sacks and in losses they averaged just 1.4.
Key Player (East Carolina): Justin Hardy, ECU. If you haven't heard of Hardy, you probably want to get familiar with him. He is currently fifth in the Nation in receptions with 105 and is averaging over 100 yards per game. He also has the second most third down receptions in the FBS (28). Hardy is the key for this Pirates offense and look for Carden to target him early to get him going.
Key Player (Ohio): Beau Blankenship, Ohio. Ohio has not had the success running the football this season as they did last year. Blankenship, in particular, has struggled. In 2012, he ran for over 1,600 yards with 15 TD on a clip of 5.14 ypc. This season, he is at 844 yards and 5 TD on 4.61 ypc. In wins, Blankenship has 5 rushing TDs and is averaging 83 ypg. In losses, he has 0 rushing TD and 52 ypg.
Key Stat: Ohio has only created four turnovers in their five losses. In their seven wins, they have created 18. It's one of the basic rules of football, win the turnover battle and you likely win the game. The Bobcats have only won one game this season in which they lost the turnover battle and that was against Austin Peay of the FCS. In all five of their losses, they have either lost the turnover battle or it's been even. If Ohio wants to win, they must win this aspect of the game.