Fresh off a pair of confidence-building wins, the Bulls were embarrassed last week by Navy, falling to 1-2 in the AAC East. On the other hand, the Pirates have opened the AAC season with three consecutive conference losses to erase an encouraging 3-1 start. East Carolina has been outscored by an average of 18.3 points per game against MAC opponents, but that could very well change this weekend. The Pirates opened the week as 1.5-point underdogs, but the spread has quickly moved to a pick’em. Can East Carolina earn its first conference victory of the season at home against South Florida on Saturday?
Freshman QB McCloud dealing with shoulder injuryJust when it looked like the Bulls were showing some signs of life, South Florida was walloped 35-3 against Navy last week. Navy dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, exerting their will in the run game and picking up five sacks on the evening. The Bulls failed to get anything going offensively, as they totaled just 264 yards and were held to only three points. They also had no answer for Navy’s rushing attack, despite stacking 11 players in the box for most of the game and the Midshipmen gashed the Bulls’ defense for 434 yards on a healthy 7.4 yards per carry en route to a blowout. Freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud, who took over the starting job from injured Blake Barnett, finished 11-for-23 for only 50 yards and an interception, while Jordan Cronkite added a team-high 76 rushing yards in a losing effort.
For McCloud, it was arguably the worst game of his young career, but it is hard to fault the freshman, who played hurt while nursing a shoulder injury. According to offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell, McCloud could “barely grip the ball” in the team’s upset victory over BYU and he re-aggravated the injury in that contest. While the significance of McCloud’s shoulder injury was downplayed last week, his performance over the past two games combined (18-for-37 for 112 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions) certainly indicates that something could be wrong. He’s now thrown for 674 yards, eight touchdowns, and six interceptions so far this season while completing 53.6 percent of his passes.
On defense, South Florida enters allowing 29.6 points and 393.7 yards of total offense per contest. However, as evidenced last week against Navy, they have struggled against the run, allowing 213 yards per game on the ground through seven contests (116th in FBS).
Ahlers, Johnson on the same page for PiratesEast Carolina dropped its second straight game and third consecutive conference contest last week 41-28 against UCF. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers threw for 310 yards, one touchdown, and one interception for the Pirates, who gave up 611 yards of total offense in the loss. Receiver C.J. Johnson went over 100 yards on the day, while Demetrius Mauney added 74 yards and a score on the ground in a losing effort for East Carolina. The Pirates went down 21-0 in the first quarter and 35-6 before halftime but played better int he second half, outscoring the Knights 22-6 from that point on.
Ball security continues to be a work in progress for Ahlers, who has already doubled the number of interceptions he’s thrown compared to last season. After throwing for 12 touchdowns and only three picks as a freshman, Ahlers has thrown for 1,455 yards, seven touchdowns, and six interceptions for the Pirates this season. He’s fresh off of throwing for a season-high 313 yards against UCF and he’s been able to move the chains with his legs as well, adding 259 rushing yards and four scores on the ground. The No. 3 all-time passer in North Carolina prep history has found a new favorite target in former high school teammate C.J. Johnson, who leads the team with 27 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns.
One of the biggest bright spots for East Carolina this season has been the play of senior defensive end Kendall Futrell, who has been a force off the edge so far this season. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound senior leads the AAC with eight sacks and seven of those have come in his last four games. He finished with five tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble last week against UCF. Futrell leads a defense that comes in allowing 25.9 points and 401.9 yards of total offense per game.
- Bulls are 4-10 ATS in their last 14 games after allowing more than 200 yards rushing in their previous game.
- Bulls are 4-12 ATS in their last 16 conference games.
- Pirates are 4-0 ATS vs. a team with a losing record.