It’s homecoming week as USF, 4-1 (1-0) prepares to host ECU at high noon this Saturday. The Pirates, 2-3 (0-1), arrive to the showdown having lost 3 consecutive contests, and will certainly be seeking to avenge last year’s 22 to 17 loss in Greenville. Here are some of the key offensive players to watch in the matchup for the Pirates as they head into Raymond James Saturday looking to pull the upset.
The Pirates’ are averaging 29 points per game through the first five weeks of the season, averaging 392 yards per game through the air. The main man behind the Pirates’ aerial assault is senior quarterback Philip Nelson (6’1″, 215 lbs.). Nelson has completed 148 of 210 passes (70%), posting 1,753 yards, 11 touchdowns, and four interceptions on the year. Nelson has been mining all facets of the field with stellar accuracy, but after taking a hard hit last weekend in ECU’s loss to Central Florida the Pirates’ signal caller was forced to exit the contest (no injury details currently available).
If Nelson is unable to go Saturday against the Bulls, the Pirates will likely turn the keys over to sophomore Gardner Minshew from NW Mississippi Community College. In relief duty against Central Florida, Minshew completed 12 of 27 passing attempts for 192 yards and scored a touchdown, but did toss two interceptions.
Regardless of the signal caller under center for ECU Saturday, they will face a USF secondary allowing just 221 yards per game through the air in 2016. USF standouts like Ronnie Hoggins, who reeled in an interception last week at Cincinnati, will have to fly to receivers and make tackles in space to contain ECU’s loaded wide receiver corps. The key will be avoiding arm tackles and wrapping up to prevent the Pirates from continuing to post the gaudy receiving numbers like they have all season long.
Senior wide receiver Zay Jones (6’1″ 197 lbs.) is ECU’s top target, amassing 695 yards on 66 receptions (10.5 yards per catch) and two receiving touchdowns (Note: did miss practice on Tuesday per Nathan Summers). Junior wide receiver Quay Johnson (5’10” 188 lbs.) has pulled down 30 passes for 321 yards (10.7 yards per catch) and two receiving touchdowns. Johnson is the second go-to target for ECU, and the Bulls’ secondary will need focus on shutting him down as well.
Unfortunately for USF, there is a third wide receiver to keep a keen eye on. The aforementioned third threat is Senior Jimmy Williams (5’11” 194 lbs.), who has posted 19 receptions for 467 yards and three touchdowns in 2016. Williams is the Pirates’ big, down the field possession receiver who is averaging 24.6 yards per catch. Williams is ECU’s big play target in the vertical passing game. Therefore, one of the keys for the Bulls’ to disrupt the ECU passing game Saturday is the front seven bringing plenty of pocket pressure to disrupt receiver route timing. The Bulls’ have 11 sacks to date in 2016, so bolstering the sack stat column could be the recipe required to disrupt the Pirates’ passing game.
On the ground, the Pirates are averaging 131.2 yards per game, but against USF a season ago ECU was bottled up, mustering just 62 net rushing yards. The Bulls have allowed the opposition to gain 221 yards per game on the ground, and despite cleaning up some of the coverage issues, there still seems to be open running lanes for the taking. (e.g. Cincinnati, DALVIN COOK!)
Leading the ECU backfield is Junior tailback Anthony Scott (5’9″ 189 lbs.). Scott has dashed for 286 rushing yards on 54 touches (5.3 yards per carry) and punched in two rushing scores. Additionally, Senior wide receiver James Summers (6’3″ 218 lbs.) has 46 carries for 245 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and two rushing touchdowns.
If you can recall ECU’s 2015 squad, Summers was the Pirates’ starting signal caller against USF who tucked the pigskin and dashed 20 times for 77 yards and two rushing touchdowns. Summers is a gifted athlete the Pirates’ lean on in the ground game and utilize as a receiving target.
Regardless of the player the Pirates’ hand the rock off to this Saturday, they will collide with the USF ‘Bullshark’ defense commander-in-chief Auggie Sanchez and the Bulls’ front seven. Sanchez posted ten tackles and three tackles-for-loss in the meeting last year, and will once again be a cog in the center of the defense. Nigel Harris is another playmaker for the Bullshark defense, who has stockpiled 35 tackles in 2016 and posted 10 tackles against ECU a season ago. If the Bulls’ are able to shut down the ECU run game, it will force the Pirates’ into a one-dimensional passing offense for the Bulls’ to exploit.
by Matt Staton
SoFloBulls.com Columnist | @USFMatt
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