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November 21, 2013

ECU features much-improved defense

East Carolina has always been known for its offensive firepower, but the Pirates defense is much improved.

ECU hasn't had to win games by shootouts en route to a 8-2 mark, but have allowed over 31 points in three contests, winning two of them. A more defensive-minded ECU squad travels to play NC State at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Old Dominion, who NC State plays next year, scored a season-high 38 points in ECU's season opener Aug. 31. ODU quarterback Taylor Heinicke went 38-of-51 passing for 338 yards and three touchdowns in the 52-38 loss.

UNC scored 31 points, but was trounced 55-31 on Sept. 28, and Tulane won 36-33 in overtime Oct. 12. Senior Bryn Renner of the Tar Heels passed for 366 yards and three touchdowns, and freshman Devin Powell of the Green Wave tossed 224 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start.

ECU's defense is allowing 21.5 points, 101.4 rushing yards and 236.5 passing yards per game. The Pirates have lost five fumbles, thrown seven interceptions and allowed 26 sacks.

"They are obviously really good and are playing with a lot of confidence," NCSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "They have very good skill, are long and run well. They are athletic and disruptive.

"With the points spread they are winning games by, they are obviously playing well on both sides of the ball."

Senior outside linebacker Derrell Johnson leads the way with 62 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. Sophomore outside linebacker Montese Overton and sophomore defensive end Terrell Stanley have combined for 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss.

NC State has struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone, but the Wolfpack's three touchdowns in last Saturday's 38-21 loss at Boston College was their most in ACC action. Canada used a nifty trick play to fool BC's secondary.

Fifth-year senior wide receiver Rashard Smith, a former prep quarterback, tossed a 49-yard touchdown pass to fellow fifth-year senior wide receiver Quintin Payton to cut the Eagles' lead to 20-14 in the third quarter.

"At the time, it was certainly a big play in the game and it got us to one score," Canada said. "At that point, if we had gotten a score, we could have gone up by one point. That was a great play by both of them."

Smith's throwing skills were tested out in practice.

"We see who we think can throw the best," Canada said. "Rashard had proven in practice that he was the best guy to throw it. That was a great throw."

ECU has scored at least 24 points in all but one game this season, its 15-10 loss to Virginia Tech. The Pirates are averaging 41.5 points per game. NC State isn't expecting a shootout, but a productive day on offense could be needed.

"We need to score touchdowns, and we certainly know going into this game they are an explosive offense and have scored points on everybody they've played," Canada said. "We have a lot of respect for what they are doing and the way they are playing. They have a bunch of experienced players playing very, very well.

"It's going to be a great challenge for our kids to answer the bell and score enough points to stay with them."

NC State coach Dave Doeren pointed out how freshman Jumichael Ramos had five catches for a career-high 109 yards and a 52-yard touchdown catch against Boston College last week. Freshman running back Matt Dayes had a 61-yard catch, and redshirt freshman tight end David J. Grinnage snagged a 20-yard reception.

"We are in the middle of the season and trying to win this game, and they are the best players we have currently to play, so that is why we are using them," Canada said. "It's exciting to see them grow. They are getting better from game-to-game.

"Ramos has made big plays in critical situations. We need more of that from everybody."

Conversely, Canada has a little over a week left to work with seniors such as Smith, Payton, quarterback Brandon Mitchell, tight end Asa Watson and left guard Duran Christophe, among others.

"We spend a lot of time working to play football games," Canada said. "They get two chances left to play in games, and not to lift weights or get ready for something else. It's their last two games. All the things we do are for those games.

"Our results are not where we wanted, but we've been in the games and we haven't made the plays to win. That has been disappointing for our seniors. They certainly can still finish strong and win a couple here at home."

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