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Summer Vacation: The East Carolina Pirates and ... Math, FTW!

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

It seemed to make sense on paper.  Skip Holtz departs for South Florida, leaving behind a strong defensive team at ECU, and he is replaced by ECU alum Ruffin McNeill, who engineered an impressive turnaround for Mike Leach's defense at Texas Tech (minus-2.3% Def. F/+ in 2007 before he took over, +5.9 Def. F/+ in 2009).  If he can maintain on defense and maybe gin up a little Airraid-esque excitement on offense, then that's a pretty good hire, right?

Sure enough, East Carolina's offense took off in McNeill's first year, throwing as much as almost anybody in the country and setting offensive records with a young Leach protege calling the plays.

Also: their defense went into the tank.

East Carolina played a more exciting brand of football in 2010, but as has been said here before, exciting ain't always good.  The Pirates went to a bowl game for the fifth consecutive year (with their semi-sustained success, it's easy to forget just how far they had fallen before Holtz took over -- they had gone just 7-28 in the three seasons prior to Holtz's arrival), but their loss in the Military Bowl dropped them to a below-.500 finish for the first time since 2005.

McNeill has already proved himself a better coach than he is a healthy one (sorry, it had to be said), but what's in store for his second season?  Looking at personnel, it's easy to predict a rebound on defense and a slight regression on offense.  It's also easy to predict the opposite.  In other words, I have no idea.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 7-6 | Final F/+ Rk**: 67
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
5-Sep Tulsa 51-49 W 34.0 - 30.6 W
11-Sep Memphis 49-27 W 30.5 - 37.0 L
18-Sep at Virginia Tech 27-49 L 28.5 - 38.5 L
2-Oct at North Carolina 17-42 L 24.8 - 34.1 L
9-Oct at Southern Miss 44-43 W 31.8 - 19.1 W
16-Oct N.C. State 33-27 W 38.6 - 27.6 W
23-Oct Marshall 37-10 W 35.2 - 22.4 W
30-Oct at Central Florida 35-49 L 41.8 - 37.8 W
6-Nov Navy 35-76 L 34.5 - 41.1 L
13-Nov at UAB 54-42 W 36.2 - 34.0 W
20-Nov at Rice 38-62 L 31.2 - 41.6 L
27-Nov SMU 38-45 L 36.9 - 29.0 W
29-Dec vs Maryland 20-51 L 19.0 - 40.6 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 36.8 16 44 119
Adj. Points Per Game 32.5 25 33.3 108

As Louisiana Tech also learned last season, the Airraid puts butts in the seats.  In their first season in an expanded Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium (with 7,000 extra seats and a totally badass Pirate logo at midfield), ECU averaged almost 50K per game in attendance, easily the best mark in Conference USA.  Fans were treated to some interesting games as well.

Looking at both the scores and the the Adj. Points chart above ... there was a lot going on for ECU in 2010, wasn't there?  You had the hail mary win against Tulsa (throw it to the 6'8 kid!!) ... the "fall down by 20, go up by eight, fall back down by five, then win anyway" shootout over Southern Miss ... the "blow a 21-point lead, then win in overtime" upset of N.C. State ... the "somehow give up 71 points at home to one of the slowest-paced teams in college football" loss to Navy ... the "score 27 points in the fourth quarter" win over UAB ... the "come back from down 14 with five minutes left to win in OT" game against SMU ...

In every game ECU played in 2010, at least one team scored 33 points or more.  In 11 of 13, a team scored at least 42.  There have been plenty of completely forgettable 6-6 or 6-7 seasons in this world; this was not one of them.

The Adj. Points tell an interesting tale as well.  In the first four games, the average Adj. Score was Opponent 35.1, ECU 29.5.  The middle four games: ECU 36.9, Opponent 26.7.  Next four: Opponent 36.4, ECU 34.7.  Both the offense and the defense ebbed and flowed quite a bit last year.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 23 20 24
RUSHING 15 19 14 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 32 24 38 33
Standard Downs 43 28 53 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 10 12 12 5
Redzone 26 21 31
Q1 Rk 33 1st Down Rk 49
Q2 Rk 44 2nd Down Rk 16
Q3 Rk 42 3rd Down Rk 35
Q4 Rk 12

High pace, low variability, second-lowest run% on standard downs, sixth-lowest run% on passing downs.  If you had no idea Ruffin McNeill and 27-year old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley had been associated with Mike Leach in Lubbock before ... you'd quickly begin to suspect it.  Riley walked on to Leach's early Tech teams, then stayed on as a graduate assistant.  He was hired as a receivers coach soon after and, after Leach was dismissed, ended up calling plays for McNeill in the 2009 Alamo Bowl.  Apparently McNeill was impressed.

So were ECU fans, I assume, after seeing what Riley could do with the parts he inherited in his first season.  Quarterback Dominique Davis joined the ECU team in August of last year, and in his first four months on campus, helped the offense set 15 single-season records.  After never registering a positive Off. F/+ in the last four seasons (the highest: -0.6%, 57th overall, in 2007), ECU exploded for a +11.2% rating, 12th-best in the country.  Theirs was the third-best mid-major offense in college football, behind just Nevada and Boise State (if Boise still counts as "mid-major").  What can you say?  In the right hands, the Airraid just works.

Dominique Davis proved himself a superb passer in this system, posting 3,967 yards (6.5/pass, 65% completion rate), 37 touchdowns and 16 interceptions on the season.  But he added a running element that Leach and company never really had in Lubbock (sorry, Sonny Cumbie) -- he rushed for 270 yards minus sacks and registered a +8.8 Adj. POE.  He was able to make something happen even when the defense had the reads covered, and ECU quite clearly benefited from it.

In 2011, Davis is back for his senior year, but he'll have some new pieces in the supporting cast.  Gone are his No. 2 receiving target, Dwayne Harris (1,123 yards, 11.1/catch, 8.1 target, 73% catch, 10 TD), both primary running backs, Jonathan Williams (847 yards, 5.5/carry, 10 TD, +8.1 Adj. POE) and Giavani Ruffin (384 yards, 2 TD), and three starting linemen, including an all-conference performer in Willie Smith.  It is quite possible that Davis, Riley and company absorb these losses with no worries, but it's not a guarantee.

Other tidbits:

  • Harris is gone, but his most frequent target, Lance Lewis (1,116 yards, 12.5/catch, 8.1/target, 64% catch, 14 TD) returns, as do Michael Bowman (434 yards, 9.2/catch, 6.4/target, 70% catch, 3 TD) and Andrew Bodenheimer (370 yards, 9.2/catch, 2 TD).  Davis will need to find another potential target or two, but that's probably the least of his worries; in this offense, targets come open, even if they are walk-ons.  The quarterback just has to find them.
  • Entering the spring, there are three running backs on the roster, one of which has any playing experience whatsoever.  Michael Dobson (11 carries, 62 yards) is your grizzly old veteran in this unit; he's flanked by Damonte Terry (So.) and Alex Owah (RSFr).  Be on the lookout, I assume, for two JUCO transfers this fall -- four-star Chevelle Buie and three-star Reggie Bullock.  Obviously ECU rarely ran the ball (runs are just really, really short passes, I guess), but even under Leach, Tech's offenses were at their best when players like Taurean Henderson and Baron Batch were making their presence felt.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 102 82 107
RUSHING 108 89 112 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 86 67 93 78
Standard Downs 108 81 111 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 103 92 108 117
Redzone 79 64 82
Q1 Rk 82 1st Down Rk 83
Q2 Rk 83 2nd Down Rk 105
Q3 Rk 116 3rd Down Rk 115
Q4 Rk 105

One thing is certain in looking at the chart above: opponents did not hide their intentions.  They were going to run the ball until ECU stopped them ... and ECU rarely stopped them.  The Pirates were "pre-Ruffin Tech" bad on defense (worse, actually), and while they were not particularly good anywhere, they were especially egregious against the run.  They had one of the ten worst big-play defenses in the country both against the run and on standard downs in general.  As good as the defense was under Holtz (never in the negative; their worst recent performance was a 0.6% Def. F/+ rating in 2007), it just fell apart.

Why?  I don't want to absolve the coaching staff here -- a drop this precipitous has to make you at least temporarily wonder if the right hire was made at defensive coordinator -- but the solid defense from 2009 lost nine starters, then lost two key players, LB-DE hybrids Justin Dixon and Marke Powell, early in the season.  The result?  A terribly thin front seven and one of the worst pass rushes in the country.  ECU couldn't get pressure on the quarterback, blitzing or not blitzing, so occasionally opponents would take time off from gashing the Pirates for huge gains on the ground ... to gash them for huge gains through the air.  A potentially decent secondary had to cover their men for far, far too long.

The clear lack of depth on the defensive line (compounded by the loss of their best tackle, Josh Smith, to expired eligibility) could be handled in any number of ways.  What did McNeill and defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell decide to do?  Move from four linemen to three!  Math, for the win!  The Pirates are breaking in a 3-4 scheme this year, and considering the dimensions of some of their best playmakers (Justin Dixon was a 6'1, 228-pound part-time end; Marke Powell 6'3, 220), this isn't a terrible idea.  Of the 7.5 tackles Dixon made pre-injury last year, 5.5 of them were for a loss; he could be a lovely, "mid-major Von Miller" style play-maker in the right scheme.

Other tidbits:

  • Second-team all-conference cornerback Emanuel Davis (45.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FR, 2 INT, 9 PBU) leads an experienced secondary that was asked to do far too much last year.  He and safeties Bradley Jacobs and Derek Blacknall (combined tackles: 124.0) could thrive under less pressure.
  • Tackle is such a key part of any defense, but in moving from the 4-3 to the 3-4, you can learn a lot by looking at who will be manning the middle.  It appears that will be Michael Brooks, who at 6'3, 287 pounds isn't particularly undersized and made at least a few plays (3.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT) last year. Still, for all the ills a move to a 3-4 can cure, I'm not sure "their defensive line got pushed around horribly last year" is one of them.
  • The linebacker unit lost some depth with the springtime departure of junior linebacker Lamar McLendon (50.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks).

East Carolina's 2010 Season Set to Music

Why, Atmosphere's "Smart Went Crazy," of course.  ECU went from semi-conservative and defensively stout to ... crazy.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

You could probably figure out where I was going to head with this...

Biggest Single-Season Offensive Improvements According to F/+ (2007-10)
1. 2009 Auburn (+19.0%)
2. 2010 Army (+18.3%)
3. 2010 Washington State (+18.3%)
4. 2009 Cincinnati (+17.7%)
5. 2007 Florida (+16.2%)
6. 2009 Georgia Tech (+15.3%)
7. 2010 San Diego State (+15.3%)
8. 2009 Mississippi State (+15.2%)
9. 2009 Tennessee (+15.1%)
10. 2010 Auburn (+15.1%)
21. 2010 East Carolina (+13.4%)

Biggest Single-Season Defensive Regression According to F/+ (2007-10)
1. 2007 Florida (-22.9%)
2. 2007 Louisville (-20.7%)
3. 2010 East Carolina (-18.1%)
4. 2009 Wake Forest (-17.5%)
5. 2007 Nebraska (-17.4%)
6. 2007 Navy (-16.5%)
7. 2009 New Mexico (-15.1%)
8. 2009 Florida Atlantic (-14.9%)
9. 2009 San Jose State (-14.8%)
10. 2009 Florida State (-14.8%)

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 55
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 75
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -7 / -3.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (5, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +1.0

You can just tell the projections are going to be confused by ECU.  Four-year F/+ rank doesn't mean as much when both your offense and defense pulled a 180 last season.  In theory, things regress back to the mean after a surge, positive or negative.  So one would think the offense might regress a bit while the defense bounces a bit back toward its 2009 form.  And that might very well be what happens.  The defense could see benefits from health and a change to a scheme that seems to suit the personnel reasonably well, while the offense could struggle to account for the loss at running back; plus, Dwayne Harris' replacement might not be as good.  It's not hard to see things playing out this way.

It's also not hard to see the exact opposite playing out.  ECU's 2010 profile -- great passing offense, sieve of a rush D -- was what Texas Tech dealt with for many seasons, when they always looked great on offense and always struggled with defense, and it's hard to find a reason to question what the combination of Dominique Davis and Lincoln Riley might have in store for this fall.

In other words, I'm throwing my hands up on this one.   ECU's probably going to be a perfectly decent team this year, but how much of that is based on which side of the ball ... I have no idea.  Virginia Tech and North Carolina come to Greenville this fall, following a meeting with South Carolina in Charlotte.  Seven of 12 games are within the state of North Carolina, and if East Carolina proved anything in 2010, it's that they are capable of winning or losing just about any game on the slate.  Go ahead and re-up on that Toprol prescription, ECU fans.  It could be another interesting fall.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.