The South Carolina-East Carolina series returns to Columbia on Saturday with the Gamecocks riding a three-game winning streak against the Pirates.
Sammy Batten, the college football writer for The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the Pirates (2-0):
Wilson: Let’s start with the guy at the helm. What are your thoughts on the job Scottie Montgomery has done in his first season as the head coach?
Batten: Scottie stepped into a difficult situation at ECU where a very beloved coach by the majority of Pirate fans — Ruffin McNeill — was fired. He has not only endeared himself to the fan base with his passion and enthusiasm, but has won over the players as well, which were two very key accomplishments. He’s gone 2-0 to start his head coaching career, so you can’t do much better than that. And one of those wins came against an in-state rival, N.C. State, so to say he’s the toast of Greenville right now would be an understatement.
Wilson: QB Philip Nelson has looked outstanding in settling in at East Carolina. What has made him so effective and efficient through the first two games? And what makes the offense potent?
Batten: The first thing you notice about Philip Nelson is how the rest of the offense has gravitated toward him. They acknowledge him as their leader, even though he’s a first-year starter, so I think that says something about his personality. Philip is a really good athlete who has displayed a strong arm and willingness to throw the ball down the field and no apprehension to pull it down and run when it’s required. But I think one thing that has really helped him be so effective is the supporting cast around him. ECU has a superb receiving corps, led by Zay Jones, and its offensive line is a veteran group that has remained healthy through the first two games. Keeping those guys healthy was a real issue for the Pirates last season. ECU’s offense has also gotten a real boost from senior James Summers, who has become the Pirates’ handyman, working at quarterback, running back and receiver. All those factors have made the offense potent, along with coordinator Tony Peterson’s willingness to open up the playbook.
Wilson: The Gamecocks have struggled to get a run game going behind an iffy offensive line. N.C. State had some solid success on the ground last weekend against ECU. Do you expect improvement in that area heading into Saturday or will the Gamecocks have an opportunity to move the ball on the ground?
Batten: The defensive front is definitely a vulnerable area for East Carolina. Kicking a projected starter in defensive tackle Darius Commissiong off the team right before the season opener was a big blow to that unit. But with that said, the Pirates showed signs of improvement by bottling up N.C. State’s talented back, Matthew Dayes, in the first half last week. Of course, Dayes opened the third quarter with a 54-yard run and finished with 103 yards. But for ECU, the first half against the run was encouraging. I would expect South Carolina’s offensive line to be a bit more physical than N.C. State’s, so the Gamecocks should be able to run the ball with success against the Pirates.
Wilson: What will East Carolina need to do against the Gamecocks to leave Williams-Brice Stadium with a win?
Batten: As with every team, avoiding turnovers is essential, especially on the road in the kind of environment the Pirates will encounter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Hitting a big play or two early on offense to establish momentum would serve the Pirates well. Defensively, ECU just needs to make South Carolina work hard for every yard. The Gamecocks are going to move the ball and get their points, but the Pirates have to make sure those don’t come easy.
Wilson: How do you see things unfolding Saturday night?
Batten: You have two teams that are still adjusting to new coaches and systems. But I do think the transition has come a little quicker for East Carolina. If the Pirates can hang in early, hit a big play or two on offense, then this could be an interesting game. I expect the scoreboard at Williams-Brice Stadium is going to be very busy. Still, beating the Gamecocks on their home field is a daunting task that will take ECU’s very best effort.