East Carolina improving on defense

This was not supposed to be their year. Not with a new head coach, not with new schemes, not with all those starters gone.

Yet here we are in the last week of October, and the same old team is in contention for the Conference USA title.

Two-time defending champion East Carolina (5-2, 4-0) has shunned any thoughts of this being a rebuilding year, working its way to the top of the East Division. The Pirates have already beaten one division foe in Southern Miss. Now they need to get past UCF on Saturday to take control.

Much easier said than done, of course. UCF (5-2, 4-0) has the best defense in Conference USA and is playing at home, with the expectation that this is their year to win the league.

Both teams have won nine straight league games. Both are undefeated in league play. Both are trying to become bowl eligible.

“It’s a big division rivalry,” said East Carolina linebacker Dustin Lineback. “They’re looking to get us and we’re looking to get them, too. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

East Carolina has owned the series with UCF, leading 8-1. The only time UCF beat East Carolina was on the road, 30-20 in 2005.

Coach Ruffin McNeill took over when Skip Holtz left at the end of last season and brought his high-octane spread offense. He only had six returning starters to his entire team. What helped was the addition of Boston College transfer Dominique Davis, who has been an immediate success. His Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Tulsa to open the season set the tone for the offense.

Davis and his teammates have converted 27 of 28 opportunities in the red zone, and the Pirates are the top-ranked offense in Conference USA. Dwayne Harris has been a huge key, ranking sixth in the nation in receptions per game (7.7). He has at least one reception in 38 straight games, the second-longest streak in the country.

This spread offense is on pace to set several school records, including scoring average, passing yards per game, touchdown passes per game and first downs per game.

It is the defense that has been the biggest question mark. East Carolina only had two returning starters, and it showed early. The Pirates gave up 40-plus points in four of their first five games of the season, relying on the offense to outscore opponents.

But in the last two games, the defense has tightened. The Pirates held NC State to 27 points in an overtime victory, then held Marshall to just 10 in another win -- the fewest points they had given up since 2008.

There is more: East Carolina has forced eight turnovers in the last two games after getting only one takeaway in the previous three. That includes six interceptions in those games, after going without one in three straight.

Last week against Marshall, East Carolina had six quarterback hurries, bringing its two-game total to 17 -- an average of 8.5 pressures per contest.

“It’s been a step-by-step process,” McNeill said of his defensive unit. “We’re playing 16 to 18 guys who have never played significant reps before, but they’ve improved on their fundamentals, execution of the calls, and the exactness in their technique. I’ve seen the trust that develops in a defense that has been through trials and tribulations, and the belief in one another that if we stay the course, we’ll be OK.”

What has also helped has been the senior leadership of Lineback and fellow linebacker Melvin Patterson, along with tackle Josh Smith. Lineback and Patterson lead the team in tackles. But it is Patterson who has emerged -- Lineback calls him the Energizer Bunny.

Now the strong effort of the last two games has to be sustained.

“It took a few games to make sure things were going smoothly, but now we’re playing with confidence,” Lineback said. “That’s how you win games on defense, when you’ve got 11 guys on the same page.”