When East Carolina last came to Tampa in 2014, the Pirates featured two of their most prominent offensive weapons in program history in quarterback Shane Carden and wide receiver Justin Hardy.
Carden, who has more career passing yards and touchdowns than any other quarterback in ECU history, threw for 250 yards and a touchdown in the Pirates’ 28-17 win in USF’s 2014 Homecoming game.
Hardy, now a receiver for the Atlanta Flacons, caught 10 of Carden’s passes for 114 yards in that same game.
This time around, USF will be the team with two prolific offensive threats in quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, who have both set records of their own at USF.
“I think that’s what we’ve been seeing out of our team since we’ve been rolling, that we’ve been able to (run the ball) and when you have a good running game, it makes things a little easier for you on the outskirts, especially when you have guys who can run out there,” coach Willie Taggart said.
“Some of the things we’re doing is good for us and allowing us to score more points and get some of the yards we are and put athletes in space.”
Since the two teams’ most recent matchup in 2015, when the Bulls defeated ECU 22-17 in Greenville, North Carolina, Flowers and Mack have led USF’s offense to a streak of nine consecutive outings of at least 35 points.
Even though USF (4-1, 1-0) prevailed in the fourth quarter of last season’s game against the Pirates, Taggart said his team still didn’t play up to its potential.
“I thought last year we just played sloppy (against ECU),” Taggart said. “I think we had over 350 yards at the half. We had the ball down there and had some opportunities we didn’t capitalize on. It was one of those wet games, sloppy.”
While the Bulls’ offense, has been trending in the right direction since their last game with the Pirates, ECU (2-3, 0-1) is simply hoping to field a healthy roster this weekend.
In addition to Carden and Hardy long since graduated from ECU, the team could also be without starting quarterback Philip Nelson and leading receiver Isaiah Jones.
Nelson, a fifth-year senior who played for both Minnesota and Rutgers before transferring to ECU, was removed in the third quarter of Saturday’s 47-29 loss to UCF after taking a high hit.
Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery told reporters Tuesday that the team is taking Nelson’s status day-by-day and hopes to have him ready for Saturday.
In five starts this season, Nelson has passed for 1,753 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Aside from concerns regarding Nelson, Montgomery also said he is being cautious with Jones, who’s been one of ECU’s biggest playmakers in 2016.
Jones has been in a walking boot throughout practice this week according to 247Sports’ ECU page, but is expected to play Saturday.
“We think we’re going to have him,” Montgomery said to local reporters. “This is more preventative at this point in time with him. It’s not one of those deals where it’s a sprain or strain. It’s one of those deals where he got stepped on and it’s a little bit of a bruise. We think he’ll be OK.”
Thus far, Jones has 66 catches for 695 yards and two scores, leading all ECU receivers in catches and yards. The 6-foot-1, 197-pound receiver is no stranger to leading the Pirates’ offense as he caught 98 passes for 1,099 yards and five touchdowns in 2015.
“Isaiah Jones is a good receiver, I’ve played against him pretty much every year, even when they had Justin Hardy,” USF senior defensive back Nate Godwin said. “He’s just athletic. He’s long, he’s quick, he’s fast, he has great hands and he knows how to get open. He’s not a guy who goes deep every play, he sits in there. He knows how to read coverages and he has great hands. They want to get the ball to him.”
With the status of ECU’s offense up in the air, the Pirates’ defense will have its hands full in trying to contain a USF offense that is averaging 45.8 points per game in 2016.
Following a two-week stretch in which the ECU defense allowed a combined 101 points to Virginia Tech and UCF, offensive playmakers such as USF receiver Marques Valdes-Scantling are excited for the opportunity to get in on the scoring barrage.
“(The offense’s distribution) is the main reason why I came here,” Scantling said. “My last school didn’t give me that option, so this is why I came here, to be a part of an offense that can be really good and that’s what we’re doing now.”