Looking to avoid going 0-3 to start the season for the second time since 2017, the Pirates will travel to Tampa and take on a South Florida program that has had their number of late. Since 2002, USF is 9-1 against ECU and took the last installment of the match-up 45-20 behind 35 unanswered points.

At 1-2 on the season, the Bulls have dealt with their fair share of COVID-19-related inactives. Just last week against Cincinnati, USF had 12 inactive players, either due to injury or COVID concerns. Still, the Bulls’ defense forced four turnovers and currently rank inside the top-ten nationally with seven total takeaways on the year.

“I think South Florida, just like we saw last year, they have a lot of the same guys back this year,” ECU head coach Mike Houston said. “Good size, really good team speed both sides of the ball and skill positions. Defensively I thought they played very well against Cincinnati. They turned the ball over a lot on offense last week and still held Cincinnati to 28 points. I think that says a lot about how their defense is coming around.”

With 10 lettermen from last year’s team back in the secondary, including four who made at least eight starts, it really should not be a surprise to see the Bulls ranked fourth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and 10th in interceptions. Cornerback Mike Hampton and safety Nick Roberts are USF’s two most experienced players in career starts with 27 and 25, respectively.

That secondary has allowed the Bulls to limit opponents to 125.3 yards per game through the air over three games, a number that paces FBS football.

While the defensive effort has been there for USF thus far, consistently moving the ball on offense has presented a challenge. Last week against Cincinnati was the first time USF eclipsed the 200-yard passing mark in 2020 as head coach Jeff Scott has played four different quarterbacks at this point in the season.

“They’ve rolled a lot of guys in there at quarterback,” ECU defensive coordinator Blake Harrell said. “All are very talented, all are good players…Each one has something he does really well and you got to kind of alert your kids to that and make a different call for one as opposed to the other. They got a lot of skill kids that can really run and are really good up front. They propose some challenges and we got to be ready to meet those and step up to the plate and see what we can get done.”

Sophomore Jordan McCloud is the only holdover at quarterback from last season as the Bulls brought in two transfers in Cade Fortin and Noah Johnson. Katravis Marsh, a freshman, has also seen action this year and earned the start against Cincinnati.

McCloud paces the team with 269 yards through the air and is completing his passes at a 60% clip. Johnson, however, was the 2018 SWAC Offensive Player of the Year at Alcorn State and racked up over seven yards per carry as a quarterback.

“I think No. 3 (McCloud) is a really good quarterback, played against us last year,” Harrell said. “No. 6 (Fortin), got in his first ball game last week, did a really good job, did some good things. The young kid, the freshman No. 12 (Marsh), really good player. He’s certainly very talented. Then No. 0 who is the Alcorn State, Player of the Year in that conference did some really good things. He’s kind of a wildcat kid back there that can throw the ball and a good player as well. We may see them all, who knows. We’re preparing for all of them and getting ready to go.”

As a team, USF is averaging just 145 yards through the air over three games. In a 45-20 victory over ECU in 2019, the Bulls needed just 178 passing yards, 102 of which came from a banged up McCloud under center on 12 attempts.

While the Bulls have yet to publicly settle on a starting quarterback, Houston believes McCloud stands above his competition, at least on film.

“McCloud, I thought, came in and gave them the best opportunity to score and move the offense down the field against Cincinnati,” Houston said. “Obviously they see those kids everyday, so they have different opinions, but I thought he had better chemistry with his wide-outs. His mobility gave you the run threat. I thought he threw the ball better than what he threw against us last year, and I thought he played well against us last year. I think you’ll see McCloud, but I’m the coach at East Carolina not South Florida, so they may have other things going on there.”

Where the Bulls like to move the football is on the ground. Despite losing their top running back from a season ago in Jordan Cronkrite, USF is averaging over 160 rushing yards per game. In all three of their games thus far, the Bulls have ran the ball at least 33 times, cracking the 100-yard barrier twice.

Johnny Ford and Kelley Joiner are at the center of that attack, having accounted for 282 of USF’s 491 total rushing yards. On 105 carries as a team, the Bulls are averaging 4.7 yards per carry and have found the end zone three times on the ground.

“Obviously they’ve ran the football pretty well,” Harrell said. “They got some speed, they’re going to take their shots, you saw that during the Cincinnati game where they’re going to try to stretch the field on you. They got some receivers that can really run. They got two backs — No. 1 (Ford) and No. 10 (Joiner) — that can stretch the field, vertical and horizontal. That’s the biggest challenge for us is just matching their speed.”

Through two games, the Pirates have struggled slowing anyone down from a defensive standpoint. ECU will enter Saturday ranked 70th out of 74 teams in rush defense, 67th in pass defense, 72nd in total defense and 74th in scoring defense. With a young unit and a new coordinator, growing pains were expected defensively. What was not expected was the extent to which ECU’s offense has struggled to traverse the field and put up points.

If the Pirates hope to notch a victory in the win column on Saturday, finding some consistency on the offensive side of the ball will be critical. Staring down their second road game in as many weeks, ECU is once again an underdog, this time of the 4.5 point variety. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Pirates a 43.8% chance of leaving Tampa with a win.

Kick-off between ECU and USF is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Saturday from Raymond James Stadium. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.

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