By J.J. PESAVENTO
Memphis, TN * January 2, 2009 * 5:00 PM * ESPN
The East Carolina Pirates began the season 3-0 and in the process knocked off a pair of bowl teams in Virginia Tech and West Virginia. But they lost their next three games before winning six of their final seven contests including an upset win over Tulsa to win the Conference USA title and finish 9-4 on the season. Kentucky also got off to a fast start by winning their first four games but then faced a losing battle - SEC play. The Wildcats went 2-6 in against conference foes and dropped their final four to finish 6-6 on the season.
When the Pirates Have the Ball
East Carolina will throw a two back attack at Kentucky with Norman Whitley and Brandon Simmons doing the work. Whitley led the club in rushing yardage with 667 yards (four touchdowns) and Simmons led the team in rushing touchdowns with six. The pair will be running behind an offensive line that is led by Sean Allen, an All-Conference performer this season. The Pirates don't run the ball exceptionally well but they ran more than they threw during the season. Quarterback Patrick Pinkney will lead the passing attack after throwing for 2,379 yards and 12 touchdowns during the season. His primary targets during the season were Dwayne Harris (who missed the last three games of the season), Davon Drew and Alex Taylor. Simmons also plays a key role in the passing attack as he is third on the team in receptions (24) and tied for the team lead with three touchdown receptions (three) with Drew and Jamar Bryant. While their record doesn't show it, Kentucky has a better than average defense. Linebackers Micah Johnson, who led the team in solo tackles (57) and tackles for loss (11.5), Braxton Kelley and defensive lineman Myron Pryor lead the defense. The Wildcats also possess two fine defensive backs in Trevard Lindley and Marcus McClinton, each of who have four picks on the season and have combined for 19 pass breakups.
When the Wildcats Have the Ball
The Wildcats are not a juggernaut on the offensive ball to say the least. Their leading rusher, Tony Dixon, had 341 yards this season. Dixon and quarterback Randall Cobb (316 yards) each scored seven rushing touchdowns to lead the team. Cobb had taken over the duties at quarterback but is doubtful for the bowl game after undergoing knee surgery following the Tennessee game. This means Mike Hartline, who started the first eight games for the Wildcats, will get the call for Kentucky. Hartline threw for 1,462 yards with eight touchdowns. The Kentucky offense may not be threatening, but they do protect the quarterback well, allowing only 12 sacks all season to lead the SEC. This is good considering they will be facing an East Carolina defense that had several players receive all conference honors in 2008. Defensive lineman C.J. Wilson led Conference USA with 18.5 tackles for loss. He also led his team with 10.5 sacks. Linebackers Pierre Bell and Nick Johnson and defensive back Van Estridge all were around 90 tackles this year. Estridge and super freshman Emanuel Davis both had four picks with in 2008 and each returned one for a touchdown.
This game will likely be a battle of two defenses. Neither team has a great offense as both Kentucky and East Carolina average around 23 points per game. One difference is that Kentucky does not allow many sacks, whereas East Carolina ranks around the middle of the pack. Kentucky also has an edge on punt returns but they will be facing Matt Dodge, who is one of the best punters in the country for East Carolina. The Pirates are coming in sky high after winning their conference title and in the end, they'll be the better team.
CFI Prediction: East Carolina 24, Kentucky 17
Photo Credit: SEC Sports Media, East Carolina University Athletic Media Relations