East Carolina Pirates (9-4, 6-5-1 ATS) vs. Arkansas Razorbacks (7-5, 7-4 ATS)
Liberty Bowl Memphis, T.N. Saturday January 2nd, 5:30PM Eastern
By Jay Horne of Predictem.com
Point Spread: East Carolina +7.5/Arkansas -7.5
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The East Carolina Pirates captured a big underdog victory against the Houston Cougars 38-32 in their season finale to bring home their 2nd straight Conference USA Championship. The Pirates as a reward will get their 2nd straight trip to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee. Last year the Pirates fell just short to the Kentucky Wildcats 25-19, but they will get their chance at another SEC opponent when they collide with the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Arkansas finished the year at 7-5 ranking right in the middle of a heap of teams in the SEC to finish at that mark. However, few teams finished with as much momentum as the Razorbacks considering they won 4 of their last 5 to close out the season and just barely fell short to LSU 33-30 in an overtime season finale. The Razorbacks will now put their high power offense up against an East Carolina offense that is no stranger to scoring points as well in what promises to be an exciting postseason match-up.
The Razorbacks offense terrorized opposing defenses this year led by quarterback Ryan Mallett. Mallett led the SEC in passing with 3,425 yards and 29 touchdowns this season with the help of a stellar group of young wide outs. Arkansas was the premier offense from the SEC this season averaging 37 points per game and over 430 yards of offense. WR Greg Childs caught a team high 45 passes for 865 yards and 7 scores as the primary target in the passing game. However, wide outs Jarius Wright and Joe Adams are equally dangerous players who can cause a lot of damage to defenses.
The Razorbacks offense typically spreads all their talented targets over the field and Mallett picks defenses apart which have worked very well throughout the year. The Razorbacks offense ranked 10th in the country this season averaging 310 yards per game through the air. The interesting aspect to this particular match-up is how poorly East Carolina defended the pass this season. The Pirates ranked a horrific 110th allowing 262 yards per game in the air. Those numbers do not bode well for the Pirates and perhaps the biggest reason the Razorbacks are slight more than a touchdown favorites in the meeting.
However, not everyone will buy into the argument that the Pirates will be out-matched. After all they just beat a Houston team that led the nation in passing and total yards. The Pirates defense did not necessarily shut down the Cougars passing offense. However, they accomplished what they will need to do against Arkansas in forcing a few turnovers and getting help from their offense. The East Carolina offense has averaged 36 points per game in their past 4 performances and it will be critical they play a big role again. The offense is led by a trio of playmakers at the key positions. QB Patrick Pinkney is closing in on the 3,000 yard mark with 14 touchdowns this season. Running back Dominique Lindsay has already eclipsed the 1,000 yard plateau on the ground and WR Dwayne Harris has a chance to break the 1,000 yard receiving mark as well.
Lindsay may be the most useful game plan to build around heading into their showdown with the Razorbacks. Despite missing a few games this year, Lindsay still racked up 1,029 yards rushing and 5 yards per carry. The Razorbacks defense has given up an awful 150 yards per game on the ground this season. Lindsay saw his 2nd highest carry total of the year against the equally dangerous Houston offense. Coach Skip Holtz understands the importance of keeping the Razorbacks offense off the field and I believe they will try to feed the ball to Lindsay very often while touching the ball possibly at least another 25 times.
Still, the difference in the game will lie in the turnovers. East Carolina forced Houston to turn the ball over 4 times in the Conference USA meeting and they absolutely can not afford to lose the turnover war to Arkansas. The Razorbacks offense will have success and move the ball up the field. The way East Carolina minimizes the damage from those yards will determine if they have a chance at winning the football game. While many will likely be riding on the Razorbacks here, it is also beneficial to point out that they have not played well in recent bowls and their last victory was in the 2003 Independence Bowl. If East Carolina can play solid football, they could add to those struggles.
Jay’s Pick: East Carolina keeps it within the points and gets the cover, but loses a close one.