January 2, 2010

Liberty Bowl: East Carolina vs. Arkansas

MORE: Bowl schedule/results

East Carolina meets Arkansas in Saturday's Liberty Bowl, and playing a Big Six conference foe has become old hat for the Pirates.

ECU coach Skip Holtz is in his fifth season, and Arkansas is the 20th Big Six opponent for the Pirates in that span.

ECU is 6-13 against major-conference opponents, including 0-3 this season, but Holtz feels playing tough opponents has helped his program

"I think playing those games have been critical in us getting to where we are today," Holtz told the Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial Appeal. "I don't think this football team walks on the field intimidated after playing at Virginia Tech, when Virginia Tech was a top-five team, and West Virginia and some of the different teams we have played. I think if you sit down and you schedule four wins out of conference and then get in your league, it's real easy to get intimidated and overwhelmed when you get in some bigger games because you have not been in that arena."

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Arkansas rush offense vs. East Carolina rush defense: The Hogs' running game mainly is used as a diversion. Leading rusher Michael Smith was lost for the season in November, and Broderick Green is the new feature back. He's a bruiser who is good near the goal line. ECU has played well against the run, thanks to a big, physical line. If Arkansas has success on the ground, ECU is in trouble.
Edge: ECU

LIBERTY BOWL

Arkansas (7-5)
vs. East Carolina (9-4)

WHEN: 5:30 p.m., Saturday.
WHERE: Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.
TV: ESPN (Ron Franklin will do play-by-play, with Ed Cunningham as the analyst).
THE LINE: Arkansas by 7.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Arkansas 4-5, East Carolina 4-4.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Arkansas 6th, East Carolina 56th.
BCS RANKINGS: Neither is ranked.
OFFICIALS: A crew from the ACC.
COACHES: Arkansas- Bobby Petrino (2-2 in bowls); East Carolina- Skip Holtz (1-2 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett has a chance to put himself squarely in the preseason mix for the Heisman Trophy with a big performance. Then again, he is a third-year sophomore, so he could decide to turn pro after this game. He'll be going against a talented ECU defense as the Pirates attempt to strike a blow for the little guy with an upset of an SEC school. Plus, it's another chance to hear Ron Franklin and Ed Cunningham broadcast a game; they are perhaps the nation's most underrated announcing team.
KEY STATS: Both teams are plus-13 in turnover margin, so any mistake could be magnified. Also worth noting is that Arkansas is 104th in pass defense and ECU is 110th.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Mallett lived up to most of the hype in his first season with the Hogs after transferring from Michigan. He did struggle mightily in four of the Hogs' five losses, but all the travails can't be blamed on him. It will be interesting to how often ECU defensive coordinator Greg Hudson blitzes.
Arkansas pass offense vs. East Carolina pass defense: Ryan Mallett has thrown for 3,422 yards, with 29 TDs and seven interceptions. In four of the Hogs' five losses, his completion rate hovered around 40 percent. If he struggles early in this one, the Hogs are in trouble. There's a good receiving corps, with four players with at least 28 receptions, but there's no elite receiver. ECU's pass defense has been bad. One reason is that opposing teams have struggled to run consistently, so they've taken to the air. FS Van Eskridge is a big-timer. ECU needs to get pressure on Mallett without having to blitz, which might not be possible. Defensive end C.J. Wilson is the Pirates' best lineman, and the Hogs allow two sacks per game. ECU is 110th in pass defense but 58th in pass efficiency defense because the Pirates have 17 picks.
Edge: Arkansas

East Carolina rush offense vs. Arkansas rush defense: Dominique Lindsay is a 1,000-yard rusher, but he has scored just five TDs - and only two of those came in the final eight games of the season. Expect ECU to use three tailbacks. Arkansas' run defense has been spotty, and LB Wendel Davis - the team's second-leading tackler - has been suspended for this game.
Edge: Even

East Carolina pass offense vs. Arkansas pass defense: The Hogs have been pitiful against the pass; they've allowed 21 TD passes and have just 11 picks. But ECU isn't exactly a passing powerhouse. QB Patrick Pinkney has been adequate, at best. WR Dwayne Harris is a game-breaker, and you'd think ECU coaches would want to get him the ball as often as possible. ECU has a veteran line, and it has done a great job protecting Pinkney; the Pirates have allowed just 11 sacks.
Edge: ECU

Arkansas special teams vs. East Carolina special teams: Hogs K Alex Tejada is shaky; he's 14-of-19 overall but 6-for-11 from beyond 30 yards. Actually, other than KR Dennis Johnson - who is one of the best in the SEC - the special teams are ordinary. ECU K Ben Hartman has a good leg, but he, too, has been inconsistent. He has made 19-of-25 and is 8-for-12 from beyond 30 yards. P Matt Dodge has had a great season. The coverage units are adequate, but PR Travis Simmons is dangerous and Harris is one of the best kick returners in the nation. He has returned three for TDs this season.
Edge: ECU

Arkansas coaching staff vs. East Carolina coaching staff: Bobby Petrino has Arkansas in a bowl in his second season as coach. The Hogs still are having some growing pains in switching from a ground-oriented offense to a pass-first attack. As long as Mallett returns, Arkansas should be dangerous next season. The defense needs a talent infusion, and coordinator Willy Robinson can't be blamed for all the unit's problems. Skip Holtz has turned ECU into one of the steadiest mid-major programs in the nation. ECU is one of the few Conference USA programs built around defense. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is underrated nationally.
Edge: Arkansas

X-factors: Arkansas had three players, including two defensive starters, suspended for this game. How will that affect the Hogs' psyche? You have to figure ECU will be sky-high as the Pirates attempt to knock off a major-conference foe for the first time this season. ECU is 0-3 against Big Six teams this season.

Arkansas will win if: While the Hogs' pass defense is shaky, they will look to shut down ECU's running game and make the Pirates one-dimensional. ECU isn't equipped to win a game if its must throw. Offensively, Arkansas needs to have some semblance of a running game to ease some of the pressure on Mallett.

East Carolina will win if: If the Pirates can pressure Mallett and force him to move around in the pocket, they can pull the upset. They also need a big game from Harris, both as a receiver and a kick returner.

EXPERT PICKS
Olin Buchanan: Arkansas 45, East Carolina 34
Tom Dienhart: Arkansas 38, East Carolina 33
Mike Huguenin: East Carolina 27, Arkansas 25
Steve Megargee: Arkansas 28, East Carolina 17

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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