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January 1, 2009

Up-and-down road to Liberty for Pirates

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

East Carolina opened the season with upsets of Virginia Tech and West Virginia, and talk turned to how the Pirates were a potential BCS-buster.

But after a 3-0 start, ECU lost three in a row and fell out of the national consciousness. They regrouped to win Conference USA and will end the season Friday against Kentucky in the Liberty Bowl. Coach Skip Holtz said he's happy with the postseason destination, considering the league champ gets to play in Memphis, Tenn.


East Carolina (9-4) vs. Kentucky (6-6)

WHEN: 5 p.m. Jan. 2.
WHERE: Liberty Bowl, Memphis, Tenn.
TV: ESPN (Mark Jones will do play-by-play, with Bob Davie as the analyst).
THE LINE: East Carolina by 3.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: East Carolina 4-3, Kentucky 0-5.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: East Carolina 89th, Kentucky T-55th.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either team
COACHES: East Carolina − Skip Holtz (1-1 in bowls); Kentucky − Rich Brooks (3-3 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Hmm. Give us a minute.
KEY STAT: Kentucky is 105th nationally in total offense, averaging 298.4 yards per game. ECU is 43rd in total defense, allowing 334.8 yards per game. And there's this factoid: Kentucky is the only team in a bowl that didn't beat another bowl team this season.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Mike Hartline began the season as Kentucky's starting quarterback before losing the job to true freshman Randall Cobb. Hartline will get the start in the bowl because of an injury to Cobb. Hartline is a better pure passer, but he makes bad decisions and is immobile. Can Kentucky move the ball with Hartline?
"This is what we talked about beginning with the first day of practice the road to Memphis and what we've got to do to get there," he said.

Now that they're in Memphis, the Pirates will take on an offensively challenged Kentucky squad. The Wildcats scored 21 or fewer points in six of their last eight regular-season games.

"We're not happy with the yards and the points scored by our offense this season," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "We hope we can demonstrate that we are headed back in the more explosive direction rather than the lethargic direction with our offense.

"This is really going to be a test for us because East Carolina's defense is really good. So if we can do some good things against them, it bodes well for us in the spring and gets us ready for next year."

Kentucky will be without starting quarterback Randall Cobb, who injured a knee in the regular-season finale against Tennessee. Mike Hartline, who started the first eight games before being benched in favor of Cobb, has regained his starting role.

Who has the edge?

East Carolina run offense vs. Kentucky run defense
ECU has used a tailback-by-committee approach but without overwhelming results, averaging 128.3 yards per game. Interestingly, though, the Pirates averaged 140.8 rushing yards in their four games against "Big Six" conference foes - including 158 against Virginia Tech. UK got mashed on the ground in the second half of the season. The Wildcats allowed at least 200 yards in four of their final six regular-season games. Linebackers Micah Johnson and Braxton Kelley are active, but the front four can be overpowered.
Edge: East Carolina.

East Carolina pass offense vs. Kentucky pass defense
The Pirates have a solid passing attack. Wide receiver Dwayne Harris has 58 catches but just one has gone for a touchdown. Tight end Davon Drew is an underutilized weapon. UK has a nice secondary, headed by cornerback Trevard Lindley.
Edge: Even.

Kentucky run offense vs. East Carolina run defense
UK has struggled to consistently run the ball. The Wildcats have been held to 106 or fewer yards seven times and don't have a go-to back. UK has 18 rushing TDs, but 12 of those came in three games. QB Randall Cobb is out, and that puts a big dent in the rushing attack. ECU has had some issues against the run, but the Pirates' front four should be able to control the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Pierre Bell is a good one.
Edge: East Carolina.

Kentucky pass offense vs. East Carolina pass defense
UK's passing attack has been abysmal this season. Wildcats quarterbacks have thrown 10 TD passes and 12 picks. Wide receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. was lost for the season after the sixth game, and there is no receiver on the roster who scares anybody. Free safety Van Eskridge heads a good ECU secondary. The Pirates have 21 interceptions and held their own in offense-minded Conference USA.
Edge: East Carolina.

East Carolina special teams vs. Kentucky special teams
ECU kicker Ben Hartman, who kicked the winning field goal in last season's Hawaii Bowl over Boise State, has struggled a bit this season. Hartman is 19-of-29, including 4-for-11 from beyond 40 yards. Punter Matt Dodge has had a good season, and ECU's return and coverage units are solid. Kentucky kicker Lones Seiber is 9-for-16 on field-goal attempts, including a woeful 3-for-9 from 30 yards and beyond. In addition, Seiber has had two blocked. Punter Tim Masthay averages 45.3 yards per kick, but he also has had two blocked. Derrick Locke is a big-time kick returner. The coverage units are average, but there is no punt returner of note because of the injuries to Cobb and Lyons.
Edge: East Carolina.

East Carolina coaches vs. Kentucky coaches
ECU's Skip Holtz has the Pirates in a bowl for the third consecutive season. Greg Hudson does a nice job as defensive coordinator. Rich Brooks has UK in a bowl game for the third consecutive season for the first time since 1949-51, when Bear Bryant was coach. Steve Brown gets the most out of his defense, and Joker Phillips has shown he can be an effective offensive coordinator when he has some talent.
Edge: Kentucky.

X-factor: ECU has had all sorts of fumbling problems, losing 18; that's third-most in the nation. Kentucky has forced 16 fumbles and recovered 13.

East Carolina will win if: If the Pirates don't have a rash of turnovers and can stymie UK's rushing attack, they will win. ECU's offense isn't going to have a huge day against a solid UK defense, but the Pirates' defense should be too strong for UK's anemic offense.

Kentucky will win if: The Wildcats have to run the ball effectively like 140 or so yards. They also can't let ECU run wild. UK can win a low-scoring game, but it's hard to see the Wildcats having enough offensive success to even get into the 20s without Cobb's playmaking ability.

The pick
Mike Huguenin: East Carolina 24, Kentucky 13

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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