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January 1, 2009
Up-and-down road to Liberty for Pirates
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.
"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
East Carolina pass offense vs. Kentucky pass defense
Kentucky run offense vs. East Carolina run defense
Kentucky pass offense vs. East Carolina pass defense
East Carolina special teams vs. Kentucky special teams
East Carolina coaches vs. Kentucky coaches
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.