GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- For all the firsts East Carolina experienced during its rise to prominence last season, there's one thing that group didn't do.
The Pirates (7-4, 6-1) can take care of that this weekend with a victory against Southern Mississippi. That would give them home-field advantage for the Conference USA championship game.
Last year's bunch had to go on the road to win its first Conference USA title.
The defending league champions also have plenty to lose in what amounts to a winner-take-all East Division championship game. A loss to Southern Miss (7-4, 5-2) would give the division crown to a Golden Eagles team that has dominated the schools' rivalry.
That's why East Carolina coach Skip Holtz is calling the East race a single-elimination tournament.
East Carolina University Head Football Coach Skip Holtz addressed members of the media prior to this week's game against Southern Miss. The following are selected comments:
On The UAB Win:
"I'm so proud of this football team and what it was able to accomplish. The team really came together and is playing well right now. Football teams that are successful are the ones playing well in late October and into November. This team has done an awful lot of good things to put it in its current position. Last week was a great team win."
On The Defense Against UAB:
"There were a lot of guys on defense playing well. It all starts up front. Scotty Robinson I thought really had far and away the best game he's had since he has been here. He was a factor for us and was in on a lot of tackles. He was in the backfield being disruptive. He really had a great day at defensive end.
"Looking inside, Jay Ross is steady each and every week. He was able to get his first sack of the season. It's hard to believe with as successful as he has been that it was his first sack of the season. Linval Joseph did a nice job inside, too. It was great to have Josh Smith back and running around. He was very active and around the ball an awful lot. Michael Brooks did a really nice job as a true freshman.
"At the linebacker position, we got limited work out of Nick Johnson. It was good to be able to get a lead early where we felt we could get some of our younger guys in a little bit. Cliff Perryman and Steve Spence played at linebacker during the game. We were able to get Johnson a little bit of a rest, which was good because of everything he had been going through physically. Jeremy Chambliss went out of the game early with a shoulder injury. He's limited right now in what he can do.
"In the back end, Van Eskridge continues to play solid and great football. They say great players step up in big games and Eskridge keeps stepping up. Levin Neal is playing well. The job Emanuel Davis did in that boundary position was solid.
"We have guys with game experience who are stepping up and playing well on defense."
On The Offense Against UAB :
"On the offensive side of the ball, Darryl Freeney and Dwayne Harris stole the show from a big-play standpoint. They have great potential and talent and really shined in the game.
"Patrick Pinkney did a great job of managing the game and distributing the ball. He threw the ball very accurately, too. I thought those guys up front, in Sean Allen, D.J. Scott, Cory Dowless, Willie Smith and Terence Campbell did a really nice job up front.
"It was our first zero-turnover game of the season. We have been trying for one all year, didn't give up and kept striving for it and finally got one."
On The Special Teams Against UAB:
"Special teams made a huge impact in the game. Reyn Willis started off the game with the 25-yard kickoff return, giving us great field position and setting up the first score. Willis took the return to the 35-yard line and Harris made a great play on third down in the open field to score.
"Matt Dodge did a great job. Not only did he do a great job with his punting and kickoff placement, he also utilized every bit of his experience on the fake punt. That was not something that was called. We've told him if he doesn't get pressure, he can hold onto the ball until he gets pressure. Pressure never came, so he took off. He did a great job of making one guy miss and picking up the first down. I thought he really showed some poise in that entire play. That drive led to a field goal for us.
"Ben Hartman did a really nice job as well. We made 100 percent of our kicks. We haven't been able to say that too many times this season.
"Overall on the day, it was a great team effort. I'm really proud of what this team was able to accomplish last week."
On Playing Southern Miss This Week And Playing In Greenville:
"This week is another round of a single-elimination tournament. We've put ourselves in a good position. If you win, you get the opportunity to play at home again next week. If you lose, you get the opportunity to start recruiting and practicing for whatever bowl game you're going to, all of a sudden, your regular season is over.
"This will be a huge game here in Greenville. We're excited to have the opportunity to play the game here in front of our home crowd. It's against one of our program's nemesis in Southern Miss. We are 2-15 here at home against Southern Miss with the wins coming in 1976 and 1994. It has been a long time since we beat them here."
On Southern Miss:
"I think Larry Fedora has done a great job with this football team. They have a tremendous amount of talent and are one of the more talented teams we will play.
"On offense, they're scoring a lot of points as they lost to Houston 50-43 in a shootout. They are very potent on offense.
"The team has gone turnover free in two of its last three games. They are doing a great job of protecting the ball. Southern Miss and East Carolina are ranked first and second in the conference in turnover margin. When you compare the statistics between these two teams, there are an awful lot of similarities. If you compare the statistics in just conference games, everything is within two spots of one another."
On Southern Miss' Offense:
"On offense, it all starts with the line. They have four seniors and one junior up front. They're coming off the ball, playing well and are athletic, big and strong. I think their offensive line, even though it's not something people talk a lot of about, is one of their strengths as a football team. The line has given their skill players an opportunity to make things happen.
"When you look at Damion Fletcher, Tory Harrison, Martevious Young, DeAndre Brown, Gerald Baptiste and all their skill players, you know their names and we played against them last year. They're play-makers who do an awful lot. They have accomplished a lot since they've gotten there. But I think it all starts with those offensive linemen.
"They do have great skill players. Baptiste and Brown are wide receivers while Harrison and Fletcher are the running backs. We all know what Fletcher can do and what he has accomplished in this league. He has shared time the past few weeks with Harrison, who is a bigger, stronger and more physical runner. Fletcher is more of the flash and speed runner. It's a combination that gives them a Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. They really do a great job on offense."
On Southern Miss' Defense:
"Defensively, that's where they have earned their reputation. They are second in the league in sacks and are very active. They play a lot of guy up front. Their defensive ends are very active. They have a great middle linebacker in Korey Williams. He's their leading tackler and is active, strong, big and fast. He replaces Gerald McRath, who was their leading tackler the last few years. That middle linebacker position in the defense where Southern Miss puts its hammer. Williams is a heck of a football player. He's living up to that expectation.
"In the secondary, their safeties are very good and active. The past few weeks, teams have thrown the ball an awful lot on them and are averaging 50.7 pass attempts against them. I think that's two-fold. When you look at how good their front seven is, they gave up 1.0 yards per rush against Marshall and 0.6 yards per rush against UCF.
"Their front seven is very good, active and athletic. They create a lot of problems. I think people are saying that instead of trying to run through a brick wall, they're going to try and throw the ball over it. It's a very talented and athletic defense.
"It's a very athletic football team as a whole."
On Southern Miss' Special Teams:
"They are winning some games with special teams. Their kickoff return is dangerous. When you look at the Marshall game, special teams pretty much won that game with a couple kickoff returns and punt returns. There were also some key penalties in the kicking game committed by Marshall. Southern Miss is leading the league in kickoff returns and is third in the league in kickoff coverage.
"Their team has some quality wins this season and lost a close game at Kansas. They have not been out of a football game yet. The most lopsided loss the team had was against UAB, which was the last time they really turned the ball over. They came away from that game and said it's time to start taking care of the ball. Their seniors have really taken over."
On This Week's Injuries:
"There are a couple injuries we had against UAB. Chambliss and his shoulder is one of them. I don't know how much we'll have him in this game. We're going to have to play it by ear and see how the x-rays come back. I think he'll be very limited. Losing him, a senior linebacker, would be a blow.
"The other injury is Marke Powell, who hurt his foot. I think he's very doubtful for Saturday.
"On the bright side, Josh Smith came out of this game very healthy. We expect to have him only to get better.
"We also have the possibility of getting back Jamar Bryant and Jonathan Williams. Both of those guys could return. We'll find out more with those two as the week goes along with practice.
"Williams was originally a four to six week injury as it was a non-surgical procedure. We'll have the opportunity to start running him around a little bit more this week. Hopefully by the end of the week, he'll have enough strength and confidence to be able to contribute if we needed him."
On The Rivalry With Southern Miss:
"I wonder if it's a rivalry for them. You have to win sometimes to make it a rivalry game. I just don't know how they view it. I know we view it as a rivalry game.
"It's extremely lopsided when you look at it, especially with us being 2-15 at home. You look at how spaced out our wins are in Greenville and this is a team that is in the same league so we play them every other year at home. I can't explain it.
"I know how we look at it and I know it's a challenge for us. They have a great program. Coach Fedora has done a great job of continuing to build on the tradition there. They have been to the most bowl games in a row in this league with seven-straight trips. They have a great program."
On Southern Miss Being The Last Regular Season Opponent:
"When the schedule first came out, everybody talked about the Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday games. Then people looked at playing two of the first three games on the road against high-quality BCS teams West Virginia and North Carolina.
"The thing that always caught my eye was playing Southern Miss last. They beat us last year 21-3 at their place. I know we had some injuries, but they lined up and were much more physical than we were as a football team."
On Having The Opportunity To Host The Conference USA Championship Game:
"I think it means a lot. We met yesterday as a team and talked about all the things that had a chance to be program-firsts with a win. The team is on the way to having the opportunity to become back-to-back conference champions for the first time in C-USA since the league split into two divisions. The chance to host the title game is there as well.
"These seniors have won 31 games in the past four years. If they could win out, they would tie the 1978 class for the winningest in ECU football history. There are a lot of firsts there that this football team has an opportunity to do with a win Saturday. They are going to four-straight bowl games for the first time in program history.
"There are a lot of great things that we can use as motivation. I think the biggest motivating factor is the opportunity to play for a conference championship. The other is that the team gets to do it against Southern Miss. I think for these players, knowing the goals they set and what's important for them, they want to play for a conference championship. That's one of the goals we set at the beginning of the year. Here we are into the 12th game of the season and we can still fulfill that goal. That's a heck of a job by these players and the job they've done."
On Speaking To The Team About Conference Championship Possibilities:
"Through the whole season, I talk about the big picture the day after the game. I say what the win did for us and where we are. Last week I talked about how the win gave us six for the season, making us bowl eligible but that we hadn't guaranteed ourselves anything until we got to seven wins.
"This week we talked about having the opportunity to host the championship game. I also talked about what this senior class could accomplish. It's kind of a tale of the tape talk. We cover what's riding on this game.
"After that, I won't talk about it again. I don't want to talk to them Friday about everything that's riding on this game. The last thing you want to do is mount more pressure on them so they go out there tense. I want them to understand what's on the table and what we're playing for. But I don't want to put those things on the table Friday night before we go run out on the field. I like to explain that early in the week. Later in the week, we're just trying to get ourselves ready to play mentally."
On This Week's Practice Schedule:
"We can't practice Monday because that's our academic day. I let them take their labs and late classes on Monday. I can't find a block of time where we can practice today. Tomorrow we'll have classes and regular practice. We have no class Wednesday through the end of the week. We will go regular practice Wednesday and then Thursday morning to try to get them out of here by 11 a.m. or noon.
"I would like to give them the opportunity to go home Thursday afternoon. They'll come back Friday at 3 p.m. for the game. They'll have about 27 hours of free time to be able to go home Thursday, eat a meal and spend some quality time with their families. We'll start our typical Friday with meetings and a walk-through once they return at 3 p.m."
On The Improvement Of The Passing Game:
"I don't think it was broken in the Virginia Tech game. It looked pitiful in that game. We overthrew it by a yard or threw to the back shoulder. We've just really challenged the wide receivers to step up and make some plays to help Pinkney and the passing game.
"At the same time, Pinkney has to throw the ball more accurately. Everybody is looking at it saying what do I have to do to help it as a wide receiver? What do I have to do as a quarterback? Let's not get into saying he has to throw the ball better or he has to catch the ball better. I don't want them to point fingers, but pick up their games. I think they've done that.
"Pinkney has done a nice job lately. His strength and weakness is how even-keeled he is. When things are going bad, he's never going to get so rattled from the outside pressure that he's going to go fold or go in the tank. At the same time, when I really need him to get emotional and be a leader, that's not him. The things that frustrate me as a quarterback are what I love about him as well. That's why I don't think he's ever going to go through these long cycles. He's very steady. I don't think he's going to let success go to his hear or let failure crumble him."
On Some Of The Previous Games Against Southern Miss:
"I've heard some of the stories. There have been some great games in this series. These are two proud programs which have been very competitive against each other during the games. I don't know a whole lot about all those games in the past, but I know that's part of what spurs our fans emotions about Southern Miss. I know it was a great win for us when we went down there in 2006 and won in overtime. We're going into year five and have a 1-4 record against them."
On Dwayne Harris
"He had been quiet the last couple weeks as Freeney has started to step up and draw a little bit of attention at the wide receiver position. But Harris is a special player. I said this about Joseph at the luncheon the other day that the Joseph's and Harris' don't come around every day in your coaching profession. Harris is a special player.
"He leaves the field every day and you say, `did you see that run he made? Did you see that cut he made? Did you see that catch he made?' That's what the great ones do. Every day you leave the practice field saying wow.
"If we could make a highlight film of him in practice, it would blow away some of the things fans have seen him do in games. Against SMU, he put the game on his back and said give me the ball and get out of the way. He ran that kickoff back for a touchdown and gained some confidence with the kickoff return team.
"Saturday, he did a great job of making the kicker miss, but the return team did a great job getting him out in the open field. On his long touchdown run, I told Harris he owed Freeney a steak. Freeney made two unbelievable blocks on that play. He cut through the legs of the first defender, got up and jumped into the legs of the second one to occupy that defender as Harris went down the sideline.
"Harris is a special player. We're really going to need him and Freeney to step up in a game like this. This is going to be an important game for those two to be on. This is not a game where you would expect those two to be quiet."
On Adding Another Receiving Threat To Harris And Freeney:
"Having two has made it a little bit easier. I think offensive coordinator Todd Fitch has done some really good things with both of them. He has taken Harris and started to make him more of an outside receiver, so you're putting him and Freeney on different sides of the field.
"Alex Taylor and Willis have been solid and steady for us. Hopefully getting Bryant back this week will give us some more balance.
"I think some of our young guys like Michael Bowman and Jacobi Jenkins can really run. I think those two are going to be really good for us. They're still in the developmental stage, kind of like Freeney had been until the last few weeks. I'd love to see those two continue to come on.
"I think there is an awful lot of speed in Reese Wiggins, Mike Price and Torrance Hunt, three freshmen. They can really run, but all three are being redshirted."
On All The Running Backs:
"Right now, we have a number of guys at running back and its Dominique Lindsay and Giavanni Ruffin getting time in the backfield. In order for Brandon Jackson, Williams or any of our other backs to get back into the mix, one of those top two would have to go down with an injury or something. When you look at what Lindsay and Ruffin have done and how they have been in practice, it would be very hard to justify taking one of those two out. There is only one tailback that plays at a time and there is only one football. Everybody is just going to have to be patient and accept their role on this football team."
On Southern Miss Quarterback Martevious Young:
"He's talented and experienced. You're looking at a guy who was the starter. Austin Davis came in and took over the starting spot, but then got hurt. Young has a renewed life coming back in and playing the last five games.
"I think he has done a great job. What he gives you at quarterback that Davis could not is one who can run. He's their third-leading rusher and he has only played in five games. He adds a whole new dimension. Davis was more of the distributor of the ball while Young does a great job of tucking the ball under his arm and running. Young is not making as many mistakes as he did before.
"He had the position, lost it and has it back now. He's playing like he wants to be out there and like he doesn't want to give the position back. If you look at what they've done the past few weeks on offense, they're really gelling and clicking. They're doing some really good things and scoring a bunch of points.
"That's one of the reasons teams are throwing so much against them. Southern Miss is scoring so many points that you can't sit on the ball, run it and punt it away when you're behind by two scores. The team has big-play potential and can score from anywhere on the field.
"We saw Brown streak down the sideline for a 97-yard touchdown against us last year. I saw him do the same thing against Tulsa Saturday. They have big-play and big-strike potential from everywhere."
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.