GREENVILLE, N.C. – Navy couldn't stop scoring in its last trip to East Carolina because the Pirates couldn't stop the Midshipmen from running.
So naturally, the priority is clear for coach Ruffin McNeill's team: slow their productive ground game.
The Pirates will become bowl eligible for the sixth time since 2006 on Saturday if they defeat a Navy team that administered quite a beating the last time it came to Greenville. The Midshipmen's 76-35 win in 2010 marked the most points allowed by the Pirates at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The key for East Carolina (5-3) — as it always is for each of Navy's opponents — is containing a triple-option offense that routinely produces some of the top rushing totals in the nation.
The Midshipmen, whose 521 yards rushing in that blowout were the most allowed at home by an East Carolina defense, rank 13th in the Bowl Subdivision this season with an average of 236 yards. The Pirates have been stout against the run, allowing an average of 123 yards on the ground.
"Navy runs the ball for a living, and not for a hobby," McNeill said. "We know that they are going to get some yardage, so what we need to do is try to eliminate and minimize long plays. It will be the war of wills this week. We take a lot of pride in stopping the run and that is what Navy does well with its offense."
The Midshipmen (4-3) have won three straight to vault back into the bowl conversation following a 1-3 start, rolling up 257 yards rushing in a 31-30 victory at Indiana last week.
They trailed 30-21 with 5½ minutes left before rallying for the win that put them above .500 for the first time since starting 2-1 last year.
"I've been encouraged with the way our guys have worked, whether after losses or after wins. They just keep grinding, which is what the coaching staff has told them to do," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Don't listen to critics, don't listen to people patting you on the back, just keep grinding. Learn from wins, learn from losses, but always find a way to press through to the next practice, the next game."
East Carolina's quarterback-friendly spread offense appears to be hitting its stride under first-year starter Shane Carden.
The Pirates have scored 40 points in each of their last two games, Conference USA wins over Memphis and UAB. Carden, who supplanted Rio Johnson after the Week 2 loss to South Carolina, threw for 694 yards and eight touchdowns during the two-game winning streak. And running back Vintavious Cooper has kept the pressure off Carden, averaging 134 yards rushing with two TDs during that stretch.
"Vintavious Cooper has allowed our offense to keep a balance," McNeill said. "It is vital to help Shane with our offense and in our play action passing."