Memphis vs. East Carolina football: Scouting report, prediction

·4 min read

Memphis football has an early kickoff against East Carolina on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN+). After beating SMU, the Tigers (5-4, 2-3 AAC) can clinch one of their goals with a win at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

A Tigers' win makes them bowl eligible for an eighth consecutive season. An ECU win would make the Pirates (5-4, 3-2) bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.

Memphis wide receiver Calvin Austin III is also 11 yards shy of his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. Here's a scouting report along with a prediction.

Will Memphis keep up fourth down gambles?

Memphis' eight fourth-down attempts last week to beat SMU 28-25 were the most its had in a game dating back to 2009. Coach Ryan Silverfield might do it more because the Tigers' awful kicking game..

BETTING LINE: What is the Memphis Tigers vs. East Carolina football betting line, over/under

Memphis is 1-for-7 on field goals in its last six games. Joe Doyle's kicks lately have been low as they've been off target. At this point, if the Tigers are in field-goal range, they're better off trusting their offense on fourth down than their kickers.

ECU make things easier being 109th in opponent fourth-down conversions. But at this point, don't be surprised if the Tigers stay aggressive because they have no other choice.

East Carolina's Holton Ahlers (12) is tackled by South Florida's Antonio Greer Jr. during an NCAA college football game Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Greenville, N.C. (Scott Davis/The Daily Reflector via AP)
East Carolina's Holton Ahlers (12) is tackled by South Florida's Antonio Greer Jr. during an NCAA college football game Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Greenville, N.C. (Scott Davis/The Daily Reflector via AP)

Reintroducing Holton Ahlers

Memphis fans might remember ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers from 2018. The Tigers won that game 59-41 but Ahlers, who was a freshman, threw for 449 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 57 yards.

ECU is averaging the fourth-most passing yards per game in the AAC (255.9). Even though he's less of a runner, Ahlers can still be mobile to escape if necessary.

However, ECU has allowed 2.89 sacks per game, which is tied for 106th nationally. While the Tigers' secondary needs to beware of Ahlers' ability to throw, the front seven will have chances to build on a season-high five sacks last week.

Another running game test

Memphis held SMU to just 61 rushing yards, which isn't a surprise with the Mustangs' pass heavy offense. But ECU will be similar to UCF and Tulsa as a team that leans more on the run

Freshman running back Keaton Mitchell leads the AAC with 902 rushing yards and is averaging 7.39 yards per carry. He had 146 yards and two touchdowns against Temple last week, his fourth game with at least 100 yards.

The Tigers' run defense has been great against teams that don't utilize it or have been bad this season. How they handle a team thrives on it could determine if they win Saturday.

Memphis Tigers linebacker JJ Russell, right, celebrates his sack during their game against the SMU Mustangs at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday Nov. 6, 2021.
Memphis Tigers linebacker JJ Russell, right, celebrates his sack during their game against the SMU Mustangs at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday Nov. 6, 2021.

Pirates love takeaways

ECU lives up to its nickname because the Pirates are good at snatching other team's treasure. The Pirates are tied for 12th nationally with 18 takeaways and are seventh with 12 interceptions, two fewer than Cincinnati.

Prior to last week, ECU had a streak of 16 consecutive games with at least one takeaway. Memphis has emphasized ball security this week because even though the Tigers had only one turnover against SMU, the Pirates will be hunting for chances to steal possessions.

At the same time, they're bad thieves because they also give away the ball at a high rate. ECU has turned the ball over 18 times, two more than Memphis and tied for 116th in the country. So while Memphis has to be careful, they can also go hunting to build off a season-high three takeaways.

Points at a premium

Memphis' offense got back on track with Seth Henigan's return at quarterback. However, the Tigers have scored over 31 points just once since their 55-50 win over Arkansas State on Sept. 11

It's a troubling trend and the Tigers might struggle for points again. ECU has the AAC's third-best scoring defense (24.0 points per game). Its allowed just one team to score 30 points in its last six games and that team - Houston - needed overtime to do it.

Memphis shouldn't lean on Henigan to throw over 50 times again. But if leading rusher Brandon Thomas misses a second game, expect Henigan to air it out against a defense ranked 91st against the pass.

Prediction

Memphis 28, ECU 17: It'd be nice to assume the Tigers offense puts up more points but this game will be another struggle. Memphis will have at least one turnover but the defense is inspiring more trust from the last three games and they will carry the Tigers to a sixth win and bowl eligibility.

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You can reach Evan Barnes on Twitter (@Evan_B) or by email at evan.barnes@commercialappeal.com

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis vs. East Carolina football: Scouting report, score prediction