There have been two different versions of the East Carolina and Kentucky football teams in 2008 — the versions that appeared in the pre-season media guides, and the versions that will show up on the field in Friday's AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
Thanks to injuries and suspensions, the two versions are drastically different, particularly on offense. Kentucky (6-6) faded after a 4-0 start. East Carolina (9-4) had BCS hopes after knocking off Virginia Tech and West Virginia, endured a three-game losing streak, then got back on course and won the Conference USA championship.
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East Carolina Coach Skip Holtz said coaches have to be prepared to adjust on the fly in the event of injuries or player defections.
"I think any good football coach sits down and says, 'What are our strengths? How do we highlight our strengths and hide our weaknesses?'" he said. "Both teams' weaknesses have changed since the start of the season, and both teams have had to make adjustments based on the injuries we've had."
UK's personnel losses have been well-documented. Projected starting quarterback Curtis Pulley was kicked off the team the first day of practice. The Cats' only proven receiver, Dicky Lyons Jr., was lost for the season in the sixth game to a knee injury, and leading rusher Derrick Locke suffered a similar fate the next week. Kentucky also will be without Randall Cobb, who started the last four games at quarterback before injuring a knee against Tennessee.
As a result, the Wildcats have been forced to run two different offenses this season and have struggled to move the ball in pivotal situations. They started with a pro-style scheme with Mike Hartline at quarterback before shifting to a spread, zone read/option-based attack with Cobb. Holtz said his team has prepared for both the spread and the I-formation sets, but the loss of Cobb means the Cats will stick with a more basic approach that is suited to Hartline.
"We've just had to figure the best ways to try and generate offense," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "We've had some different guys in and out of the lineup, and some of the things we've tried have worked better in some weeks than they have in others. That will be a big key for us in this game, finding a way to move the ball and score some points."
East Carolina is one of a handful of teams that might have had it worse than the Cats. A total of 15 projected or actual starters have missed time because of injury, with five players undergoing season-ending surgeries. Included in that group are wide receivers T.J. Lee and Dwayne Harris, and running back Dominique Lindsay, who scored 10 touchdowns last season but blew out a knee in the pre-season.
In addition, East Carolina's top returning wide receiver, Jamar Bryant, was suspended for a violation of team rules after the fifth game and has not returned. Sophomore running back Jonathan Williams was starting to find his groove with a 95-yard rushing performance against Virginia and 108 yards against Memphis before he was suspended for the season on Oct. 21.
"Our top five skill guys haven't played the second half of the season for us," East Carolina offensive coordinator Todd Finch said.
As a result, the East Carolina offense labored down the stretch, scoring 20 points or fewer in five of its final seven games.
"We've struggled to get a consistent flow from week to week," Finch said. "We started off with Virginia Tech and West Virginia, and we were meshing well. But about every two weeks, we'd have something happen that would set us back."
The Pirates started the season as more of a spread offense with three- and four-wide receiver packages, but the myriad injuries have forced them to use more two-back sets featuring Norman Whitley and Brandon Simmons (combined 1,097 yards, 10 touchdowns).
"Our game plan is pretty simple now," Pirates quarterback Patrick Pinkney said. "We're going to come out and try and run the ball and play great defense. That's what championship teams do anyway."
"(The injuries) really hurt our consistency and growth, but in the long run it's made us more resourceful, it's made us kind of recreate ourselves as the season's gone along," Finch said. "It's changed our philosophy some as this season's unfolded, but I've got to give credit to the players because they've adapted well and bought into what we've asked them to do."
One of the constants of East Carolina's attack is Pinkney. His numbers (2,379 passing yards, 11 TDs) aren't mind-boggling, but the senior's experience and savvy have a calming effect on a Pirates offense now relying heavily on freshmen and sophomores.
"Patrick has been pretty consistent," Finch said. "He's a pretty good decision maker overall and has a good feel for the game. When we get him in the flow of the game, everything clicks and runs a little smoother."