The label on the East Carolina defense says Conference USA, but the contents are worthy of the SEC brand name.
C-USA teams are usually noticed for high-powered offenses like Tulsa, Rice and Houston. Defense got ECU noticed, however, as the Pirates held No. 17 Virginia Tech to 243 yards of total offense in a season-opening 27-22 upset win.
But it was what the Pirates did the following week that really opened eyes. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson's unit completely stuffed one of the most prolific quarterbacks in recent college football history, West Virginia's Pat White, in a 24-3 blowout.
East Carolina was the only team to keep the Mountaineers out of the end zone during White's magnificent four-year career.
"That game put us on the map," said East Carolina defensive end Zack Slate. "It made our guys feel like we were just as good as any of the teams in the big conferences."
"It really gave us a justification of all the things we worked on," Hudson said. "Faith is belief on evidence, and after the West Virginia game we had evidence we could stop the best in country if everybody did their jobs."
The Pirates defense also rose to the occasion in the Conference USA championship game, forcing seven turnovers in a 27-24 win over Tulsa, one of the nation's highest-scoring teams.
"They're a typical SEC defense," said UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips. "They've shut down a lot of good teams and good players. That's how they've won games."
The East Carolina unit is led by its defensive end combination of C.J. Wilson and Slate, which has combined for 26.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. The duo has been nicknamed "Lumber and Lightning" by Hudson.
The 6-foot-4, 271-pound Wilson arrived at ECU as an undersized 225-pound linebacker, but he is now a legitimate NFL prospect. At 6-5, 221 pounds, Slate is a lanky, speedy pass rusher off the edge.
The Pirates also have a pair of run-pluggers at tackle in Jay Ross (8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks) and Linville Joseph, who lost more than 70 pounds in seven months after tipping the scales at 373 before ECU's Hawaii Bowl win over Boise State last year. Hudson said the Pirates don't match UK's talent across the board ("They have players that wouldn't visit us," he said on Wednesday), but he didn't disagree with the assessment that his defense is SEC-caliber, particularly up front.
"We're very lucky to have the defensive line that we have," Hudson said. "C.J. is a special player. If we were a 3-4 defense, he'd be an awesome outside linebacker, and he plays outstanding at end for us in our 4-3. He played two years ago without knowing what's going on, and we took our lumps. But we knew all along that he'd be a special player."
The Pirates also have another first-team All-C-USA performer in junior free safety Van Eskridge, and senior linebacker Pierre Bell leads the team in tackles with 92.
"Most of us have played together for two or three years," Wilson said. "You play that long with guys, and you win some big games, it all comes together. I think that's what happened with us this year."
The struggling UK offense won't try to be cute against the Pirates. Phillips said the Cats will try to establish the run and hope that sets up the play-action passing game downfield.
"We know we have to run the football," Phillips said. "We've tried to get our team more physical throughout our bowl preparations, and you get physical by turning and handing the ball off to the running back, and let those guys roll off the football up front."
Phillips said UK's bowl practices resembled the 2006 season when the coaches made a commitment to more physical play following a 49-0 loss to LSU. Phillips created a drill called "Sumo," where two receivers got in a circle and mixed it up until someone was knocked out of the circle.
"It's just a drill to see who's going to compete, and I think it's gotten us better and created some enthusiasm."