East Carolina ready for defending C-USA champ Tulsa

Friday, October 13th 2006, 11:31 am
By: News On 6

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ East Carolina coach Skip Holtz is ready for the grind of the Conference USA season.

``Conference USA is kind of like NASCAR in that everybody has the same size engine. It's just who does the best job driving it that week,'' Holtz said. ``There is a lot of balance, talent and a lot of very good coaches in this league. Anybody can beat anybody.''

The Pirates (2-3, 1-1) could find out Saturday if they're serious contenders for the league title when they play host to defending champion Tulsa (4-1, 1-0).

East Carolina enters the heart of the conference schedule with a shot of momentum after the Pirates outplayed Virginia last week in one of Holtz's biggest wins as their coach, giving Conference USA an image-boosting victory over an Atlantic Coast Conference member.

``It was a win that we needed very badly from a confidence standpoint,'' Holtz said. ``We really needed it as a football team with what we've gone through as a team in being so close. We really needed a win from a quality opponent to get over that hurdle.''

Now they have a chance for another one. The Golden Hurricane surprised Conference USA in 2005 by winning the league title in their first season as a member, and now they're off to a strong start defending that crown.

Tulsa has won three straight, including a 20-6 victory against Southern Mississippi on Oct. 3 and a 24-23 win over the same Navy team that beat East Carolina in Week 1.

Holtz said quarterback Paul Smith ``can make the wheels on the bus go 'round'' and is a threat to run or pass. He has been involved in 10 of Tulsa's 19 offensive touchdowns.

``He's playing very efficiently for us, and he needs to continue to do that for us to continue to be successful,'' Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe said.

Smith threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns in last year's meeting, a 45-13 rout that put the Golden Hurricane in position for a rare bowl berth. Tulsa went on to beat Fresno State in the Liberty Bowl for its first bowl victory since 1991.

``This will be a great challenge for us,'' Holtz said.