"They have a physical offensive line. They like to run the ball and have an athletic quarterback, which we have had some problems with in the past. This is, to me, a real challenging matchup for us and a good matchup for us. It will see what kind of progress we have made since the end of our season."
The Pirates went 5-3 in away/neutral games and also have more momentum than Kentucky since they finished the season 4-1. Kentucky lost six of its last eight games. The Pirates also beat both Virginia Tech and West Virginia early in the season when they flirted with being ranked in the top 10.
East Carolina ranks fourth in the country in interceptions with 21. However, it's defensive lineman C.J. Wilson, who ranks 15th nationally in tackles for loss with 1.4 per game and 16th in quarterback sacks at 0.8 per game, that worries UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips the most.
"The defensive end is the defensive player of the year in the conference. He plays in a lot in other people's backfield. We just have to make sure he plays on the other side of the line in our game," Phillips said.
The other major playmaker is defensive back Van Eskridge, who has 89 tackles and four interceptions. Linebacker Pierre Bell leads East Carolina with 92 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and seven pass deflections.
Watching the film
Phillips knows East Carolina prefers to zone coverage, and considering the trouble UK's young receivers had getting free against man to man coverage in the SEC, East Carolina's style would seem to be a blessing for the Cats.
"It could set up better for our guys, but they watch film, too," Phillips said. "You have to anticipate some man to man from them. We are still getting work on man, but we have to practice a lot of zone coverage, too. But you have to anticipate them doing what has given us problems against other teams all year.
"I really like the progress we have made. The thing about getting in a bowl game is getting basically an extra spring practice. We have inexperience at receiver with four true freshmen and two other guys - Kyrus Lanxter who didn't get a lot of reps last year and E.J. Adams who was on defense - that need all the work they can get. These practices for them have been very beneficial and I hope that will make a difference against a very good defense that we are going to face."
Both teams have struggled offensively much of the year. The teams have similar offensive statistics. East Carolina averages 66.8 plays per game, Kentucky 65.9. The Pirates run for 3.4 yards per attempt and pass for 7.0 while UK averages 3.8 yards per run and 5.3 per pass.
Still, Brooks expects Mike Hartline, the season-opening starter at quarterback who lost his job and now has regained it because of knee injury to Randall Cobb, to lead a revived UK offense.
"We think we have been sharper in practice and have ironed out some kinks," Brooks said. "But we won't know until we face this defense."
Kentucky's defense has been solid most of the season and will have all key players healthy for the first time in two months. The Cats allow just 184 yards passing per game, the nation's 28th best mark, and linebacker Micah Johnson ranks in the top 50 in tackles per game (8.7) and tackles for loss per game (1.2).
Kentucky could also set a school record with a third straight bowl win that would give UK a third straight winning season for the first time in more than 50 years.
"It's a big opportunity for us," senior defensive tackle Myron Pryor said. "If we can find a way to win a third straight bowl game, it will make us special. But we are facing a much more physical team than most people realize and it's going to take our best game to win."