GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) -Nothing like some extended time off to turn East Carolina's hot start into a distant memory.
The Pirates played only two games in October, and that made for a rather restful month for the one-time BCS threat that spiraled out of the national rankings just as quickly as it entered them.
Now it's finally game week again for coach Skip Holtz's team, which is counting on two quarterbacks and several freshmen in key roles on an injury-ravaged defense to help lead it into a critical five-game stretch in Conference USA play that will determine whether East Carolina will claim the division title that it twice let slip away.
``We know what we're battling for at this point,'' Holtz said Monday.
, they were kept out of the C-USA championship game because of a November loss to a sub-.500 league rival.
To prevent it from happening again, Holtz has reverted to the two-quarterback system that last year helped his team to eight wins and a Hawaii Bowl victory, listing Patrick Pinkney and Rob Kass as the co-starters for Sunday night's visit to Central Florida.
Pinkney - the elusive, efficient star of those season-opening upsets - has seen his passing numbers tail off during the past four games, throwing for just 34 yards two weeks ago against Memphis before giving way to the strong-armed Kass during the 30-10 victory that snapped a three-game slide.
``We are in a very fortunate situation to have two quarterbacks that have a lot of experience under their belt, that have both played, that have both been in game-like situations,'' Holtz said. ``Rob needs to play. Their strengths are different, and I think right now, there's not a lot of difference between the two in terms of productivity. I think they're both doing some good things, but until one really emerges as the difference-maker ... we're going to have to utilize both of them.''
ere, Holtz said - largely because several upperclassmen have suffered injuries of varying severity.
Holtz said defensive linemen Khalif Mitchell (toe) and Marcus Hands (back), linebacker Melvin Patterson (leg) and defensive back Jerek Hewitt (shoulder) are out for the banged-up Pirates, while defensive back J.J. Millbrook (ankle) is doubtful. That further depletes a defense that already was missing star linebacker Quentin Cotton, who's out for the year with a knee injury.
So to acclimate the largely untested - if not wholly unknown - freshmen like linebackers Cliff Perryman and Steve Spence and defensive tackle Bob Jones, Holtz went back to basics during East Carolina's latest week off.
Those players ``are not names that a lot of people have heard a lot of during our first seven games,'' Holtz said. ``But they're going to have to play a pretty significant role for us in the second half (of the season). That's why this week was so important, kind of a camp-like mentality with where we are.
``It's going to be a challenge as a program. I'm not here complaining about it, moaning or groaning, or trying to make an excuse. That's just the challenge of where we are right now, and what we're facing as a program as we get ready to get into this five-game conference race.''

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