09/05/12 — Johnson quickly finds rhythm in Pirates' season opener

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Johnson quickly finds rhythm in Pirates' season opener

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on September 5, 2012 1:48 PM

When asked to rate quarterback Rio Johnson's first career start on a scale of 1 to 10 following Saturday's 35-13 win over Appalachian State, East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill responded with a smile, "Win, W-I-N, exclamation point, exclamation point."

Johnson not only helped the Pirates win their season opener for the fourth time in five years, but he made important strides in his progression as a quarterback. The junior shook off an interception on East Carolina's opening possession and began to develop a rhythm with his receivers.

"I like the fact that Rio on the sideline, if you could see his demeanor and poise, never waivered," McNeill said. "On the field, I thought he ran the team efficiently. During the middle of the game, being able to make adjustments and take it from the sideline to the field is hard. He did a good job of staying poised and keeping his group focused."

After overthrowing a couple of open receivers early in the game, Johnson settled down and finished 28 of 43 passing for 242 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He also added a 6-yard rushing touchdown.

Johnson delivered an 11-yard touchdown pass in traffic to Andrew Bodenheimer that put the Pirates ahead for good, 14-7, midway through the second quarter. His perfectly-placed 4-yard fade pass for a touchdown to Justin Hardy essentially put the game away at 28-13 early in the fourth quarter.

"Decision making-wise, I was real comfortable," Johnson said. "I didn't really have any butterflies. This week, we practiced the same plays we ran out there today. I tried to do just what I did in practice. I really just came with the mindset to make the routine plays, the routine throws and we would come out on top."

Johnson faces another significant opportunity to take a step forward in his development as a signal-caller when ECU travels to South Carolina on Saturday. The ninth-ranked Gamecocks held Vanderbilt to 62 rushing yards in a 17-13 win last week.

Offensive balance and avoiding long-yardage situations on third down is key for Johnson and the Pirates. ECU rushed for 148 yards and finished with 390 yards of offense against the Mountaineers. While a road win against an SEC opponent would be huge for the Pirates, another solid outing for Johnson and the ability to build on his confidence may prove to be just as important.

"We have to stop the setbacks," Johnson said. "We have two or three good plays, and then we have a setback and it will stop our drives. We just have to stop those. Our running game takes a lot of pressure off me.

"Teams are going to have to come up and defend the run, so all that stuff down the field in the passing game opens up."