College Sports in the Carolinas
from the East
Friday, August 29, 2003
By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News &
Pirates face ideal foe for
gauging state of program
There would seem to be no better measuring stick than
Cincinnati for determining the progress of the East Carolina football
program under first-year head coach John Thompson, who was just two weeks
after the Bearcats ended a 4-8 season for the Pirates with a 42-26 win on a
Friday night, Dec. 6, in Greenville.
It's rare that a team starts a season against an opponent
that it finished the previous season against. This is the third time it's
happened for East Carolina as it enters its 68th season of gridiron
competition, and the Pirates will be aspiring for better results this time
The last time the scheduling oddity took place was in 1969
when ECU opened with a 7-0 loss at East Tennessee State in its final season
under coaching legend Clarence Stasavich. The Pirates had closed the 1968
campaign with a 17-7 setback at East Tennessee State.
In 1956, the Pirates closed the season with a 45-7 loss at
home to Richmond and then opened 1957 with a 40-7 loss at Richmond. Maybe
the third time will be the charm for the Pirates to snap the trend on Labor
ECU's players could probably care less about that bit of
ancient history that happened long before they were born. What they do care
about isn't even avenging last year's loss to Cincinnati. They care about
each other and escaping the frustration of a 10-14 record over the last two
"This team is coming together and working as one," said
running back Marvin Townes, who has moved into a starting role at tailback
with a knee injury to Art Brown. "There aren't any individuals. Nobody's
being selfish. It's about team, not about one person.
"The discipline that's been brought here — we've come
together as a family and I'm looking forward to this season. The team is
excited. I'm excited. Everybody's excited."
ECU's running game produced 1,488 yards last season, an
average of 124.0 yards per game. Brown ran for 1,029 of those yards before
sitting out the last two games.
"A blow to camp was when we lost Art Brown, obviously,"
Thompson said. "That's a blow to our team because he's one of our guys. We
will miss Art. Art's a big-time football player. He's proven to me and I've
been very impressed with Art's leadership.
"As an old defensive coach, he's the kind of guy you don't
want to see. He's a good first down runner, a good third down back. He could
run the draw. He could catch the ball coming out. Sure, that affects our
team but we've got some other big time players.
"We'll never look at an injury, we'll never look at a
situation like, 'Oh, what's happened to us', or, 'Oh, woe is me.' That just
gives you an excuse and we don't take that. We don't do that. The next guy
steps up. It takes a lot of our players. Vonta Leach has got to be better as
a fullback. Robert Tillman has really stepped up, probably one of the
biggest surprises in camp as a true freshman."
Townes and junior college transfer Kevin Fain will also be
running the ball as ECU looks to take advantage of a senior-laden offensive
"They can protect me and take a lot of pressure off of me
with the running game," said Desmond Robinson, who will start at
The Pirates need to run. They need to be able to run the
ball and the clock. ECU hasn't led its opposition in average time of
possession for a season since 1994. New offensive line coach J.B. Grimes has
instilled an approach of knocking people off of the ball and being
physically dominant. One of ECU's problems in allowing opponents 445.7 total
yards of offense per game last season, the most in C-USA, was that the
defense was on the field too much.
Too many turnovers were also a problem. It started with four
in a humbling 23-16 loss at Duke last season while the Blue Devils, who
ended a 23-game losing streak, didn't have any. That set a pattern for the
season. ECU was 0-8 in games in which it had the same or more turnovers than
the opposition in 2003. The Pirates were 4-0 in games in which they had
fewer turnovers, a prime example being a 31-28 win over No. 22 TCU, the
zenith of the season, in which ECU had seven takeaways and five turnovers.
An 81-yard fumble return by Travis Heath with 8:46 to go won the game.
Highly-regarded Cincinnati quarterback Gino Guidugli will be
seeing a different ECU defense than the one he threw for 323 yards and four
touchdowns against last December. The Pirates will show various fronts, lots
of movement and a myriad of blitzes.
"I definitely feel the defense has been criticized for the
team's performance," Heath said. "But you've just got to put those things
behind you — just play every game one at a time. You can't be concerned
about what everybody thinks of you. You've just got to get better every
The Cincinnati game is big in a lot of ways. It's a
Conference USA game. It's on ESPN. It could provide confidence and momentum
for the season and a good season could enhance ECU's prospects for improved
conference affiliation. A win would also give the program instant
credibility under its new coach.
Continued improvement has been a theme in ECU's eight-plus
months with Thompson at the helm. Will it be enough to reverse the outcome
of the last game?
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