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College Sports in the Carolinas

View from the East
Friday, August 29, 2003

By Al Myatt
ECU Beat Writer for The News & Observer

Pirates face ideal foe for gauging state of program

©2003 Bonesville.net

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 around.

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 Day.

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 seasons.

"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 line.

"They can protect me and take a lot of pressure off of me with the running game," said Desmond Robinson, who will start at quarterback.

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 day."

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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02/23/2007 12:39:44 AM
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