College Sports in the Carolinas
from the 'ville
November 24, 2005
By Al Myatt
Program on the move to
The finest hour thus far in Skip Holtz's 11
months as East Carolina football coach came last Saturday evening as the
Pirates did a tidy 180-degree pivot in a 34-29 win at Marshall.
The conquest came seven days after ECU easily
could have been hopelessly deflated by 35 unanswered second-half points in a
45-13 loss at Tulsa. The blowout by the Golden Hurricane vanquished Pirate
hopes for a winning season and a bowl berth.
ECU could have reveled in a pity party in
Huntington, West Virginia, after spotting the Thundering Herd a 13-0 first
But instead of going through the motions after
falling behind, ECU responded in effect to the expectations of athletic
director Terry Holland that the program be competitive in its first season
under the leadership of the son of coaching legend Lou Holtz.
ECU (4-6) not only got back into the game, it
assured the Herd of its first losing season since 1983 in a locale where the
hosts have been virtually invincible.
"It was a great win for us as a program on the
road to play a team in Marshall that was 103-7 at home in the last 15
years," Holtz said. "It was the most complete game that we have played all
year as a football team. Offensively, defensively, and in the kicking game
it was the best game that we have played all year.
"I don't have an answer for why it took us
this long to get that complete game, but those guys went up there and played
extremely hard and gave great heart."
The Pirates didn't play at all as though the
bigger prizes had eluded their grasp in the stiff prairie breeze at Tulsa.
"They also showed a lot of character for a
team that everyone had talked about how `there is nothing to play for,' and
how much Marshall had to play for with bowl eligibility and other things as
well," Holtz said. "This football team, with all of the goals and
aspirations that they had, couldn't get into a bowl game and have a winning
season. All that we had to play for was the continuation of building this
program. The leadership of this team was very evident by the way that a lot
of these seniors played and what they went up there and did on Saturday.
"I am very proud of this football team."
There was a degree of irony that the inspiring
outcome came against a program that had recorded one of the biggest bowl
comebacks ever — a reversal of fortune in which ECU was victimized by the
Herd in the 2001 GMAC Bowl in Mobile. Down 30 points at the half, Marshall
shocked ECU 64-61 in double overtime.
Successful comebacks of any magnitude have
been scarce for the Pirates in recent years. The 2005 Marshall game may have
been the most significant rally by an ECU team since that memorable 27-23
defeat of Miami in Raleigh following Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
The worst stumble in that 9-3 season in '99
was a trip to Birmingham to virtually empty Legion Field, where the Pirates
saw a lead of their own disintegrate in a humbling 36-17 loss to UAB.
So, interestingly enough, UAB (5-5) comes to
Greenville at high noon on Saturday, this time as a favorite with bowl
aspirations of its own.
Like Skip Holtz at this point in his career,
UAB's Watson Brown is the lesser of the family coaching lights. Watson
Brown, the brother of Texas coach Mack Brown and one-time ECU assistant
Pat Dye in 1974-75, knows his team has a
formidable challenge as they seek to follow an impressive 35-23 win at then
24th-ranked Texas-El Paso.
"We just played well," Brown said. "I told
Mike (Price, Miners coach) after the game, I told him I was sorry. We hadn't
had a break all year and we got some in his game. Sooner or later, you're
going to get some. We played well and they had some critical turnovers."
UAB's triumph over the previous Conference USA
West Division leaders underscored the league's parity theme this season.
"I haven't seen much difference in anybody, to
tell you the truth," Brown said. "We're all very similar. The one that has
played the best on that Saturday has usually won the game. I don't see any
difference in the six in our (East) division. I think we're all about even.
I don't see any difference in East Carolina in that way."
The former ECU quarterbacks coach has an
appreciation for the Pirates' current field general and his exceptional pass
"Very athletic quarterback (James Pinkney),"
Brown appraised. "Unbelievable wide receiver (Aundrae Allison), that's just
had a great year. They have very good team speed at the skill positions on
this team on both sides of the ball. They've played well all year. They've
lost some close games, had a tough schedule.
"This will be a very hard win for us."
Or — given the resolve the Pirates
demonstrated last week — it may not be a UAB win at all.
Sunny skies and a high in the mid-50s should
make for a great day for football at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. An ECU win, of
course, would make it even better for Pirate partisans coveting an
exclamation mark on a turnaround season.
As 2005 draws to a close, it's becoming more
apparent that better days are ahead for ECU football. Forgetting six wins
and the postseason threshold that sum represents, the Pirates still have
something to play for.
The opportunity is there for a fine encore to
a defining win at Marshall. A triumph would be a great reward for the
seniors who have experienced far more frustration than celebration. Victory
would also provide valuable momentum during the offseason for the Pirate
Nation, its young coach and his aspiring players.
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