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View from the 'ville
Thursday, December 21, 2006

By Al Myatt

Senior season offsets hard times for J.P.

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As James Pinkney prepares to make his 38th consecutive start at quarterback for East Carolina, football has started to be fun again for the Pirates.

"It's felt like a dream season," said the senior from Delray Beach, FL, who has become the ECU career leader in completions with 679.

Since starting 2-4, the Pirates have won five out of six to improve to 7-5, assuring the program of its first winning season since 2000. Pinkney's career high 391 passing yards in a 38-21 win over Southern Methodist started ECU on its surge during the second half of the season.

"We had him on his back and they were picture perfect throws," said Mustangs coach Phil Bennett after Pinkney rebounded from a subpar showing the previous week against Tulsa.

Only a field goal in the final seconds at Rice kept ECU out of the Conference USA championship game.

"We've had a couple of games that could have gone either way, a couple of games that we could have won," Pinkney said. "But still, we're 7-5, we're in a bowl game and we're playing for respect. It was a good season for us. We beat N.C. State, one of our rivals."

Pinkney and the Pirates flew to Birmingham on Tuesday for the Bowl on Saturday at 1 p.m. against South Florida (8-4), a program that has some experience in dealing with Pinkney.

The Bulls recruited the ECU offensive co-captain out of high school and put a 41-17 pounding on the Pirates at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa in 2004 — the last game before ECU athletic director Terry Holland pulled the plug on the John Thompson coaching era.

"They recruited me but they were also recruiting three other quarterbacks at the time," said Pinkney, who opted to join an ECU program that was habitually making bowl trips under Steve Logan at the time of his decision.

Pinkney also had an offer from Iowa State but he liked the big time atmosphere that surrounded ECU football in years past. His arrival at ECU coincided with a downturn in football fortunes that has been corrected in the last two years of Skip Holtz's leadership.

Pinkney hasn't forgotten the frustration that the last loss to South Florida generated personally.

"It was a very good defense we were facing," he said. "I missed a couple of balls that I should have hit. After that coach (Noah) Brindise (then offensive coordinator), talked to me about getting back focused and what not.

"It just wasn't our day. We didn't play as a team."

The difference in the Pirates since then is so pronounced that Bulls coach Jim Leavitt wouldn't even comment on the last matchup when both teams were competing in Conference USA. The Bulls have just completed their second season in the Big East.

"Don't even go there," Leavitt said when asked about the game in 2004. "They just beat N.C. State and N.C. State beat the dog out of us (in the Charlotte bowl) last season."

One difference for the Pirates from the losses like the one to the Bulls earlier in Pinkney's career has been an infusion of confidence inspired by Holtz.

"It's our confidence in the head coach, that he and his staff are going to put us in a position to win," Pinkney said. "They're going to do whatever it takes and it's up to us to do our roles and do our jobs. They're doing a heckuva job here getting us prepared for games."

Pinkney, of course, had to recover from academic ineligibility at the outset of the Holtz regime as he missed spring practice in 2005 after flunking out of school. But Pinkney has come back — and so have the Pirates.

The low point on the field for Pinkney personally was a 51-10 loss at Southern Miss his sophomore season when he was sacked seven times. The high point in his college career, he said, was going back to Hattiesburg this season and topping the same Golden Eagles 20-17 in overtime. Pinkney's 2-yard keeper for a touchdown with 13 seconds left in regulation tied the score.

The Pirates have beaten three teams this year that they lost to in 2004 — Memphis, Southern Miss and State. The Bulls represent a fourth opportunity for payback.

Pinkney and the offense are backed by a defensive unit that is playing significantly better than the Pirates two years ago.

In 2004, ECU yielded 456.8 yards per game in total offense and an average of 39.9 points per game. Both numbers were all-time highs for the program. This year ECU is allowing 332.9 in total yards and 20.5 points, which represents significant improvement in terms of both figures.

"It's an outstanding defense," Leavitt said of the Pirates. "They're very active. Their linebackers are very impressive."

And so is Pinkney, whose career totals include 8,048 passing yards, 45 touchdowns passing, 399 net rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.

"He is very good," said the Bulls coach. "We recruited him out of high school. He's big, 6-3, 220. He runs, throws, 60 percent completion rate. He knows what he's doing."

South Florida's loss was obviously ECU's gain, particularly in the second half of Pinkney's final season in Pirate purple and gold.

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02/23/2007 12:31:00 AM


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