The Pirate ship has been on a wild ride
this football season. If the crew can avoid seasickness from all the ups
and downs, perhaps it will ultimately find treasure in the form of a
Conference USA championship.
There was a moment in East Carolina's
win over Memphis on Saturday
when it looked like the Pirates were swaggering once again. For an
instant, they looked like the team that had
knocked off Virginia Tech and
West Virginia to move into the
That moment came when Van Eskridge
intercepted a Tigers pass with just over 10 minutes left to play. ECU
was already leading 23-10. The offense had undergone a successful
transplant at quarterback with Rob Kass stepping up to provide a spark
in the second half.
It was a quick change scenario with the
Pirates taking advantage of good field position to score on a 12-yard
run by Norman Whitley. It was plunder and that's what Pirates do.
There would be no comeback for a
Memphis program that had gone through quarterbacks like a family reunion
goes through napkins when barbecue chicken is the main course.
One might wonder where the Pirates had
been in the span of 33 days since a 28-24
win at Tulane. Now that they're
back, it might be a good time to try and figure out where they were for
over a month.
The first factor that contributed to
ECU's demise was the loss of linebacker Quentin Cotton to a knee injury
in that Tulane game. Coaches don't like to use injuries as an excuse but
Cotton was a unit leader with a knack for making the big play.
Coaches will tell you there are players
who make other players better. Cotton was one of those guys.
It was Cotton who, as a junior in 2007,
had 14 tackles
at Virginia Tech. It was Cotton
who came in to tackle the North Carolina holder as he tried to roll out
after picking up the snap in the last minute of that
memorable matchup in Greenville
last season. The Kernersville Glenn product wrapped him up for a 12-yard
loss a game-changing moment that was soon followed by Ben Hartman's
game-winning field goal as time expired.
He returned a blocked field goal 44
yards for a touchdown at Tulane before going out.
The following week the Pirates
lost 30-24 in overtime at N.C.
State as the Cotton-less Pirates allowed the Wolfpack 384 yards of total
offense, about 100 yards more than their season average.
There were other factors in the State
game, of course. Play selection that netted just three points on two
possessions inside the Wolfpack 5-yard line has been subject to
question. So were some of the video reviews.
To the Pack's credit, quarterback
Russell Wilson was difficult to defend and Andre Brown ran with
inspiration. State stonewalled ECU twice at the deep end of the red
The loss to State had its wrecking ball
effect. You don't recover from a defeat at the hands of a bitter rival
like a 24-hour virus. The Pirates tried to get refocused on the
Conference USA race and the next game with Houston, but ECU looked like
a team dealing with post-traumatic stress from the disappointment in
Houston came in with a 1-3 record and
left with a
41-24 win after accumulating 621
yards of total offense. The Cougars showed a different style from
previous opponents. They played in space. The Pirates watched them
ECU coach Skip Holtz indicated that his
team might be emotionally spent and said he was looking forward to an
open date as an opportunity to recover. The Pirates did system and
personnel evaluations with the extra time before going to Virginia.
The unfortunate aspect of the trip to
Charlottesville was that ECU caught the Cavaliers at the wrong time. It
wasn't the team that Southern Cal had bounced around Scott Stadium in a
52-7 Trojans win. It wasn't the team that had ventured into Durham and
absorbed a 31-3 loss to Duke.
The first UVa quarterback had been
booted out of school. Running back Cedric Peerman was healthy and the
Cavaliers had gotten a much-needed shot of confidence by beating
Maryland 31-0. Marc Verica, it turns out, is a pretty good quarterback.
Meanwhile in the Pirate camp, Patrick
Pinkney was showing some of the tendencies toward inconsistency that had
relegated him to third string going into the 2007 season. When Pinkney
stepped up brilliantly at times as a junior, Holtz understandably
wondered where that player had been in practice.
Pinkney was sacked six times at
Virginia, which wasn't entirely his fault. He lost a fumble and the
Pirates failed to take advantage of their offensive opportunities. ECU
was also missing Jamar Bryant, a talented receiver, who had failed to
abide by team rules.
After a 35-20
loss to the Wahoos, Holtz and
staff decided it was time to examine some possibilities with the spare
part of the two quarterback system that had been effective during an 8-5
season in 2007.
After waiting his turn, Kass delivered
against Memphis, keeping the Pirates in contention in the Conference USA
race. That's the good news.
The bad news this week is that leading
rusher Jonathan Williams
reportedly has been suspended
from school for an alleged assault.
For a brief moment, the Pirates
appeared to be back against Memphis. Now there is a new issue to deal
with going into a Sunday night ESPN game at Central Florida on Nov. 2.
The ECU program has had more plot
twists than a soap opera as it prepares to return to prime time.
While unpredictability may not be
unusual this college football season, Holtz will be earning every cent
in that restructured contract as he tries to figure how to keep the
Pirate ship from submerging again.