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View from the 'ville
Thursday, October 23, 2008

By Al Myatt

Pirates navigating choppy seas

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

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 30-10 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 national rankings.

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 zone.

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 Raleigh.

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 orbit.

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.

Send an e-mail message to Al Myatt.

Dig into Al Myatt's Bonesville archives.

10/23/2008 01:03:27 AM


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