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View from the 'ville
Thursday, November 27, 2008

By Al Myatt

ECU counts injuries... and blessings

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

East Carolina's football team has a lot to be thankful for as it prepares to host Texas-El Paso on Friday at 1 p.m.

The Pirates can be thankful that athletic director Terry Holland saw a gleam in Skip Holtz's eyes as they toured the Murphy Center at the end of the 2004 season when the program was mired in a 3-22 slump.

Holland recognized Holtz's coaching potential. The ensuing upturn has been steady beginning with a 24-21 win over Duke in the first game on Sept. 3, 2005.

The ECU seniors who will play their final home game against the Miners have been a part of a football resurgence that has seen the program return to bowl games, win the Hawaii Bowl last season, knock off some in-state rivals, contend for Conference USA honors and clinch the league's East Division title... in Alabama, of all places, last week.

ECU had never beaten a major college program in the state of Alabama, going 0-7 against Alabama, Auburn and UAB on the road until the breakthrough 17-13 win over the Blazers at Legion Field last week.

Pirate fans can be thankful, too. It's said that you don't appreciate something until it's gone. The period of struggle under the previous staff makes ECU's present accomplishments seem more rewarding perhaps than if there had been a higher degree of continuity in the program's performance.

The division title has been achieved despite injuries and suspensions that have forced the staff into an adjustment mode. Eleven former starters will miss Friday's game as ECU seeks to continue momentum for the Dec. 6 C-USA championship game at the West Division winner — Houston, Tulsa or Rice.

"Somebody said to me that this is like an NFL game, you can play all your backups," Holtz said. "I said, `Heck, I'm playing them all now.' They're the ones who are playing in the game anyway. I can't go ahead and play my backups because they're the ones who are starting for me."

The Pirates aren't taking the holiday week off. Sacrifice is often a necessary element of success. The team stayed on campus to practice today after a Thanksgiving meal together on Wednesday night. Holtz has normally let his players go home to be with their families on previous Thanksgivings but didn't feel he could allow that this season with a game on Friday afternoon.

"We're taking the approach that this game is one of 12," Holtz said. "We've got an opportunity to raise our record from 7-4 to 8-4. This isn't a throw-away game to us. This is a game where we can gain some experience and go compete. As I told the team, at this point you don't know what bowl you're going to go to, you don't know how things are going to happen and it's going to be determined by how we play from here on out. So this is as important of a game as any of them."

ECU's personnel losses have put the Pirates in a continuing state of flux as the coaches have sought to adapt game plans and schemes to the available talent on hand. In terms of future depth, there is a silver lining as some players have gotten on the field ahead of schedule.

"We've just got to keep getting better and improving," Holtz said. "I think a lot of these players are doing just that. It's great to see their growth and development. We're a different football team than we were at the beginning of the season."

The ability to adjust is a vital dimension for successful coaching because injuries are a part of the game.

"I'm certainly not complaining or using our injuries as an excuse, but how many times have you heard me say that as coaches we have to identify our strengths and weaknesses?," Holtz said. "We want to hide our weaknesses and highlight our strengths, but as a football team we've been through three or four transformations because our strengths and weaknesses continue to change as experience goes in and out of the depth chart. That's one of the challenges that I think the coaching staff has done such a good job with."

The Friday contest on CBS College Sports television will be a viewing success if the game remotely approaches last season's 45-42 Pirates overtime win in El Paso. The memory of Rob Kass' tying 34-yard scoring pass to Juwon Crowell at the end of regulation and Kass' decisive one-yard keeper in overtime may serve as a motivating factor for the Miners on their 3,800-mile round trip.

"One big motivating factor is that I know they'll talk about last year and the overtime win we had, scoring with 30 seconds to go," Holtz said. "They feel like they let something slip away last year. With them coming here and having the opportunity to play us, the first-place team in the East Division and one of the teams on top, they'll be excited. At the same time they're 5-6 and also saying that they have a chance to go 6-6 and fill one of the bowl spots for Conference USA. I know they'll come in here extremely motivated and ready to play."

ECU will probably play 14 games this season — counting a bowl — for the first time in program history. Just who the Pirates will line up against next week in the West Division is still up in the air.

Houston is in the driver's seat in the West. A win Saturday will give the Cougars the West Division title. A Houston loss to Rice opens the door for Tulsa to win and host the championship game if the Golden Hurricane prevails at Marshall. If Rice beats Houston and Marshall defeats Tulsa, then Rice will win the West and host the title game.

Tulsa (50.4), Houston (41.1), Rice (40.3) and UTEP (34.0) are the top four teams in point production in C-USA.

More challenges await the Pirates — but that too is something for which to be thankful.

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11/27/2008 12:50:05 AM


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