East Carolina's football team has a lot
to be thankful for as it prepares to host Texas-El Paso on Friday at 1
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
"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
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
More challenges await the Pirates but
that too is something for which to be thankful.