East Carolina plays its best with
something to prove. Put the Pirates in an underdog situation against a
ranked opponent and they will oftentimes shock the nation.
Roaring out of the gate in 2008, the
topped then-No. 17 Virginia Tech
27-22 in Charlotte and
shut down No. 8 West Virginia
24-3 in Greenville.
As favorites on the road the following
week at Tulane with seemingly a lot less in the way of motivation, ECU
was challenged to come away with a 28-24
win over the Green Wave.
And that seems to fit in with the modus
operandi for the Pirates on some memorable occasions.
Remember 1999? The Pirates stunned
Miami in Raleigh a week after Hurricane Floyd but were beaten decisively
at UAB in November.
One problem for ECU thus far in the
2009 season is that
a chip on the shoulder has been
harder to come by for the Pirates than second half points. Appalachian
State certainly had the little guy mentality when it came to Greenville
for the season opener. Although ECU is allowed 22 more scholarships, the
struggled to hold on for a 29-24 win.
Next up was West Virginia and as far as
motivation went, payback from their embarrassment last year at
Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was definitely on the Mountaineers agenda. ECU
in a 35-20 loss.
North Carolina hadn't forgotten being
on the short end of the drama in Greenville in 2007 when Ben Hartman
delighted Pirate fans with a game-ending field goal for
a 34-31 ECU win. Patrick Pinkney
threw for 406 yards and three touchdowns against the Tar Heels that day.
It was a time when Pinkney personally
had something to prove. Apparently relegated to a career backup role,
circumstances had given Pinkney a chance to get on the field a week
earlier at Virginia Tech and he had produced.
Now Pinkney has the quarterback job as
a sixth-year senior with an occasional break from Dwayne Harris but
neither the Pirates nor their offensive leader have played with the same
purpose that made them a national Cinderella early last season.
Did ECU get its 15 minutes of fame at
the outset of the Appalachian State game in building that early lead or
will Saturday's Conference USA opener at home against Central Florida be
realized for what it is
a fresh start in league play and
the opportunity to avoid an horrendous 1-3 start?
Despite nine returning starters on
offense and eight back on defense, the Pirates have thus far gotten lost
in the shadows of high expectations based on the degree of experience
a Conference USA championship team.
It would have been very helpful if West
Virginia coach Bill Stewart had made some disparaging remarks about the
Pirates before ECU made its trip to Morgantown or if Tar Heels coach
Butch Davis had provided some bulletin board material prior to last
week's matchup in Chapel Hill.
But ECU has been unable to sustain any
semblance of an emotional spark through three games. And respect, not
ridicule, has typified the opposition's posture.
"We're going to get people's best
shot," said ECU coach Skip Holtz. "We've talked about that. We're not
going to sneak up on anybody. When you come back from a loss the last
time we played like West Virginia and North Carolina were, they're going
to come back with vengeance. They're going to be focused and dialed in.
"I give both teams a lot of credit.
They did what they had to do to win those football games. With that
being said and all the mistakes we made and some of our inexperienced
miscues, both games were one score games late in the fourth quarter.
"I was really proud of the way our
players competed. You knew how much it meant to them when you walked
into the locker room after the game and there were tears in a lot of
guys' eyes. As I said to the team last night, if we don't like where we
are, we have the option to change it."
One factor that could help the Pirates
change this season's current course is the Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium crowd.
The Purple power Pirate fans can generate can give the team a supportive
base on which to build a tsunami of emotion. Yes, the Fick was one
factor that was missing in this year's games with WVU and UNC-Chapel
Another promising factor is that for
the first time this season, the Pirates will play another football bowl
subdivision program that functions
without the resources of direct BCS access
in its league. The Pirates have been overmatched in terms of athleticism
the last two weeks and without some emotional fuel to offset that talent
differential, ECU has not been successful in the late stages.
Another potentially-positive aspect is
that given the problem of inconsistency that has characterized Pinkney's
career, he is due a good game. That could solve a lot of problems for
the Pirates if there's some vintage leadership from ECU's old man.
There's also the mindset of
defending their conference championship.
Holtz has often addressed the fact that no one has successfully defended
its league title since C-USA went to a championship game. Perhaps that
will be the journey that drives this year's team. Saturday's game is an
important first step in that regard.
Veteran coach George O'Leary of the
Knights is hardly from the Lane Kiffin school of diplomacy. He provided
the antithesis of an emotional prod in his evaluation of the Pirates.
"I think that East Carolina plays very
well, and they are a good football team with a lot of size, speed and
experience on both sides of the ball," O'Leary said. "I think their
sixth-year quarterback does a great job of controlling the team, and is
surrounded by some good receivers and big physical running backs.
"I think to be able to play them well,
we cannot take a play off or have a bad half, and be able to start and
finish the game strong. The beginning of the game is going to show a lot
of differences on both sides, but, when push comes to shove, we will
both get back to [what] we do best."
It's hard to figure how this contest
will unfold based on recent history. The Pirates
won a shootout 52-38 over the
Knights at home in 2007 but last year's game was a defensive battle with
managing a 13-10 victory in
Orlando in overtime.
The Pirates find themselves in the
midst of an emotional recession but perhaps they can find an angle that
will give their talent and experience a sharpened edge on Saturday.