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View from the 'ville
Thursday, September 24, 2009

By Al Myatt

'Chip' missing in action for ECU

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

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 Pirates 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 Pirates 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 faded late 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 remaining from 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 Hill.

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 ECU 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.

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09/24/2009 02:59 AM


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