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Thursday, November 24, 2005

By Al Myatt

Program on the move to solid ground


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The finest hour thus far in Skip Holtz's 11 months as East Carolina football coach came last Saturday evening as the Pirates did a tidy 180-degree pivot in a 34-29 win at Marshall.

The conquest came seven days after ECU easily could have been hopelessly deflated by 35 unanswered second-half points in a 45-13 loss at Tulsa. The blowout by the Golden Hurricane vanquished Pirate hopes for a winning season and a bowl berth.

ECU could have reveled in a pity party in Huntington, West Virginia, after spotting the Thundering Herd a 13-0 first quarter lead.

But instead of going through the motions after falling behind, ECU responded in effect to the expectations of athletic director Terry Holland that the program be competitive in its first season under the leadership of the son of coaching legend Lou Holtz.

ECU (4-6) not only got back into the game, it assured the Herd of its first losing season since 1983 in a locale where the hosts have been virtually invincible.

"It was a great win for us as a program on the road to play a team in Marshall that was 103-7 at home in the last 15 years," Holtz said. "It was the most complete game that we have played all year as a football team. Offensively, defensively, and in the kicking game it was the best game that we have played all year.

"I don't have an answer for why it took us this long to get that complete game, but those guys went up there and played extremely hard and gave great heart."

The Pirates didn't play at all as though the bigger prizes had eluded their grasp in the stiff prairie breeze at Tulsa.

"They also showed a lot of character for a team that everyone had talked about how `there is nothing to play for,' and how much Marshall had to play for with bowl eligibility and other things as well," Holtz said. "This football team, with all of the goals and aspirations that they had, couldn't get into a bowl game and have a winning season. All that we had to play for was the continuation of building this program. The leadership of this team was very evident by the way that a lot of these seniors played and what they went up there and did on Saturday.

"I am very proud of this football team."

There was a degree of irony that the inspiring outcome came against a program that had recorded one of the biggest bowl comebacks ever — a reversal of fortune in which ECU was victimized by the Herd in the 2001 GMAC Bowl in Mobile. Down 30 points at the half, Marshall shocked ECU 64-61 in double overtime.

Successful comebacks of any magnitude have been scarce for the Pirates in recent years. The 2005 Marshall game may have been the most significant rally by an ECU team since that memorable 27-23 defeat of Miami in Raleigh following Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

The worst stumble in that 9-3 season in '99 was a trip to Birmingham to virtually empty Legion Field, where the Pirates saw a lead of their own disintegrate in a humbling 36-17 loss to UAB.

So, interestingly enough, UAB (5-5) comes to Greenville at high noon on Saturday, this time as a favorite with bowl aspirations of its own.

Like Skip Holtz at this point in his career, UAB's Watson Brown is the lesser of the family coaching lights. Watson Brown, the brother of Texas coach Mack Brown and one-time ECU assistant under Pat Dye in 1974-75, knows his team has a formidable challenge as they seek to follow an impressive 35-23 win at then 24th-ranked Texas-El Paso.

"We just played well," Brown said. "I told Mike (Price, Miners coach) after the game, I told him I was sorry. We hadn't had a break all year and we got some in his game. Sooner or later, you're going to get some. We played well and they had some critical turnovers."

UAB's triumph over the previous Conference USA West Division leaders underscored the league's parity theme this season.

"I haven't seen much difference in anybody, to tell you the truth," Brown said. "We're all very similar. The one that has played the best on that Saturday has usually won the game. I don't see any difference in the six in our (East) division. I think we're all about even. I don't see any difference in East Carolina in that way."

The former ECU quarterbacks coach has an appreciation for the Pirates' current field general and his exceptional pass receiving target.

"Very athletic quarterback (James Pinkney)," Brown appraised. "Unbelievable wide receiver (Aundrae Allison), that's just had a great year. They have very good team speed at the skill positions on this team on both sides of the ball. They've played well all year. They've lost some close games, had a tough schedule.

"This will be a very hard win for us."

Or — given the resolve the Pirates demonstrated last week — it may not be a UAB win at all.

Sunny skies and a high in the mid-50s should make for a great day for football at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. An ECU win, of course, would make it even better for Pirate partisans coveting an exclamation mark on a turnaround season.

As 2005 draws to a close, it's becoming more apparent that better days are ahead for ECU football. Forgetting six wins and the postseason threshold that sum represents, the Pirates still have something to play for.

The opportunity is there for a fine encore to a defining win at Marshall. A triumph would be a great reward for the seniors who have experienced far more frustration than celebration. Victory would also provide valuable momentum during the offseason for the Pirate Nation, its young coach and his aspiring players.

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02/23/2007 12:33:46 AM

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