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Pirate Notebook No. 493
Monday, September 24, 2012

Denny O'Brien

Denny O'Brien

Past time to lighten the load

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

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The most obvious conclusion that can be drawn from East Carolina’s visit to Kenan Stadium Saturday isn’t one most fans are likely to embrace. But it’s one that now deserves serious consideration.

After ECU’s embarrassing 27-6 loss at North Carolina, the school's athletics administration needs to seriously evaluate the football program’s non-conference scheduling philosophy. The rationale behind establishing it has now run its course.

When Terry Holland unveiled the lineup of power conference opponents that would dot ECU’s schedule, it was met with resounding popularity. Given the climate of program at the time, you can certainly understand why.

Following the John Thompson coaching debacle that dug ECU a deep competitive hole, the Pirates were in dire need of something to generate excitement — something more than what could be delivered with the presence of a new coach.

The unveiling of a non-conference schedule that included in-state and regional opponents from BCS AQ leagues more than accomplished that. A sense of that old ECU football pride was revived and season ticket sales skyrocketed as a result.

The move even produced a couple of victories that commanded national headlines and placed the Pirates into way-too-early conversations about emerging as a BCS buster.

However, the number of lopsided losses — especially of late — have far outnumbered the headline-catching wins. And it’s growing more difficult to identify the benefits of getting routinely hammered by AQ opponents as a result.

It’s certainly not the scheduling model Boise State leveraged to build itself into a legitimate power.

Instead, the Broncos loaded up on non-conference cupcakes that they routinely ran into the ground. That, combined with a laugher of a conference schedule, delivered multiple undefeated seasons and BCS bowl berths.

Looking back, you have to wonder if that would have been a possibility for the Pirates. But with the unveiling of a playoff system, and a selection committee that will determine its makeup, making a similar splash will be more difficult moving forward.

With the oversized television revenue that will accompany it, the competitive gap is also likely to rise between the current AQ leagues and those outside of them. As a result, it will grow increasingly more difficult for ECU to compete with middling ACC opponents.

Sticking with committee

After a six-carry, 68-yard performance against the Tar Heels, it would seem Pirates running back Vintavious Cooper has earned more touches. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Following the Pirates loss to North Carolina, Pirates Coach Ruffin McNeill said he plans to stick with his by-committee approach to the position.

“We want to keep shuffling,” McNeill said. “We want a running back by committee. We don’t want one running back. I learned my lesson a little bit with that last year.

"But ‘Tay’ does a good job. ‘Tay’ has a knack for running behind his pads and being his own blocker at times.”

You can certainly understand the notion of having more than one dependable back, but at the same time you have to wonder why the ECU staff seems to resist the option of establishing a go-to guy. That could partially explain some of the Pirates’ offensive woes.

Cooper, who averages 5.5 yards per carry, was one of the offensive catalysts behind the Pirates’ second half surge last week at Southern Miss. He also was the offensive bright spot against the Heels Saturday.

Perhaps a bigger dose of Cooper is part of the prescription the ECU offense desperately needs.

Lack of pressure

It’s easy to target the ECU secondary with criticism following Heels’ quarterback Bryn Renner’s 321-yard, two touchdown performance on Saturday. There was no shortage of open receivers from which to choose.

But there also was no shortage of time for Renner to properly run through his progressions.

The Pirates’ inability to apply pressure on Renner was as much at fault for ECU’s defensive shortcomings in the game as the secondary’s inability to cover. After unleashing a barrage of blitzes in Hattiesburg last Saturday, you had to figure that would be part of the plan against the less mobile Renner.

Instead the Pirates seemed more content to rush four and drop seven against the Heels’ spread attack. The result was a seemingly effortless, yet successful day for Renner.

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09/24/2012 12:52 AM

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