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Pirate Notebook No. 357
Tuesday, September 15, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Pirates facing difficult gauntlet

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

A line is forming on the doorstep of the Bowl Championship Series. It includes a crowd of BCS outsiders who desperately want to pick the lock to big bowl riches.

With its narrow escape against Tulane, East Carolina remains one of those talking points for college pigskin pundits. And with each win, the Pirates will keep the spotlight on themselves and their quest for inclusion in the BCS's postseason jackpot games.

But what can’t be overlooked is how close the Pirates came on Saturday to severely damaging their chances of winning that elusive Conference USA championship.

Forget that it would have crippled any hopes of a BCS selection. A loss to Tulane would have created a walking-the-tightrope scenario in which another league loss could have exiled the Pirates to Tampa or Mobile.

“As a team, we have to be able to control the distractions and not let all of the junk get inside our head,” senior defense end Zack Slate said about the attention on the program. “It’s going to be a fight week in and week out.

“Any game this season is not going to be easy, especially if the ranking stays. The bullseye is on you, and so teams are going to be looking at you trying to get what you have.”

The target is getting bigger, too.

As long as a number is attached to the Pirates’ name, they will assume the unfamiliar role of the hunted. It’s one with which they looked mostly uncomfortable against Tulane, to which their four turnovers, seven penalties, and final exhale of relief will attest.

That ECU beat a solid Tulane club despite a sloppy performance and the adversity of losing two key contributors is definitely a good sign that it has matured as a program. Good teams find ways to win games that they otherwise shouldn’t.

There is a good chance the Pirates will face similar challenges down the road. Two games remain against ACC opponents, and the most difficult C-USA games are far from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

It’s certainly no stretch to think that Saturday’s near-coronary could become the norm, which is why we should probably dismiss any ECU-to-BCS discussion for the time being. Too many games, teams, distractions, and confusing math stand in the way of that goal.

To understate things, the Pirates’ road is more treacherous than any of the previous non-BCS schools that have qualified to date. Nobody faces a more ambitious non-conference schedule than ECU, and today’s C-USA is deeper and more balanced than yesterday’s Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference.

Then there’s the added obstacle of a league championship game. Utah, Boise State, and Hawaii were not required to win 13 to earn BCS inclusion, and neither will any of the other outside contenders this year.

At the very least the Pirates can now identify with the mental minefields against which the national contenders battle each week. ECU’s season has quickly become the football equivalent of March Madness, an ongoing journey of emotions and wits in a test of survive and advance.

It’s certainly true the opportunity to crash the big bowl gala has never been bigger. The Pirates have already beaten the two most talented teams on their schedule and will be favored in most, if not all, of the remaining games on the schedule.

But that also was the case against Tulane.

Moving forward, East Carolina will likely face everyone’s best effort. That starts next week in Carter-Finley Stadium where beating N.C. State is hardly a given. Despite the Wolfpack’s slow start, there isn’t a shortage of talent in West Raleigh and State's defense is just as good as Tulane’s. Maybe better.

The following week against high-scoring Houston will also be no cakewalk. Anytime you face a wide-open outfit like the Cougars, the afternoon is certain to include some anxiety.

If you look hard enough you can paint a season-sacking scenario in each of the Pirates’ remaining games. Heck, they drafted the blueprint for others to follow against Tulane.

ECU’s ability to recover in New Orleans on Saturday is evidence that its margin for error has widened. But it hasn’t widened to the point where the Pirates can focus on hypothetical BCS scenarios three weeks into the season.

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09/22/2008 04:11:10 AM

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