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Game No. 14: Kentucky 25, ECU 19


Game Slants
Saturday, January 3, 2009

By Denny O'Brien

Special season lacks fitting end

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

MEMPHIS — It’s ironic that East Carolina sails into the off-season on a wave of special teams miscues.

After beginning the season with a dramatic blocked punt and touchdown return to beat Virginia Tech, the Pirates closed with a huge helping of blunders that completely evaporated a commanding 16-3 halftime lead in the 50th AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

It put a huge damper on a season that was otherwise special. But the Pirates were anything but special when their kicking team took the field.

“Special teams played a huge role,” East Carolina coach Skip Holtz. “I thought that Matt Dodge kicked the ball pretty inconsistently today from what he had been doing.

“We just didn’t get it done on special teams. I give Kentucky a lot of credit. They are No. 4 I believe in the country in kickoff returns. They are a talented football team. Obviously that was the difference in the football game.”

It certainly turned the momentum into a dark shade of Kentucky blue. David Jones’ 99-yard touchdown on a kickoff return to open the second half cut a two-score lead to one, and that was followed moments later by a shanked punt that set the stage for the tying score.

The Pirates never fully recovered from that disappointing sequence after thoroughly dominating the first 30 minutes of play. Though the defense maintained a relatively high level of play throughout most of the game, the offense never regained the form that torched the Kentucky D with several big plays before intermission.

Truthfully, ECU should have had at least one more, but three near-certain Patrick Pinkney touchdown passes fell painfully to the turf just seconds before the half. That and Jones’ kickoff return proved a critical 14-point swing that sunk the Pirates in the end 25-19.

“Nobody hung their head,” Holtz said about his team’s response to the special teams blunders. “They kept competing. The one thing that this team hasn’t done all year is they haven’t hung their head.

“I told them in the locker room that they don’t have anything to be embarrassed about. They’ve never hung their head and they’ve never quit. I think we’ve got incredible senior leadership on this team.”

That’s why it seemed the stage might have been set for that storybook ending. After J.R. Rogers fielded a kickoff from his knee on the one yard line with three minutes remaining – another special teams snafu – the Pirates stood 99 yards and three minutes away from the go-ahead score.

It would have been fitting for a team that has overcome so much to climb one final mountain, a pretty big one when you consider the skill and resilience of the Kentucky defense. But ECU has climbed much bigger ones this season and has survived its share of land mines along the way.

In a season during which adversity could have ripped East Carolina apart, these Pirates gelled into an unbreakable bunch. After building a strong foundation with wins over Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Tulane to open the season, there was a three-game skid that could have proven a fatal blow.

For some teams it probably would have. When you consider the suspensions and injuries that looted the Pirates’ depth chart, there was enough personnel turnover to make the most talent-rich program second-guess their prospects.

Those 99 yards didn’t seem quite as far given the circumstances ECU has already faced this season. And when you consider how the Pirates have navigated through the turbulent swells of 2008, you have to admit that a memorable march to paydirt seemed something they could attain.

Perhaps if the ECU offense had Jamar Bryant, Dwayne Harris, T.J. Lee, Darryl Freeney, Jonathan Williams, and Dominque Lindsay, it would have. But in the end the Pirates were too short on offensive playmakers and on the scoreboard.

Though hardly spectacular – far from it – the kicking game wasn’t solely responsible for this 25-19 loss. Both the offense and defense played critical roles, especially near the end.

Pinkney transformed from a magician who confidently shredded a talented Wildcats secondary in the first half to a befuddled quarterback after intermission. He struggled to find his rhythm in the second half as the ECU offense down-shifted into neutral.

Then there was Norman Whitley’s fumble that was swallowed by Wildcats defensive end Ventrell Jenkins and returned 56 yards for the fatal blow.

Defensively the Pirates, stout and solid for most of the evening, couldn’t get that final stop when they needed it. Kentucky successfully drained the final 2:34 with 33 hard-earned yards on the ground.

Truthfully, though, the East Carolina defense should have never been backed into that position. And the offense should have spent much of the second half in all-out protection mode, carefully nursing the football and its two-touchdown lead.

Special teams didn’t exactly cooperate, though. That tarnished the finish to an otherwise special season.

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01/03/2009 04:56:00 AM

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