Game No. 14: Kentucky 25, ECU 19
Saturday, January 3, 2009
By Denny O'Brien
Special season lacks fitting
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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
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
“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
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
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