Sunday, November 16, 2008
By Denny O'Brien
Attrition disrupts title quest
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HATTIESBURG — You could label it unfamiliar
territory for East Carolina, and you’d be dead right.
Not since the first week of September
against West Virginia had the Pirates been an underdog, but they sailed into
M.M. Roberts Stadium carrying that label on Saturday.
It was an odd role for a team already bowl
eligible, riding a three-game winning streak, firmly in control of
Conference USA’s East division, and facing a bunch that was fighting for its
postseason life. Maybe it was even a show of disrespect.
Whatever it was, many from Vegas to
Vicksburg believed Southern Miss would move one step closer to bowl
eligibility and put the Pirates’ title dreams on hold.
And for good reason. Though ECU entered the
in charge of its division, it did so
with a fairly noticeable limp. Injuries and suspensions have left the
Pirates a shell of the group that opened the season with victories
over Virginia Tech and
West Virginia, wins that propelled
them into the Top 15.
Then there’s history, which almost
assuredly factored into everyone’s thinking. ECU hasn’t exactly had its way
with Southern Miss, an understatement when you consider the Golden Eagles’
dominating 26-8 series advantage.
So it should have come as no surprise that
the Pirates lost 21-3 to rival USM and looked sloppy in the process. Given
the ever-lengthening injury report — which claimed a few more casualties on
Saturday — it has grown increasingly difficult for East Carolina to compete
with any team with most of its frontline talent available.
“It seems like every week you’ve got a new
look out there,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said. “This week wasn’t any
different. Right now, that’s affecting us greatly on both offense and
defense. The injuries have been hard.
"Right now we’re not good enough to just
line up and just move the ball up and down the field with the extent of the
injuries that we have and where we are right now.”
While it might be tempting to criticize
Holtz and his staff for Saturday’s performance, doing so would be
short-sighted given the bigger picture. It would completely overlook their
masterful work since halftime of the
loss at Virginia, a turning point
that has been marked by teamwork, chemistry, and urgency.
Those are hardly givens during times of
adversity, but definite necessities in response to losses to key personnel.
All those ingredients were present in the
blowout over Memphis and the
over Central Florida and
That East Carolina even controls its own
destiny for the conference title is a strong testimony to the
improvisational expertise of its coaching staff. It’s hard to imagine any
other team in C-USA — Tulsa included — overcoming the type of in-season
attrition the Pirates have experienced.
Since August, injuries and suspensions to
top performers have forced ECU to shuffle through three running backs,
experiment with numerous combinations at linebacker and in the secondary,
press green offensive and defensive linemen into action, and reluctantly
strip off a couple of redshirts.
Now the Pirates must account for the loss
of their best offensive player, receiver Dwayne Harris.
It’s the type of collective peril that
typically has a program looking forward to Spring Practice, not a January
bowl. Yet, with Marshall's loss to Central Florida on Saturday, the
still sit soundly in control of
their own destiny for the C-USA title.
“We’ve got to just shake this one off and
move on from here,” running back Norman Whitley said. “We’re still first in
the (division). We’ve still got a lot of things that we can do to get
“We’ve got UAB next week. That’s the focus
It’s exactly where the focus needs to be,
too. If the Pirates have learned one thing over the past two seasons, it’s
that they can’t judge an opponent by its résumé. You can bet that won’t
factor into player preparation for UAB this week.
Given the Pirates’ collective physical
condition, they couldn’t afford that approach against any opponent, let
alone one they’ve never beaten on the road. East Carolina is 0-for-Legion
Field in its history, leading many to genuinely believe there is some
legitimacy to the Birmingham curse.
At this stage it is more believable that a
medical spell has been cast over the Pirates, a merciless one that has woven
its way through the two-deep chart. That potion finally caught up to the
Pirates on Saturday, and it has made their championship hopes more tenuous.
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11/16/2008 12:48:34 AM