Game No. 13: ECU 27, Tulsa 24
Sunday, December 7, 2008
By Denny O'Brien
Resilience wins championships
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TULSA — The most significant detail about
East Carolina’s 27-24 win over Tulsa in the Conference USA championship game
wasn’t the final score.
It also wasn’t when head coach Skip Holtz
hoisted the championship trophy, or when he formally accepted the invitation
to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.
While each of those achievement has added
new treasures to the chest of East Carolina football memories, they mark
only the end for a team that was determined to claim its first C-USA title,
not the means.
To a certain degree, the accomplishments of
this ECU football team seem more the footnote to the 2008 season than the
headline that defines it. For a special team that completed such a special
season, it’s hard to believe that it encountered so much adversity — little
of which it escaped unscathed — and won the C-USA championship that for
years had eluded it.
But that’s what this resilient East
Carolina team has done this fall. Fueled by desire and determination, the
Pirates had the teamwork and chemistry to overcome the injuries and
suspensions that gobbled up much of the two-deep chart.
“I’m really proud of this football team for
everything that they have overcome,” Pirates Coach Skip Holtz said. “For
everything that they have overcome to be here, just to be able to get into
“When you talk about the significant amount
of injuries and the number of starters and everything else, and the way one
player after another has had to step up on this football team.
"Once we got back into the conference
(games), this football team, these seniors, these guys up here really drew a
line in the sand and said all of the out of conference stuff is done. We
want a conference championship.”
Just how much East Carolina wanted that
conference championship was evident throughout a closing stretch during
which the Pirates finished 6-1. Battered and bruised, the Pirates may have
done their share of limping, but they didn’t do much falling.
On rare occasions when it did, ECU’s tough
bunch kept getting up. That again was the case each time Zack Slate and
Jeremy Chambliss hit the turf clutching a limb Saturday, and each time when
they returned to the huddle.
It was apparent throughout the victory over
the Golden Hurricane that East Carolina was a team that would not be denied
carrying out its mission. The Pirates punctuated that notion soon after they
received the ball with 8:56 remaining and the score tied at 24.
The 53 yards ECU traveled in 12 plays won’t
go down as the most memorable drive in its football history, or the
prettiest. The Pirates labored down the field — most of it the ground — in
7:13 and kicked a 36-yard field goal with a shade less than two minutes
It was the type of blue collar drive in
which East Carolina mostly willed its way down the field, just like it did a
against Central Florida and two
against UAB with the divisional
title on the line.
“The big talk was that we want to be
champions,” Holtz said of ECU’s goals. “There are five different kinds of
champions, and we’ve talked about them. Before this year, we had
accomplished one of them. We had become bowl champions.
"We put it out there. We weren’t afraid to
talk about it and we weren’t afraid to lay it out there and say this is what
we want and now we’ve got to go produce. They got it done.”
Even more impressively, they did it the
In a league defined by its arcade offenses,
the Pirates rode a wave of defense to the championship. In a match-up of
contrasting styles Saturday, ECU proved that grind and grit can still
compete with a constant wheel and deal approach.
If championships were determined by box
scores, East Carolina would have stood little chance against Tulsa’s
touchdown machine. In almost every offensive category, the Golden Hurricane
held a significant advantage, including more than a 100-yard edge in total
offense (399-278) and twice as many first downs (28-14).
About the only offensive battle Tulsa
couldn’t claim Saturday was the turnover one, and the margin no doubt proved
significant. The Pirates forced seven turnovers and surrendered only one,
prompting Tulsa Coach Todd Graham to emphasize how his team gift-wrapped the
championship for ECU.
With all due respect to Graham, a team that
has experienced East Carolina’s calamity isn’t given anything. That was
nowhere near the case on Saturday, either.
East Carolina is the C-USA champion because
it still believed in itself and its mission when many issued the Pirates a
standing eight count at midseason. When many teams could have folded, the
Pirates picked themselves off the mat and made a recommitment to doing
whatever was required to capture a conference crown.
That often meant winning ugly along the
way, forfeiting the battle of style points before each game began. It was a
formula that, in the end, proved that an ugly duckling could outlast a pond
of C-USA offensive swans.
There is no overlooking the significance of
ECU’s victory over Tulsa in the C-USA championship game. But it was the
means that led to the team's league title that truly defines it as champion.
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12/07/2008 04:07:26 AM