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Game No. 13: ECU 27, Tulsa 24


Game Slants
Sunday, December 7, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Resilience wins championships

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

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 this game.

“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 remaining.

It was the type of blue collar drive in which East Carolina mostly willed its way down the field, just like it did a month ago against Central Florida and two weeks ago 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 unconventional way.

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

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