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Game No. 13: ECU 38, Houston 32


Game Slants
Saturday, December 5, 2009

By Denny O'Brien

Coach's vision pays off

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Skip Holtz

(Photo: ECU SID)

GREENVILLE — It’s not easy picking one play that stands out in East Carolina’s 38-32 victory over No. 18 Houston in Saturday’s Conference USA championship game. There are far too many to count.

Giavanni Ruffin’s 20-yard touchdown run with 6:39 remaining was certainly a candidate, considering that it pushed the Pirates ahead by two scores. So were each of senior safety Van Eskridge’s two interceptions, the last of which sealed the victory for ECU.

But if you had to pick one key moment that delivered a second consecutive C-USA title to East Carolina, you’ll have to rewind to December 3, 2004. That was when ECU athletics director Terry Holland hired Skip Holtz to succeed John Thompson as the Pirates’ coach.

What was perceived as a relatively unassuming hire back then can be labeled a grand slam today. When you consider where ECU was and where it is now, it’s obvious the Pirates are led by one of the rising stars in the business, one who clearly had a roadmap to restore success.

That blueprint was to alter ECU’s culture by placing much of the program’s emphasis on the side of the ball that for years was largely neglected. It went completely against the grain from the offensive foundation on which ECU was built and the direction in which most of C-USA was heading.

“I believe we said it then,” Holtz said recalling when he was first hired at ECU. “Defense wins championships. That’s what we’re going to have to be able to do.

“A guy like Linval Joseph was recruited as an offensive lineman. He was a guy that we looked at, and defense gets its first pick. If there is a guy wavering back and forth, I’m going to put him on the defensive side of the ball. We’ll try to do what we have to do to make do on the offensive side.”

While the offense did more than its share on Saturday, the conference championship game again followed that familiar Holtz formula. The Pirates did a little bending on defense — OK, a lot — forced a handful of turnovers, were sharp on special teams, and were efficient on offense.

Though they surrendered 557 yards of offense, ECU kept the Cougars well below their average in the statistic that matters most. And they did so by consistently pressuring Cougars quarterback Case Keenum, sacking him twice, intercepting him thrice, and hurrying him a dozen times more.

In a game featuring distinctly different football philosophies, East Carolina demonstrated that physical defense can rule a league of playground offenses. After proving that point now two years running, the Pirates have established a winning template that other league schools would be smart to follow.

“That was definitely our mindset,” Eskridge said. “That’s pretty much our mindset each and every Saturday. That’s kind of the mindset of the Eastern side of the (conference). We play more of a traditional style. There are a whole bunch of physical football teams over here on this side.

“Coming into the game, we knew they had a bunch of speed out there. They really like to play in space. We really emphasized whenever they caught the football that we made them pay for it. We took the fight to them.”

Many times when Keenum dinked and dunked to his pint-sized receivers, Eskridge and his teammates where there to deliver knee-buckling blows. Outside of a couple of big plays, ECU defensive coordinator Greg Hudson’s bunch kept the quick Cougars in front of them.

Though statistically this probably doesn’t register as the most dominating performance by the ECU defensive front, it should be remembered as one of their best. It held Houston to 30 meaningless yards rushing and chased Keenum all over Bagwell Field.

It also left quite an impression on a dejected Cougars coach Kevin Sumlin.

“They were able to rush four guys,” Sumlin said. “They are a big, veteran defensive line. I thought they were able to really, really get their big guys going early in the game. I thought we were able to control the tempo in the middle of the game and get them on their heels a little bit.

"But I thought their ability with their front four to push the pocket and deny the run was key in this game.”

For East Carolina to beat Houston, this game needed the appearance of a back alley fight, not a track meet. It mostly did. Though the Cougars tried their best to set the tempo with a hurry-up approach, the Pirates had enough punches to slow them down.

When Holtz arrived at ECU, there simply wasn’t much fight in the program, especially on defense. In the two years prior to his arrival, the Pirates routinely surrendered point totals in the 40s and 50s and often failed to muster scores in the 20s.

And that was on a good day.

Now on good days, ECU beats Top 25 opponents, wins C-USA championships, and earns berths to January bowls. The Pirates did all three on Saturday.

But to fully appreciate the historical significance of what occurred in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Saturday, you have to consider the preparation that led to it. East Carolina is the two-time defending C-USA champion because Holtz had a clear vision for accomplishing it.

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Game No. 13: ECU 38, Houston 32

12/06/2009 03:09:01 AM

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