Game No. 13: ECU 38, Houston 32
Saturday, December 5, 2009
By Denny O'Brien
Coach's vision pays off
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(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
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
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
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
a message to Denny O'Brien.
Dig into Denny
O'Brien's Bonesville archives.
Game No. 13: ECU 38, Houston 32
12/06/2009 03:09:01 AM