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Insights and Observations

Henry's Highlights
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

By Henry Hinton

Holtz has Pirates positioned for run at title

Key conference wins speed up program's two-year journey from doormat to contender

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After the win over Southern Methodist two weeks ago, East Carolina coach Skip Holtz told his charges that the new mantra was to be “humble and hungry.”

It was a theme that seemed to stick like glue to a team still rebuilding but steadily improving.

You will have to forgive the coach if the four-mile smile on his face seems to be painted on this week. Holtz is in the midst of overseeing a turnaround in the Pirate program that could be of ‘coach of the year’ proportions.

If ECU continues to win, it will be favored in each of its remaining games. Yes, that includes the finale in Raleigh against N.C. State, a team that has already lost to two teams the Pirates have defeated.

While it is too early for a team with a 4-4 record to pop the champagne corks, winning creates winners and right now the Pirates seem destined to finish strong. The excitement that surrounds the program internally and among the fan base equals the way things were ten years ago in Greenville.

The victory over Southern Miss in Hattiesburg this past weekend changes the entire complexion of Conference USA East. Even though there are other teams with just two losses in the division, the Pirates arguably have the toughest part of their schedule behind them. And they got some help Tuesday night in the division race in the form of Southern Methodist's win over UAB, which defeated ECU earlier this season but now has three losses.

It remains to be seen how the year will end, but Holtz and his staff have put their team in position for one of the largest turnarounds in the country. The record is marred only with a poor performance against league leader Tulsa, which continues to look like the class of the conference. Losing on the road at Navy and UAB came in the season's first two weeks, a time when this team was still finding itself.

The only other loss came at the hands of West Virginia, a team in contention for the national championship. The play of ECU in that game was the first inkling that this team might be better than advertised in the preseason.

Continuing to win puts the Pirates on a collision course for a rematch of the Oct. 14th game in Greenville, where ECU was outclassed by Tulsa 31-10. The Golden Hurricane looks like a lock to win the West Division of C-USA and would most likely host the postseason conference championship game on Dec. 1. The team with the highest percentage of conference wins hosts the game.

The question is whether Holtz’s players have learned how to handle being winners. When the target is on your back there is added pressure. This weekend’s game at Central Florida will be a good test as it will be the first time the Pirates have seemingly entered a game as the favorite with so much on the line.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing about this particular ECU team is the play of the defense. Defensive coordinator Greg Hudson and his staff have brought a new expectation to the level of play and it is paying huge dividends. Displaying amazing team speed and a new toughness, the Pirates have been nothing short of brilliant most of the time and with the exception of only a few games. They have exhibited a spirit on that side of the ball not seen at ECU in years.

Winning a game like the one Saturday night in Hattiesburg has to add a swagger to the step of a defensive squad that has answered the bell when challenged. Wisely, Holtz has downplayed this all week, saying it is now about playing one game at a time. Classic coachspeak, but truer words were never spoken.

There is no question, however, that if his players answer his request to stay ‘hungry and humble,’ they have what it takes to go all the way to the championship game. And that is a huge step for a program that won three games in the two years before Holtz’s arrival.

Keep your holiday plans open. At a minimum this team is going to a bowl.

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This page updated 04/21/08 07:01 PM.

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