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Friday, January 7, 2011
By Ron Cherubini
Staff Feature Writer

To panic, or not to panic: Here's some therapy

After experiencing 'the best of times, the worst of times,'
stage is set for fans to stay buckled in for stimulating ride

By Ron Cherubini
All rights reserved.

It has been more than a week since the Maryland Terrapins’ thumping of our beloved Pirates in the Military Bowl and — aside from game-tracking some of the East Carolina-Clemson basketball game the night of the mugging at RFK Stadium — it has been hard for me to look at anything East Carolina.

Like most in the Pirate Nation, I take ECU's performance on the football field personally. What we witnessed in that game in the nation's capital was painful. It was particularly painful because over the past five years, the program has become relevant again.

More than anything, I believe, there is the underlying fear that the fragile thing we call ECU football could free-fall back to the pre-Skip Holtz era. Losing infests a program much more quickly than winning takes root and blossoms.

But, for those out there that are harkening back to the — dare I even utter the words — the John Thompson years, I say… shaddup you face! Really? John Thompson?


When Ruffin McNeil took over the Pirates program last January, he came into an unstable situation. Skip Holtz flew the coop at the last minute, with a recruiting class up in the air and the program losing the largest senior class in all of college football. That's not to mention that nine departures came on defense, including NFL talents Linval Joseph, a junior, C.J. Wilson and Jay Ross.

The new staff inherited a collection of talent but injuries along the defensive front combined with a linebacking corps full of walk-ons and underperforming scholarship players made the mountain too high to climb in one season.

The team was not only fractured on defense, it was to have to break in a new quarterback — which history has shown to be overwhelmingly a losing proposition regardless of whether you are USC or UAB.

External expectations truly were for a fast and deep fall from championship level competitiveness. Inside, most reasonable people would have seen a .500 regular season as a strong indicator that the program was not rebuilding, but regrouping on a plateau before resuming the upward climb.

Coaching is an inexact science and most successful staffs are built on trust, confidence and complimentary skill sets, rather than the stitching together of name brands to run the various component parts. McNeil gambled by bringing in a contingent of relatively green coaches and handed the reigns of the offense and defense to two of the young guns in Lincoln Riley and Brian Mitchell — both competent coaches but each dealt vastly different hole cards when sitting down at the Pirate table.

Riley drew a pair of Aces. Mitchell cornered up a suited Jack-6. Where would you put your money on the outcomes?

We could have ended up with a one- or two-win season, but for the Pirates, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As Charles Dickens penned so eloquently, we saw the light and we saw the dark this year and the result was a success in many ways. We beat some good football teams and we lost to some bad teams. But we competed, which sets us up well for next season and beyond.

There is no question, Military Bowl aside, that the offense that East Carolina put on the field in 2010 is deadly. A year in, despite losses on the offensive line and the departure of Super Man, the offense on the field in 2011 will likely make us all look back on this year and think, “Wow, we were not as good as we thought.”

There is no denying that the offense faltered against Maryland, but, in fairness to the offense, until the bowl game, the only thing that stopped the ECU offense was the ECU offense.

On top of that, the Pirates were operating with a reshuffled offensive line that saw them breaking in a center live on game day… a position in a timing offense that must be well-calibrated and finely synced. It wasn’t. As a result, Maryland was the first team to really pressure this offense, and from that experience, the team and the coaches will learn and improve. Dominique Davis will improve. The receivers and linemen will improve. When you improve on a top-25 offense, the results may be beyond the limits of what the past has conditioned us to comprehend.

Defensively, the Pirates played well against Maryland for a half, perhaps better than they played all season, despite the losses to injuries and a fragile collective confidence that would require extensive therapy to rebuild. I try not to bash the defenders too much — they play hard. But no matter how Coach Mitchell tried to put a lion out there, the defense all along was just a paper lion, a makeshift unit patched together from week to week to fend off attacking offenses as best it could. We all knew that after the Navy debacle. This season, the wins came from the offense. But at RFK, the defense gave us a chance… which was about the best we could have hoped for under the circumstances.

Of course, most of us watching the team when it got off to a beautiful 5-2 start still had that thought floating around in our heads — Defense wins championships. It’s true… always has been on the football field. We witnessed it firsthand in 2008 and 2009, and we observed it again watching Central Florida this season. But with ECU's flavor of the Air Raid offense, we need a solid defense, not a stellar defense, and that is achievable, quickly.

The year was 1993.

The Pirates in 1992 fielded a defense that finished the season 105th in total defense (out of 107 teams), virtually what we are looking at heading into next season. In ’92, we were 98th in passing D, 106th in rushing D and 101st in scoring defense.

In came Larry Coyer in 1993 tasked with turning around the defense — the same task Coach Mitchell has ahead of him. With virtually the same personnel back for ECU from the ’92 campaign, Coyer was able to produce the country’s 47th best total defense.

Now, the offense on the 1993 team was not good, so the Pirates still did not produce a huge turnaround in the win-column, but to put that one-year defensive improvement into perspective relative to the offense the current team has, consider that the 2008 ECU defense was 41st in total defense and the 2009 edition was 71st and the Pirates won two league championships with offenses that were predictable, conservative, and not known for being able to score a ton a points each time out.

The point is, if we had the 2009 defensive output — 71st in the country — what would our record have been this season? Yeah… you got it… three-peat. Probably 10 wins. Stellar. The larger point is, Coyer showed that you can, indeed, turn things around drastically in a season.

Now, I am not advocating that Coach Mitchell should be fired in lieu of the next Coyer. What I am advocating is that the defensive staff be given a chance and the personnel to turn the defense around. It can be done and I am betting that Ruff will see to it that the defense is much more formidable next season, whether it means JUCOs in abundance or movement of lots of players. Ruff built a formidable defense (Texas Tech ranked 49th in total defense in 2009) in the Big 12 facing the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, and he can do so in Conference USA.

In C-USA, it doesn’t require great defense, only good defense, to win championships.

Never before, at least in my memory, was a path so clear for ECU in regards to what needs to be done to continue to move the program forward. I didn’t take this test out of fear that I would find that I am a pessimist by nature, but I really am seeing a glass that is half full for the Pirates.

If a 6-7 record, with a top-10 passing offense, a bowl appearance, and wins over N.C. State and Southern Miss is the baseline from which Ruff is building his program, then how can I not be pleased?

For me, the Military Bowl is so… last year.

February 2, 2011 can’t get here soon enough.

E-mail Ron Cherubini

Ron Cherubini Archives

01/07/2011 07:57 AM


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