Pirates, Holtz Demanding Excellence

by Eric Gilmore

Of all the vivid memories from Saturday afternoon, my lasting impression wasn’t on the field. It wasn’t even inside the Dowdy-Ficklen confines. Sitting in a chair-back seat in the Ward Sports Medicine Building during the post-game press conference, I absorbed my media counterparts conversing about the game.

Being a student, it’s obvious where my allegiances lie. However, in that room all I heard was the cynical media making snide comments about whether or not Duke would go winless this year. True, Duke is a usual bottom dweller in the ACC. But comments such as “the receivers were slow”, “the corners weren’t athletic” and “Schneider was at best an average decision maker” drowned out my excitement over a Pirate victory.

That’s when it dawned on me. I had wanted ECU to win so badly that I convinced myself that the Blue Devils really were a legitimate opponent. No doubt that Duke head coach Ted Roof is doing an excellent job with the pieces he has in place, but ECU has always been a better team. The Pirates have always placed football first whereas Duke’s football importance falls somewhere near their top-ranked men’s tennis team.

Had John Thompson sunk my dear program so low that I had goose bumps while watching the Pirates squeak out a win over a team they shut out 38-0 on the road just five years ago? It didn’t feel right. Was I was settling? Pondering my thoughts, I concluded that ECU should have won by a larger margin.

But then, Skip Holtz reaffirmed my logic. In his immediate comments following his first win as ECU’s head man, he talked about missed opportunities, room for improvement and turnovers.

“I don’t think we played very well on offense,” said the former Notre Dame offensive coordinator. “We made some big plays, but we’ve got to get better up front. We’ve got to continue to progress up front as an offensive line.”

Here was a soaked Holtz, 20 minutes removed from his first Gatorade shower as ECU’s head coach. He was praising his team’s performance overall, but he was also nit picking certain aspects of the game.

“We turned the ball not only once, but twice on our end of the field. That’s unfair to our defense and you’re going to lose when you do that on a consistent basis.”

Fortunately for the Pirates, Duke was only able to convert only one touchdown off of the two early fumbles by Chris Johnson and Aundrae Allison.
“We got way too many shoot yourself in the foot penalties,” Holtz said referring to the game-high nine penalties.  “We kept going backwards.”

Reflecting back on the game, the first-year head coach was right. Eric Graham was guilty of a false start on 4th and short early in the game. The Pirates drive stalled when they were forced into a passing down.

Looking back, Travis Williams had an opportunity to make an open field tackle on 3rd and 6 to stifle a Duke drive. Inside, the sophomore corner missed the tackle and Duke went on to score a touchdown.

“We’ve got to continue to improve. We have a plan that we follow. We’ve got to get better to follow the plan, which are things like missed assignments, turnovers, penalties, being efficient in the red zone.”

After the past two years of forced “sunshine” in the post-game press conferences following 52-14 drubbings, listening to a coach talk about mistakes was refreshing. Even if they did do most things right, at least Holtz would recognize flaws rather than ignoring them.

Is everyone perfect? No. But rest assured, Skip Holtz will demand it from his team as this season progresses. Maybe then, the media might not by so cynical. And by that time, Duke will have proved their worth.

Eric Gilmore