Rice Could Derail ECU Goals
by Eric Gilmore

When the upperclassmen heard their former head coach mutter the ‘must-win’ slogan, it was to keep his job. A half decade later, the coaching cliché actually has some lasting implications.

Win, celebrate and wait. Lose, sweat and wait.

With two games remaining, the Pirates are a win away from a berth in the conference’s second championship game. A road win at Rice locks ECU into an improbable one-year reign as the Conference USA East Division champion, securing a slot in a Dec. 1 national television broadcast with a to-be-determined opponent.

A hiccup interrupts the Pirates’ plan. It erases the easy feeling associated with winning, namely a potential five-game winning streak. It abruptly flips the conference race, forcing Pirate fans from first-class to that uncomfortable middle seat between two burley women.

Southern Miss, who the Pirates downed 20-17 in overtime thanks to Travis Williams’ game-ending interception, has to lose one of their final two games for ECU to clinch the championship berth. USM hosts winnable games against UAB and Marshall to conclude their season.

Ironically, ECU’s season hinges not against their geographical and hated rival, but instead versus an academically oriented private school in Texas with a first-year head coach and the nation’s youngest offensive coordinator. Penciling in wins before the season started and Rice seemed like a sure bet. Now the Owls have to power to ruin the Pirates’ surprising upstart.

“We’ve got to come out and win this one,” said Mark Robinson, a junior defensive tackle. “If we don’t win this one, there’s a lot of things we’re putting at jeopardy. So this one we must win more than anything.”

In one game, the players have their season, some their careers, literally on the line. As the season’s outcome hangs in the balance, big plays and big mistakes become amplified.

“What’s at stake in this game is huge,” said Steve Shankweiler, ECU’s offensive coordinator. “This is the biggest game the school’s recent history.”

In the school’s 74-year history, ECU has never been featured in a conference championship tilt. Few border wars, instate rivalries or bowl games in rival this game’s impact.  “You play football to reach certain goals and those goals we have set in place are right there in their hands,” Shankweiler reiterated.

Fulfilling the program’s preseason and long-term goals stay in line with the team’s adopted mantra to stay ‘humble and hungry.’

“The way to succeed is to stay focused on controlling what we can control,” Holtz said after practice Tuesday. “And right now, we’ve been humble up to this point. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back about six wins.”

Remembering what gap to fill and what route to run becomes imperative toward a welcoming crowd at the Kinston airport. Losing focus and that enthusiasm that has rebounded their season could have a detrimental effect.

“We ought to be as hungry to go get this game as we were game one. And then let’s just focus on what we have to do to make sure we focus on this game to give ourselves the best chance to prepare to go in.”

ECU won a ‘statement game’ on the road at USM, but admittedly came out flat in front of a home crowd versus Tulsa, last season’s conference champion. After such an emotional win over Marshall at home to culminate Senior Day, Rice has the makings of a trap game.

“In November, when you’re playing still competitive football, it will come down to your focus,” said Greg Hudson, ECU’s defensive coordinator. “That has made our players focus on the task at hand and staying 1-0… If you focus on the little details, you don’t have to worry about the big picture.”

With a loss, ECU the big picture becomes a Hattiesburg-based television set. With a win, the big picture becomes crystal clear.

Eric Gilmore