Out of Line
by Josh Spence

The East Carolina football team is now 0‑2 after another five-point loss on the road.  I’m sure the coaching staff and players are looking forward to the home opener this weekend.  At this point, a string of five straight home games over six weeks must look pretty good.  Unfortunately, with the likes of West Virginia, Virginia and C-USA champ Tulsa coming to town, it doesn’t get much easier for the Pirates, especially if the they don’t get some help up front.

The single biggest reason for the Pirates' winless record is the play on the front lines.  East Carolina is inexperienced and not very deep on both the offensive and defensive front lines and they’re losing because of it.  Not that it is a surprise, Coach Holtz and company knew what they had when they started the season.  It’s just that now it’s being exposed to everyone else. 

There are no lanes to run through, Pinkney’s running for his life, and the defensive front is porous at best.  On offense, the size that ECU has lacked in the past is there, but the experience isn’t.  To the Pirates credit on defense, they are battling many late camp injuries that caused major changes to the depth chart.  Guys are moving positions and gaining experience on the fly, not a good combination for a team that wants to win now.  Despite that, the Pirate defense turned in a solid effort against UAB, forcing three turnovers and getting key stops, including a late game stop that set up the potential game‑winning drive.  Coach Holtz even called it the second-best defensive effort (1st WVU‑’05) he’s seen since becoming the Pirates' head man. 

ECU had its chances but came up short at in Birmingham, thanks in large part to some key mistakes.  At times it looked like UAB was trying to give the game away, but the Pirates just kept giving it right back.  Three total turnovers ultimately doomed the Pirates, most notably Philip Henry’s fumble into the end-zone on a potential game- winning reception from James Pinkney.  That play, ironically, came on 4th down and 15, with just over a minute to play. 

There were plenty of other mistakes that also cost ECU.  In other words, nobody was blaming Henry for the loss.  Come on, let’s be honest.  ECU should never have even had a chance in that game.  Had it not been for two Blazer fumbles inside the ECU five, UAB would have blown the Pirates' doors off.  And again, credit the Pirate defense, but the Blazers turned the ball over a total of three times, and ECU scored exactly zero points off of the UAB generosity.  In fact, ECU has forced five turnovers this year; all fumble recoveries, without a single point to show for it.

Brandon Fractious’ fumble in the fourth and James Pinkney’s first interception of the season towards the end of the 1st half were other costly examples of an offense that was for the most part ineffective. Pinkney looked out of rhythm, missing targets high for much of the first half.  Again, James had little time with which to work in the pocket.  The Pirates converted only one touchdown on the day, ironically, late in the fourth quarter when the team needed it most. 

It seemed that when the Pirates were committed to a vertical passing game the offense moved.  When ECU tried to control the clock and force the run, they had little success.  The strength of this team clearly lays in the skill position players on offense.   So why not sell out and go exclusively to the pass until someone can stop it?  Maybe use the pass to open the running lanes. 

ECU is averaging more than 280 yards passing over the first two games.  That’s 18th best in the country.  The Pirates passed for 280 yards versus UAB, and for the first time in a Pirate uniform, top receiver Aundrae Allison didn’t have a single catch. 

Sure, it’s easy for me to sit back and say what should be happening, and a whole different deal actually trying to do it.  But from my perspective, opening up the passing game a little more is what will ultimately help this team.  Give credit to the defense, they fought hard against the Blazers.  The offense just couldn’t stay on the field long enough to give them a break.  There are enough weapons on this offense that we can spread the ball around, and have enough options that the defense can know your passing and still not be able to stop it. 

The fact that ECU had a chance to win in the final minutes at UAB is simply amazing.  There are signs of some positive things coming out of ECU, but the mark of this team will be how they respond to these first two games.  With WVU on the horizon, you have to beat Memphis.  Losing is not an option.  That is a lot of pressure for a young team.  Can they handle it, or will they pack it in for a 3- or 4-win season?  We will see this Saturday if the Pirates can develop that can’t lose attitude, and actually have something to fight for against West Virginia. 

Josh Spence