GREENVILLE — The numbers didn't lie. Neither did East Carolina leader Patrick Pinkney.
At the end of a way-too-testy 29-24 win for the Pirates over Appalachian State, the senior quarterback was among the first purple people to state the obvious.
"We've got to pick up the pace -- fast, really fast," Pinkney said.
To that, he can get a fast "Amen" from thousands of ECU fans.
The sputtering offensive unit Pinkney directed Saturday in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will get the Pirates nowhere fast in their upcoming games against West Virginia (3:30 p.m., Saturday, ESPN360) and North Carolina (noon, Sept. 19, ESPN), both on the road, during the next two weeks.
That's not to imply the ECU defense looked loaded for big game against the Mountaineers. Shortly into the second half, those defenders came up winded and wobbly in the face of an Appalachian State attack that sliced deeply into deficits of 24-0 and then 29-7.
The Pirates' best defenders -- seniors C.J. Wilson and Van Eskridge -- spent lots of time on the sidelines battling cramps and exhaustion, while reserve ASU quarterback Travaris Cadet chopped apart the unit and put his team in position to win on its final possession.
But little about ECU's package was more surprising than the manner in which Pinkney struggled. He was picked off twice, went wild-high early and managed only 131 yards passing. The lone throw that qualified for highlight material was a deep corner route for a touchdown to newcomer Reyn Willis with about four minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Calling Pinkney's work "not his best," and not nearly as efficient as he can be, ECU coach Skip Holtz said the entire passing game needs fast attention. Pinkney agreed. From there, little worked in the pass game.
"I don't know why. I don't think it's really just one thing, but I wasn't sharp," he said. "I felt good, the atmosphere was great, and I had enough time. I just couldn't get my momentum."
In reality, the pass protection wasn't exactly all that. Three Pinkney passes were blocked at the line of scrimmage by ASU's smallish but quick defenders. On a couple of other occasions he was victimized by dropped on-target balls.
"I guess things like that happen sometimes in opening games," he said. "That's what I'm going to believe. I'm going to feel but so bad about a win, that's for sure. That was a very good team we played. We got off a nice lead, but I never once thought it was going to be an easy game or anything like that. You knew those guys came here to give us their best shot. They weren't going to leave before they did."
To some extent, Holtz was equally philosophical. On an afternoon when Ohio State got pushed around some by Navy and Iowa was barely able to escape Northern Iowa, the Pirates coach was in no danger of leaping overboard.
"In the second half, that might be as ugly as it gets from an offensive standpoint ... but if the adage is true that you improve more from first to second game, then I think we have a chance to be pretty good," Holtz said.
Which makes sense in theory.
It's difficult, for instance, to think Pinkney won't settle down and be more productive even under the heat of playing at West Virginia. And while the defense was outplayed and banged up physically by the Mountaineers, the Pirates defenders still rate among the most experienced units in the country. The kicking game actually got a lift from the performance of place-kicker Ben Hartman, who came off a summer of hip trouble to kick a couple of field goals.
None of that, however, changes the fact that the Pirates were in position to win a breather Saturday only to come within a play or two of going the way of Michigan two years ago in its opener against ASU. Plus, who only knows what might have happened had Mountaineers star quarterback Armanti Edwards been healthy enough to play?
But it is possible that a shock to the system can serve as long-range motivation. Just a year ago in Charlotte, the Pirates stunned Virginia Tech and then West Virginia only to retreat briefly. The Hokies recovered nicely and went on to win the ACC championship and Orange Bowl.
The Pirates dodged a dose of their own medicine Saturday, but improvement is a must and Pinkney has to be the starting point.
caulton.tudor@newsobserver .com or 919-829-8946