When ECU plays at Alabama-Birmingham on Saturday night, there is much more at stake than just the opportunity to win its second road game of the year.
ECU (4-3 overall, 3-1 C-USA) is pursuing its first winning season and second bowl appearance under third-year coach Ruffin McNeill.
“It’s very important to us to make a bowl game this year,” receiver Justin Hardy said. “We didn’t go to a bowl game last year, and we take that personally. We need to get back to our winning tradition here, and we don’t want the same situation as last year where we have to win the last game to make it.”
The Pirates can take an important step Saturday night. The Blazers (1-5, 0-2) might not appear to be a tough opponent, but the Pirates are 1-3 on the road this season.
McNeill believes his team might be struggling to stay motivated on the road.
“When we go on road trips, it is up to the 67 players that we travel with to generate excitement,” McNeill said. “At home, we know the crowd will pick us up and help us get or keep momentum. But during road games it’s up to our players to do that job and help us get or keep momentum when swing plays happen.”
Obviously, the schedule has played a role in the road woes. South Carolina was undefeated and ranked No. 3 before losing last week at LSU. North Carolina is 5-2, and Central Florida was the prohibitive preseason favorite to win Conference-USA.
“I think we just need to stay excited and start fast,” Pirates linebacker Jeremy Grove said. “We’ve allowed teams to jump out to early leads in all three of our losses and that gets their fans into it. When you’re playing on the road, you can’t allow that to happen.”
If the Pirates can beat UAB at Legion Field, the road ahead smoothes out considerably.
Three of their final four games are at home. And none of their final five opponents currently has a winning record.
It all sets up nicely, but Hardy says he doesn’t doubt his opponents. “You can never be too comfortable during the season against any opponent,” Hardy said. “We have to come out and play our best game every week, and we think that’s good enough to win games.”
Grove said the Pirates are focused on one goal – making it back to a bowl game.
“We’ve talked about it and we want to win out the rest of the way,” he said. “We don’t want to let a bowl game slip away from us again”