DeCock: Pirates deliver message, secure bowl eligibility

ldecock@newsobserver.comNovember 4, 2012 

— East Carolina’s players could hear it around town all week and they could see it in the half-full stadium Saturday. Pirate Nation was not happy. It was time to deliver a message, one way or another, fight or flight.

Jumping out to a four-touchdown lead on Houston, on the way to a 48-28 win, ought to do nicely. It was a statement coming not a moment too late for the Pirates, who not only quelled the swelling uprising of discontent but secured bowl eligibility for the sixth time in seven years.

“That comes with it,” sophomore wide receiver Justin Hardy said. “You’ve got those wishy-washy fans, I guess you could say – some, not all of them. Some that’s out there. Last week, we just lost and they was kind of doubting us. That was a good win for us this week, to come out and show everybody what we’re capable of.”

Players and coaches alike knew just how high the stakes were Saturday.

With a win, the Pirates would assure a return to a bowl game after last year’s hiccup and remain in contention for Conference USA’s East Division title, although they would need some help from Central Florida.

A loss might signal the beginning of the end of the Ruffin McNeill regime, with fans increasingly angry at the lack of momentum shown in three seasons under the former ECU defensive back, whose record now stands at 17-18. His predecessor, Skip Holtz, was 18-17 at this point despite taking over under far more difficult circumstances.

Last week’s crushing 56-28 loss to Navy was another blow, a state of affairs reflected in the number of empty seats at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on a perfect November day for football, with yawning unfilled expanses in the student sections and big-money purple chairback sections alike.

“It was a tough week,” McNeill said, an understatement that spoke volumes.

There was very little middle ground on offer. Fortunately for the Pirates, they scrambled onto the higher ground as quickly as possible.

Their struggling defense forced punts on Houston’s first five possessions, to the point where McNeill, faced with a field goal late in the first half, went for it on fourth down in the red zone instead, placing the ultimate confidence in his defense. The Pirates scored. (And then gave up a Houston touchdown in the final 47 seconds. Nevertheless.)

Really, that defense is the only thing stopping the Pirates from winning out at this point. They have an open date now – “We should win this game; we should beat ‘off,’ ” a McNeill malapropism – before going to Tulane and hosting Marshall. If the defense can sort itself out, and Saturday was clearly a step in the right direction, the offense will be just fine.

Shane Carden wasn’t the starting quarterback to begin the season, but there are no doubts about his status now, and he continues to get better with each passing week, as does running back Vintavious Cooper, a junior-college quarterback-turned-workhorse who posted his third straight 100-yard game Saturday.

All told, Saturday’s performance was about the polar opposite of the Navy debacle. It was a big step forward on a day when a loss would have represented a significant step back.

“I’m very proud of this team, the way we bounced back,” McNeill said. “We expect to be in bowls. We expect to be successful here. We expect to do things the right way.”

On that note, McNeill and East Carolina fans will be in full agreement, particularly after checking all those boxes on Saturday.

DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, Twitter: @LukeDeCock,

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