East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery said it once.
“We have to be better as a program,” he said.
Then Montgomery said it again.
“We have to make those plays,” Montgomery again said.
He added it once more, and again after that.
“Guys gave great effort,” Montgomery said. “Great effort does not win games.”
East Carolina’s 2016 season morphed itself into a 60-minute caricature in a 31-19 loss against Cincinnati on Saturday.
Pirates interceptions turned into Bearcats touchdowns. Long drives turned into drive-ending turnovers. Total offense of 504 yards produced 19 points.
ECU fought the same things — turnovers inside the opponent’s territory, empty yardage and the overall battle of emotion — that plagued it in losses to South Carolina, Central Florida and South Florida.
“Guys have to lock in, and some guys have to grow up,” said receiver Jimmy Williams, who scored ECU’s two touchdowns. “That’s part of being a college football player. We are eight weeks in, and we have to let that stuff go.”
Running back Anthony Scott gained 70 yards on 13 carries in support of newly minted starter James Summers. Yet Scott’s fumble inside the Bearcats’ 20-yard line with less than seven minutes to play was the night’s back breaker.
“It was really, really frustrating for our team to have the ball go on the ground,” Montgomery said.
Then the Pirates stopped the Bearcats’ offense and got the ball back on the Cincinnati side of the field. Except Summers was stoned behind his offensive linemen on a fourth-down play that sealed their fate.
“We’re trying to find the people who understand how important that one play is,” Montgomery said. “We had that one play at least four times today.”
Quarterback Philip Nelson struggled for words — as a senior who has battled through off-the-field issues and head injuries in his career, the football field may have been a source of happiness. He also feels the brunt of being the leader of a team who has lost five straight games — “We have faith in him,” Nelson said of Scott, who has five total fumbles — due to an offense that cannot finish drives when necessary.
“Not making big plays and turning the ball over, that’s really what it comes down to on offense,” Nelson said, his emotions fizzling at the surface.
After speaking with media, he sunk into the arms and shoulders of his family, those emotions boiling over. His emotions — not of anger, but self-disappointment and frustration of being a senior starting quarterback of a FBS program on a losing streak and with an offense whose output does not match its results.
Homecoming is upcoming, and a winnable game against Connecticut, which has lost four of five games, is on the horizon. But the mental aspect of the game of football, as Williams said, is weighing down on the Pirates.
“It’s getting to the point now where frustrations have to turn into victories,” Montgomery said.
For ECU’s sake, the “where” has to sprout from the sideline before the season reaches its conclusion.