Beating ACC teams has become routine for East Carolina under coach Ruffin McNeill.
Saturday’s rain-soaked 35-28 decision over Virginia Tech in Greenville was the Pirates’ fifth straight win over an ACC team. Compare that to ECU’s mark in the past five games (2-3) in its own conference, the American Athletic.
What was unusual about Saturday’s win was how ECU won the game. Junior quarterback James Summers ran 21 times for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Summers, who entered the game as a backup and change-of-pace to starter Blake Kemp, ran for more yards on Saturday than former quarterback Shane Carden had rushed for in any of his three seasons as ECU’s starter.
Under McNeill, only quarterback Dominique Davis (with 172 rushing yards in 2011) had more yards in a season than Summers had in one afternoon. Carden never rushed more than 12 times in any game in his 38 career starts.
The “Air Raid” offense, brought by McNeill from Texas Tech in 2010, rewrote the ECU record book with Carden as a passer. His 24 career rushing touchdowns do suggest he was effective runner but that’s not what the offense was designed to do.
The Pirates ranked No. 3 in the country in passing offense last year and No. 11 in 2013 and Carden threw for more than 4,000 yards in each of those seasons.
When ECU lost Carden’s expected replacement, third-year sophomore Kurt Benkert, before the season started with a knee injury, you figured McNeill and first-year offensive coordinator Dave Nichol would have to get creative.
The answer against Virginia Tech, after a difficult 45-21 conference road loss to Navy last week, turned out to be more Summers, who has a connection with two ACC schools.
A highly-touted prospect, Summers (6-3, 210 pounds) originally committed to N.C. State out of Greensboro Page in 2012 but changed his mind and signed with North Carolina. After he failed to qualify academically, Summers went to junior college in Mississippi. He finally got to ECU this year and had every intention of playing receiver. Then Benkert got hurt, the Pirates started 1-2 and the rest just might be history.
You’ll forgive Virginia Tech for not having a comprehensive scouting report on Summers, whose college career rushing total was 1 yard prior to Saturday.
“We just didn't really plan for it,” Virginia Tech defensive end Ken Ekanem said after the game, according to the Associated Press.
With the most difficult part of its schedule behind them, it will be interesting to see how the Pirates handle Summers, who completed 5 of 8 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown, and how they handle success.
While ECU has made a habit of beating ACC teams, it has also made a habit of following emotional wins with either a flat performance or an inexplicable loss. For whatever reason, ECU has an easier time getting ready, and playing at a high emotional level, against ACC teams UNC, N.C. State and Virginia Tech than it does for AAC teams Temple, Cincinnati or South Florida.
The team that slaughtered UNC 70-41 last September clearly wasn’t the same one that stumbled to a 2-4 finish last season.
How the Pirates respond next Saturday at Southern Methodist (1-3) will be telling for their fortunes in the American’s East division race. The best teams in the conference — Houston, Memphis, Navy — are on the other side of the river. Plus, ECU gets division foes Temple and Cincinnati, a pair of teams it lost to last year, at home in November.
Just a week after a demoralizing loss, the Pirates have new life. It’s up to them to make the most of the opportunity.
A weekly review of who’s trending:
Duke (UP): That’s exactly the type of response the Blue Devils needed after a disappointing home loss to Northwestern. The Devils bottled up Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, holding him to less than 2.5 yards per carry, and won what could be an important Coastal Division game with their defense.
Utah (UP): Did the Utes switch uniforms with Oregon? Sixty-two points at Autzen Stadium? What in the name of Chip Kelly got into Utah? Factor in Michigan’s dominance of Brigham Young and the Utes, who beat the Wolverines in the opener, might have the best resume in the country.
Arkansas (DOWN): This was supposed to be a breakthrough season for third-year coach Bret Bielema, instead the Razorbacks are 1-3 after an overtime loss to Texas A&M on Saturday. The bad news for Bielema is there’s still four ranked SEC West teams left on the schedule.
Auburn (DOWN): And Arkansas’ not even the biggest disappointment for a team that starts with the letter “A” from the SEC. Auburn began the season with designs on a national title, or at the very least, an SEC title. The Tigers are 2-2 after Saturday’s home loss to Mississippi State and 0-2 in the SEC. Good coaches can have bad seasons, too.