It may be early in the season but the Pirates have already arrived at a fork in the road, and as Yogi Berra once said, they’ll take it. Where it leads them is entirely up to them.
The morale meter is reading a bit low in Greenville these days. First, the Pirates let an opportunity to beat the Gators in Gainesville slip out of their hands, literally, when quarterback Blake Kemp committed an unforced fumble in the waning minutes of their 31-24 loss to Florida. Then, ECU once again got blown out of the water by Navy, 45-21, in its conference opener as the Midshipmen rushed for 415 yards and six touchdowns to hand the Pirates their second straight loss.
“They were down after the game,” ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith said. “We talked to them on Sunday, coach (Ruffin McNeill) did a good job with them. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery.”
The Pirates’ path is difficult. Saturday, ECU (1-2, 0-1 AAC) will host longtime nemesis Virginia Tech (2-1, 0-0 ACC), then head to Dallas to resume conference play against an improved SMU team, before hopping on a plane to Provo, Utah, to take on No. 22 BYU.
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In the blink of an eye, it’s conceivable that ECU could find itself 1-5 (0-2) and still looking for its first win over an FBS opponent when it returns home to face Tulsa in mid-October.
However, a victory at home versus a Power 5 team just might be the thing to snap the Pirates out of their funk and propel them through the remainder of their schedule.
“I think (this game) is very important because the next game we’re going to SMU; they’re a much better team, and then you got to go to BYU,” Smith said. “Those trips are going to be tough on us so we need to win this one.”
When asked if the players felt the magnitude of Saturday’s game Smith said, “I think they do. Subconsciously, yeah, they’re thinking that. I’ve only been back here two years and we haven’t been 1-3 since I’ve been back, and I don’t want to be 1-3.”
The Pirates have a 6-13 lifetime record against the Hokies but enter Saturday’s contest having won four straight games versus ACC opponents.
With defenses ganging up at the line of scrimmage and daring first-year starting quarterback Kemp to beat them with his arm, the Pirates have seen their running game vanish ever since Chris Hairston rushed for 154 yards and four scores versus FCS Towson in the season opener.
“They’re loading the box up on us and making us fight for it,” ECU coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I want to be able to run the football. When Shane (Carden) was able to make them pay for doing that, that’s when you see them start to loosen up the box a little bit.
“… I want to run the football and I’ve been disappointed that we haven’t been able to these last few games.”
The Pirates, who have averaged 34.1 points per game during McNeill’s first five years, are currently posting 24.3 points per game, which ranks 102nd nationally, while their 86.3 rushing yards per contest is the 125th-worst in the FBS.
All of which adds pressure on the defense to come up with stops while it waits for the Air Raid offense to learn how to fly.
“I guess I feel a little bit more pressure as the coordinator because every possession now we feel like we have to go out and stop them,” Smith said. “I’ve been pretty pleased with the offense. I think Kemp is getting better. Hopefully they score 100 this week.”
Try 20. East Carolina has lost 34 straight nonconference matchups when held below the 20-point mark, so look for that to be the key number this Saturday when it faces a Virginia Tech team that is 51-1 when holding nonconference opponents to 17 points or under.