The East Carolina football team filed off the field at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday evening after a 20-15 loss to South Carolina.
It was a somber group, countless manhours invested in an undesired outcome.
A fan, presumably a South Carolina supporter judging from his garnet shirt, yelled, “You boys played your hearts out.”
The effort certainly couldn’t be faulted. It was the execution that was lacking on some deep forays into the red zone.
The Pirates won some respect even if they absorbed their first loss in the Scottie Montgomery coaching era. A moral victory has little value.
It’s sometimes said that statistics are for losers and ECU had both — stats and a defeat. Total yardage was 519-312 in the Pirates’ favor. ECU ruled 35-13 in first downs and had ball possession for close to two-thirds of the game.
Three turnovers inside the USC 7-yard line were the main factor that kept the Pirates (2-1) from making a 3-0 start.
“It reminded me of Temple two years ago,” said offensive lineman J.T. Boyd. “But that’s on us up front. We’ve got to make a clean pass so nobody gets touched to the end zone.”
Against the Owls in Philadelphia in 2014, ECU lost five fumbles in a 20-10 defeat. The Pirates had a 428-135 command in total yardage. It was about 40 degrees warmer at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday but turnovers were certainly similar in their impact on the outcome.
“It’s frustrating but the game’s over and done with,” Boyd said. “We’ve got to look toward Virginia Tech now. There’s nothing we can change about it. Defense played their hearts out. Offensively, we’ve got to fix our mistakes. . . . We’ve got to come and attack and fix the mistakes from today, get ready for Virginia Tech. They have a great defense as well. It’s going to be another battle up front. We’ve got to make sure we can protect the quarterback and the running backs.”
ECU visits the Hokies (2-1) for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
The Pirates’ senior center said the early deficit didn’t get his team down.
“I saw a lot of heart,” Boyd said. “Everybody was cheering each other along on the sideline. Offense backed the defense. Defense backed the offense and everybody had a no-quit attitude.”
Boyd’s roommate, Zay Jones, had a school-record 22 catches for 190 yards.
“He was phenomenal,” Boyd said. “He puts in the work. He deserves to play like that. He’s watching film like that all the time at the house. He’s running extra routes with Phil [ECU quarterback Philip Nelson] after practice. Those two deserve to have good games and they put on for the team like they should.”
Nelson completed 44 of 57 passes for 400 yards with one score and two interceptions, both deep in USC territory.
The miscues in the red zone were a matter of poor execution, according to the veteran on the offensive front.
“Everything we did today we practiced,” Boyd said. “For the situations we were in, the calls were correct. We’ve just got to execute up front and get those guys in the end zone untouched.”
After giving up two TDs in the opening five minutes, the ECU defense settled in and only yielded two field goals the rest of the way.
“I’m glad that we kept fighting and I’m glad that we really have a good brotherhood,” said senior defensive back Terrell Richardson, who had four solo tackles and a quarterback hurry. “We stuck together no matter what. We stood together.”
True freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain of the Gamecocks had scoring runs of nine and 10 yards on USC’s first two possessions.
“We got punched in the mouth,” Richardson said. “It was the first time we got punched in the mouth but I liked the way we handled it. I liked the way we stayed together and kept fighting.”
Richardson commented on the mood in the locker room.
“We just talked to each other,” he said. “We’ve got to stay more disciplined. We made a lot of mistakes, like day one mistakes that we just can’t make. We’re going to go back, watch the film and correct our mistakes. . . . We knew we were going to have to bring our hardhats because they do have a ton of big, physical offensive linemen. They’re a little bigger, but we were ready to play. We just made mistakes.”
The Pirates remain undaunted in their competitive spirit.
“We’re willing to compete, no matter what,” Richardson said. “17-0, we just wanted to have a chance to win that game. . . . You can’t get those seven or eight minutes back but I’m glad we kept fighting. . . . We just had to get used to their physicality. I believe they’re the most physical team we’ve played so far this year and they were confident. We just had to take the fight to them.”
South Carolina played McIlwain exclusively at quarterback. He completed 16 of 28 passes for 195 yards on a turnover-free day for the Gamecocks.
“He’s a good athlete,” Richardson said. “I wish him the best the rest of the season.”
The Pirates spent some time preparing for Perry Orth, a pocket passer who had completed 20 of 36 for 235 yards with one interception in South Carolina’s 1-1 start.
“We prepared for both,” Richardson said. “We thought we were going to get more of the running quarterback [McIlwain] but we were prepared for both of them in the game plan.”
Richardson talked about the crowd of 80,384, the seventh largest gathering ever to see the Pirates on the road.
“We had 50,000 at Dowdy-Fick,” he said of a 33-30 win over N.C. State on Sept. 10 that drew 50,719 to ECU’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, the second largest home crowd ever for the Pirates. “It’s kind of hard to tell the difference between 50 and 80 but it was a little different. We tried to feed off each other’s energy as a team and not let the crowd affect us.”
Nelson was understandably downcast.
“Obviously, the big thing is finishing,” said the ECU slinger. “We didn’t finish at all and that starts with me. As a quarterback, I’ve got to be able to help the offense finish. Our defense played absolutely flawless. We couldn’t ask them to do anything more than they did. We just need to finish and execute.
“It all starts with me. That’s what I signed up for. When we win, I’m the hero but when we lose, I’m the goat. That’s just something I need to work on, stay positive, have a positive attitude and come back to work.”
A lot of people, including the ECU quarterback, were left to ponder what might have been.
“The plays were left out there for us to make,” Nelson said. “It’s frustrating when you are able to move the ball. It makes it 10 times worse. . . . Poor execution. That’s all it comes down to. We didn’t focus and finish. That’s a big thing that Coach Mo hits on all the time and we just didn’t do it today. . . . We did a good job sticking in there. I’m just at a loss for words at how well we could move the ball up and down the field and not finish. We never once quit. I’m proud of our guys for that.”
The Nelson to Jones connection was designed to produce in the trip to SEC country — and it did.
“Our game plan this week involved a lot of getting Zay the ball, trying to put him in positions to be able to make plays,” Nelson said. “The coaches called the plays. I go through my reads and he finds the ball. That’s just our offense.”
Nelson said ECU didn’t panic despite the 17-0 deficit.
“At that point we knew it was just one drive at a time,” Nelson said. “That’s my big thing — one play at a time, one drive at a time. We can’t score 17 points in one play. When it comes to that standpoint, we had the right mentality.”
When ECU scored its first touchdown with 2:35 left in the game on a 4-yard toss from Nelson to Devin Anderson, the Pirates, down 20-15, went for a two-point conversion to try and get within a field goal.
Jones took a pitch and rolled left, looking for Nelson, who had released into the left side of the end zone.
“It was a little throw back pass there,” Nelson said. “They did a good job covering it. They really did. I tried to fight back for the ball, trying to get a call, but… life goes on.”
Did Nelson think it was defensive pass interference?
“That’s not my place to say,” he replied.
Nelson felt the Pirates were prepared for the environment.
“Our coaches did a great job,” Nelson said. “That’s exactly what we were expecting.”
ECU had simulated crowd noise at practice.
“The practice field was louder,” Nelson said. “That’s no excuse. It’s just poor execution on our part.”