While East Carolina was taking an ego-gratifying 33-30 win over N.C. State on Sept. 10, Central Florida was absorbing a 51-14 pounding at Michigan, a combination of results that seemed to indicate the Pirates could get off to a 1-0 start in the American Athletic Conference less than a month later.
To the Knights credit, they did not allow their ill-fated trip to the Big House to define them as a team.
UCF has picked up the pieces from a winless season in 2015 that saw George O’Leary step away as head coach. Danny Barrett took over as interim coach for the last four games last year in which the Knights were outscored 185-47, including a 44-7 home loss to East Carolina.
Their 47-29 win over the Pirates on Saturday indicated that first-year UCF coach Scott Frost has the program rolling on the road to recovery. Frost played at Stanford and Nebraska, for legendary coaches Bill Walsh and Tom Osborne, respectively. As quarterback, he helped the Cornhuskers to a 42-17 Orange Bowl win over Peyton Manning and Tennessee, earning a share of the 1997 national championship for Nebraska (13-0).
During his six-year NFL career, Frost played for staffs that included Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden.
He spent six years at Oregon and was offensive coordinator for the Ducks in 2014 when quarterback Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy.
That’s a pretty impressive resume.
The Knights (3-2) kept their composure despite an early 7-0 Pirates lead and responded with a surge after ECU (2-3) trimmed a 23-7 deficit to 23-21 early in the fourth quarter.
“They have a much better offense but, defensively, they gave us just about every look that they could possibly give,” said Jimmy Williams, who had seven catches for 145 yards for the Pirates. ” . . . They just gave us a lot of looks and they play hard. Every single guy out there, they played hard. That’s the biggest thing from their defense. They played hard.”
ECU senior offensive lineman J.T. Boyd could also see a difference in UCF.
“Last year, we played them at the end of the season (Nov. 19) so I’m not sure what their mentality was like, but they have a new coaching staff,” Boyd noted. “They have new people up front as well. Their leadership has improved because they were very physical and very well-coached up front. They have more discipline. They played a great game.”
Pirates need improvement, too
UCF made dramatic corrections over the course of several weeks. ECU needs to make a quantum leap in a matter of days before taking on South Florida in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Saturday at noon.
The Bulls overcame a 1-3 start last season to go 8-5 with a 22-17 win in Greenville on Nov. 7. The preseason AAC East Division favorites are 4-1 after winning their league opener 45-20 at Cincinnati on Saturday.
Pirates quarterback Philip Nelson went out in the third quarter against UCF after a targeting hit. ECU played Gardner Minshew, who coach Scottie Montgomery and staff had hoped to redshirt.
“We’ve got to be better up front,” Boyd said. “We can’t have our quarterback getting hit like that. Phil’s a great player. He’s one of our leaders. Having him in the game can put us in a lot of situations to win and having him come out because of us is very disturbing. It’s disturbing to all of us up front.
“Gardner came in and he did the best that he could. We couldn’t even protect him either. We’ve just got to do some soul searching up front and be able to protect our QB and get the run game established.”
ECU’s ground game managed just 48 yards on 32 rushes. Part of that is attributable to the fact that ECU had to be one-dimensional offensively and use its passing game to try and overcome UCF’s lead. Nelson and Minshew combined for 470 passing yards.
The Pirates committed five turnovers to two for the Knights, a telling number as well.
ECU enters work zone
Montgomery was asked what the Pirates could do to correct problems in punt/kick coverage. A long kickoff return to start the game at South Carolina set up an early score and got the Gamecocks on their way to a 20-15 win. Virginia Tech’s first touchdown in a 54-17 victory over ECU came on an 87-yard punt return. Adrian Killins had a 100-yard kickoff return for a TD to get UCF rolling with 23 unanswered points on Saturday.
Montgomery said there isn’t a whole lot to do other than evaluate personnel and keep working in practice.
The Pirates have to continue preparing diligently and then carry their efforts in practice into games.
“Offense has been making the defense better,” said ECU linebacker Dayon Pratt. “Defense has been making the offense better but, of course, we still have weaknesses that we need to turn to strengths. This week, our weaknesses is what we’re going to pick on on both sides of the ball and make those strengths.”
An 0-1 start in the AAC leaves ECU with seven league games to become a factor in the conference race and achieve bowl eligibility.
“It set us back a little bit as far as the momentum but we’re going to get the momentum back,” Pratt said. “It’s preparation for the next game. We don’t want to put this too far in the past because we still want to live in this moment and know how it feels. We’re going to use this as fuel.”
Quay Johnson had four catches for 110 yards and turned Minshew’s first pass at ECU into a 75-yard touchdown.
“It’s great to do something personally but I would rather take that away and have a win,” Johnson said. “It’s been tough the past few weeks but we’ve just got to learn how to stay focused.”
The most frustrating thing, according to Johnson, is that practice performance has not carried over into recent games.
“Just having great weeks of practice and coming out here and not being able to finish, not being able to show what we’ve done and how hard we’ve worked throughout the week,” Johnson said after the UCF game when asked about the most disappointing aspect of the outcome.
Red zone struggles continued as the Pirates were just three for seven in terms of scoring from inside the opposition’s 20-yard line on Saturday.
“Just lack of focus and physicality,” Johnson said. “We just need to continue to learn how to trust each other and just finish.”
Williams also expects ECU to bounce back.
“Being back at home, first conference game — I mean you just start yourself off on a bad foot.,” Williams said. “You can’t lose in front of your home fans and you can’t lose conference games. Us losing this first conference game — we’re going to come back stronger.”
Williams said the Pirates need to avoid individual missed assignments in the red zone.
“The explanation for it is all 11 guys have to do their job and we can’t get to the red zone and have one guy not do their job,” Williams said. “That’s what’s killing us is the one guy not doing their job and it messes us up. On every single play that we get lost yardage, it’s that one guy that didn’t do his job and it’s just like, dang, if he would have done his job we would have scored. We can’t keep having that in the red zone.”
Pirates looking for U-Turn
There are players in the program who remember a 28-17 win at USF that helped ECU to a 6-1 start in 2014. Their leadership could provide a boost this week.
“We’ve lost three in a row,” Boyd said. “We’ve got to make sure that’s in the past. We can’t have guys hanging their head, being negative. We’ve got to make sure everybody stays positive and really work to get better day by day.”
Boyd doesn’t buy the theory that there has been a letdown since the win over the Wolfpack.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a letdown,” he said. “I think we were good enough to win every game this year. Any time you lose it’s a letdown feeling, but we’ve just got to be able to not let ourselves keep losing. We have got to be able to rebound and get back in that win column this week.”