East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery and university officials were keeping an eye on the weather with Hurricane Matthew approaching the Florida coast as the Pirates (2-3) prepared to travel for a noon game Saturday against South Florida (4-1) in Tampa.
“We’ve been in communication with South Florida,” Montgomery said. “A lot of people are concerned about some of the travel plans. A lot of it is probably going to affect us once we get there in getting back.
“All of those things are being talked about by the people that are a lot smarter than me and the rest of the coaching staff, mostly administration and our director of football operations [Terrell Smith] and their director of football operations. The one thing that they want to make sure that they do is to make sure that every kid, whether it be our cheerleaders or our equipment staff or our football team — everyone is safe. That’s what matters to me — all people that are going can go and return safely.”
Nelson expected to play
ECU senior quarterback Philip Nelson went out of last week’s 47-29 loss to Central Florida after a targeting hit by the Knights. The situation affected practice and preparation this week.
Nelson did not take snaps in practice on Tuesday and top receiver Zay Jones was in a walking boot as a precautionary measure.
“We feel pretty good about him,” Montgomery said of Nelson. “We don’t know 100 percent but we feel better than we did, of course, at the end of the game last week to make sure that he will be available. . . . He’s a tough guy and he came through the protocol the right way so he’s fine. He was fine as of Monday. We’re just working him back in.”
Seargent wrapped, practices
Corner Corey Seargent was helped off the field against UCF.
“He had a quad strain early in the football game,” Montgomery said. “That can kind of sometimes put your calls in a little bit of a different bag. Despite losing two of their best players, our defense went out — not having [nose tackle Demetri] McGill and Corey — and they played their heart out. We think that [Seargent] will be OK but we’ll find out. He practiced Tuesday a little bit and we’ll find out how he feels. . . . We’ll see how he responded to one day of practice and see if he’s going to be able to go. We had him all wrapped up Tuesday pretty tight and he still was able to get some reps in.”
With Seargent out, the Knights got singled up in coverage on linebacker Jordan Williams for a lengthy gain after ECU had cut a 23-7 deficit to 23-21. The play set up a touchdown for a two-score UCF advantage.
“It could have been a huge difference when you lose one of your covers,” Montgomery said. “In those situations, you have to play with what you have available. Jordan makes no excuses about it. He felt like he could have had better eye discipline on the play. He responded by doing exactly what we thought he would do — taking responsibility. We knew that was a stressful call but when you do lose one of your … guys that are in coverage situations, sometimes that happens.”
Minshew’s role changes
A week ago, junior quarterback Gardner Minshew appeared to be in the midst of a redshirt season. When Nelson went down, Minshew was pressed into action and Quay Johnson turned his first pass for the Pirates into a 75-yard touchdown.
“Tuesday, he got the majority of the snaps at the No. 1 role,” Montgomery said of Minshew, who helped Northwest Mississippi Community College to the national junior college championship in 2015. “So we prepared him but we did have Phil on the field going through every single thing. We also got a chance to work with James [Summers] a little more at quarterback and we brought in, just in case, Reid Herring, our freshman. We definitely don’t want to play him but it’s good for him because it gives him a chance to see what it’s like on the big field and be able to work. I was impressed with his arm talent.”
Minshew finished 12 for 27 for 192 yards with one score and two interceptions against UCF.
“We thought Gardner had a really good day,” Montgomery said. “I think that a lot of what happened to Gardner in the second part of the game, a lot of it was misfortune. He needs to throw the ball about 12 inches higher on the screen down there on the goal line and it would have been a huge play.
“He also came into an offense that wasn’t playing as well as they have played. So when you have that and you’re coming in, and you create such a big play on the first play then you have to get into the big part of running the offense and that’s what he was trying to do, run the offense that wasn’t running efficiently before he came in. It made it a little tougher on him and it created some turnovers. Some of them were definitely him. Maybe one, he held the ball too long in the pocket. There’s a lot of things that go into it from being in a first college football game and, unfortunately, we had to use his redshirt, but he’s a good kid, a tough kid and a good football player. We’re looking forward to his development but we’re also looking forward to getting Phil back this weekend.”
Red zone concerns
ECU was 3-for-7 on red zone scoring opportunities against the Knights. Montgomery said the compacted field deep in opposing territory, which limits vertical routes to potentially clear for underneath receivers, is not the factor that is responsible.
“I really don’t think that’s it,” said the Pirates coach. “Fortunately, we have some really good players at a few positions. Zay and Jimmy [Williams], they’re really good players. They’re drawing doubles and it’s forcing the ball from a read standpoint to go into some of our younger, more inexperienced players and unfortunately we’re putting the ball on the ground at some of those positions. . . . We need our younger players to be really good in the red zone because, usually down there, coverage forces you to go to the guy that has the best matchups. We’ve had some good matchups.
“We trust Deondre Farrier. We’ve got to continue to work on his ball security. It’s unheard of for a guy to catch it, throw it up in the air and the other team pick it and then a guy to catch it right around the 4- or 5-yard line, spin back inside — which you can’t do, ever. Stay on the perimeter once you’re on the perimeter. . . . Then fumble it into the end zone. But that is the easiest part of the offense because that is where the ball should go.”
Turnovers have hurt ECU in general and especially in the red zone.
“The other situations that we’ve had in the red zone, they’ve all come down to just turnovers,” Montgomery said “Everything that we’re doing is working. The play down at South Carolina where Phil just underthrows the corner route should have been an easy touchdown or Anthony [Scott] having a great run down into the red zone [at South Carolina] and fumbling that ball. It’s directly connected to taking care of the football.”
ECU has 13 turnovers and just four takeaways this season.
Offense producing yardage
ECU leads the American Athletic Conference in yards per game with 523. Montgomery knows the Pirates are moving the ball.
“I think I know where we’re ranked from turning the ball over and that would also be really high,” he said. “If we take care of the football, I don’t know many football teams that can stop us. Our defense is playing well enough to stop teams. I think they gave up 373 yards last week. . . . You mix those two together. You try to continue to work on what we’re doing on special teams from a confidence standpoint at this time with our specialists. It’s directly connected to confidence.”
UCF returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown after ECU had taken a 7-0 lead. Opponents have been getting big, momentum-swinging returns against the punt and kickoff coverage teams of the Pirates.
“From a covering standpoint, it’s just discipline and detail,” Montgomery said. “All those things combined are things that you can fix. Usually, the things you have to fix are when you come out of games with 160 yards of offense and giving up 650 yards on defense. And 10 penalties. We had two penalties (UCF game) and they had 10. That speaks to the discipline of the team. With the discipline of the team, all these yards we’re gaining and stopping people, we just have to simply take care of the football and take away the football. Everything else will take care of itself.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been around a situation where a team is this prolific offensively, being able to stop so many teams with three and outs or at least getting it to two series of downs on defense and then stopping them and still be in the situation that we’re in. . . . We are what we are right now. We’re 2-3. We’re working to get through some of those turnovers and some of those special teams blunders. Once we put it all together, I think it’s going to be hard to get us off track.”
Navy, short week, unique offense
The Pirates host Navy and its option offense on Thursday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 p.m.
The Midshipmen’s attack requires extra preparation and has helped Navy to a 4-1 lead in the series.
“Yes we have worked on that,” Montgomery said. “We carved out time in our camp to basically deal with the biggest issue of this offense, which is cut blocking and the misdirection some time that can go with it. . . . Scheme-wise and from a coaching standpoint, we spent a lot of time in the offseason so we’ve had a little more preparation time for them than anybody that we’ll see.
” . . . I think we have a great plan as long as we can get back into town quickly after the [USF] game and get right back at it. We’ll be right back to a full work week on Sunday versus having that off day [Monday]. . . . We’ve got to get back and get ready to go.”
Gold pants a tribute
The Pirates wore purple jerseys and gold pants against UCF. It was a look for ECU that had not been used in quite some time. The Pirates are in their first year as an adidas-sponsored program.
“It was more of me paying tribute to some of the teams in the ’80s,” Montgomery said. “I’m going to continue to do that. Our colors are purple and gold. I love purple and gold. I want us to be a purple and gold team. When people turn on the TV, I’m trying to brand us to the point of where they say, ‘Oh, I know who that is.’ I’m not opposed to wearing some of the other stuff that has been worn but those will be the change-ups when we wear other things. I want us to be seen as a purple and gold football team. . . . I’m very proud of our colors. I want our colors to fly as high as they can.”
South Florida systems
While ECU leads the AAC in yardage, South Florida leads the league in points (229). The Bulls are averaging 45.8 points per game.
“They have great, great tempo on offense,” Montgomery said. “We’re facing the best two runners that we’ve seen, being the quarterback [Quinton Flowers] and the running back [Marlon Mack]. They are extremely talented with their legs. They try to get you to some third and shorts so they can still use their run game. They’re also doing a good job of using a run-pass option and then off the run-pass option, they use double moves to take you down the field.
“We need to play good first-down football. If our guys can do a good job of getting these guys into some third and mediums, I think we’re going to do a great job. I think the more and more we see offenses like this, we’re growing. Our team is starting to see a lot of running quarterbacks. A lot of people are asking about the sacks. It’s hard to have a lot of sacks when you go against a team like Western Carolina to start. . . . Then you have South Carolina with another running quarterback. Then you have Virginia Tech with another running quarterback. Then you have UCF with another running quarterback. You have another running quarterback this week. We’re getting better at dealing with some of those situations.”
The Bulls are yielding 439.8 yards per game, which is last in the AAC.
“Defensively, they’re a 4-2-5 scheme,” Montgomery said. “They’ve got great talent in their defensive front. No.10 (Deadrin Senat), he can anchor and get in there and cause you problems in your run game. This is the first time that we will truly see a one-front in a game so with our run schemes, we need to be much more at the line of scrimmage than away from the line of scrimmage. I thought one of the biggest tales in this game, we probably could have got us up over some major yards on offense if we would have been at the line of scrimmage in our run game a little bit more versus being side to side. We’re going to try to be at the line a little bit more running the football and we’ve challenged our guys.
“All of our running backs want to hit home runs. They want to score from 60 or 70. I came from Alex Gibbs’ (former Denver Broncos offensive line coach) old running zone scheme where it was four yards. It was three yards. It was four yards, It was four yards. It was six yards — and bang, Terrell Davis would skeet out of there for 35 yards. . . . We’ve got to get back to understanding what the run game is all about and our offensive line has to take the challenge. Our backs have to take the challenge. Our receivers have to take the challenge. You want to win football games, you can’t just go out and throw for 360 yards, you’ve got to be able to run it and that’s what we’ve got to do this weekend.”
Montgomery talked about factors that will be decisive.
“The keys are simple,” said the Pirates coach. “On defense, we’ve got to contain the quarterback. We’ve got to control his scramble. We’re not going to stop him. We just want to try to contain him. We want to try to get him to some third and mediums to third and longs. We’re fine with third and mediums. . . . Our first-down calls, we’ve got to all understand what we’re doing. I think we’ve done a better job defensively of doing that. And then on third down, at that point in time, we can probably present with some exotics that we can help the guys go play a great football game.
“It’s first-down football on defense.
“On offense, it’s getting the ball to the line of scrimmage on first down. We’ve got a pretty good team throwing the ball. We think that we’ve got some good routes. We have a lot of knowledge from the passing game. We’ve got also a lot of knowledge from the run game. The run game has to be consistent and simple. We’ve got to stop tricking people like we were able to do the first couple of games. Even with N.C. State, we were able to trick them a little bit but the more and more you put on tape.
” . . . We’ve got to develop an identity where it’s a physical identity and we’re coming right at you. It will help our run-action game. I want to see the ball at the line of scrimmage. I want to see what we do when there’s supposed to be a 4-yard gain. Are we going to get one yard or are we going to get four yards? Those are the keys to victory. I think everything else will take care of itself.
“Our special teams, we’re working extremely hard to restore some confidence in some specialists. Also, people just have to do their job. I was very pleased with Dayon Pratt getting on the field on our special teams and some other of our starters getting on some of our special teams, like punt. That helped us tremendously this past week and we’ve got some more guys injected to it. I’ve still got to have young guys step up. We can’t always think that we can play Pratt 70 plays and then go out there and be our best special teams player. And put Jordan Williams out there and Cam White out there and Colby Gore out there on every special team because we’ve got a long season to go. Our team has got to work to continue to get better. If you just remove the plays where we had the turnovers and the special team blunder there, it looks like a really different football team.”
Return trip for Coach Mo
Montgomery was wide receivers coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers on his first trip to Raymond James Stadium.
“I went down in 2010 with the Steelers,” he recalled. “We were victorious (38-13). All I remember, I think we didn’t have Big Ben (Roethlisberger, quarterback) that game. We had Charlie Batch. Mike Wallace had some spectacular plays (3 catches for 100 yards, 2 TDs). Our defense just played with their hair on fire and by the end of the game I think it was all Steeler Nation down there so I have some good memories. . . . I look forward to going back.”