You can learn a lot from the numbers on a football postgame stat sheet.
All you have to do is look beyond the obvious.
That’s why, as telling as the impressive numbers posted by East Carolina quarterback Thomas Sirk and the even bigger numbers allowed by the Pirates’ defenseless defense might have been, the most significant figure from Saturday’s loss against South Florida can be found near the upper right corner of the page — just above the score by quarters.
It’s the announced attendance.
That’s the smallest regular season crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium since a gathering of 34,141 showed up for a win against Southern Methodist on Oct. 21, 2006. Taking into consideration a home game that was not a part of ECU’s season ticket package, it’s the lowest announced attendance since 33,048 fans bought tickets to watch the Pirates beat Houston in the Conference USA championship game on Dec. 5, 2009.
It’s a small number that could shrink even further over the four home games still on the schedule this season if the product on the field doesn’t start to improve.
Dramatically. And soon.
This is not to say that coach Scottie Montgomery’s team needs to morph into a championship unit between now and the home finale against Cincinnati on Nov. 18. But rather, it must at least begin to show a sign or two that things are headed in the right direction.
Because while there’s no better promotion in sports than winning, the very least a team can do to keep its fans engaged and more importantly, keep supporting it by coming out to the games, is to give them hope.
It didn’t take the sight of all those empty seats in the stands Saturday to realize that hope is in short supply these days. Even the most positive aspect of the 61-31 loss to the 18th-ranked Bulls — the continued growth of the Pirates’ offense — did little to instill optimism.
That’s what happens when you have to produce nearly the same number of points as ECU’s basketball team did last season, 63.3 per game, just to have a chance at winning. It’s not an exaggeration, either, considering that the Pirates rank 128th out of 129 FBS teams nationally in scoring defense at 50.6 points allowed per game.
As bad as that is in the short-term, the long-range prospects are just as ominous.
All it takes is one look at Saturday’s final stat sheet to see why.
Of the players making the biggest contributions to ECU’s effort against USF, most won’t be back next season to build on whatever progress they might be making.
Sirk, who threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns while also leading the team in rushing with 87 yards and a score, is a graduate transfer whose mere presence on the roster is something of an indictment of the three homegrown quarterbacks that were already in the program.
The top three pass catchers against the Bulls — Davon Grayson, Jimmy Williams and Quay Johnson — are all seniors in their final year of eligibility. The same can be said for the team’s two leading tacklers, Jordan Williams and Korrin Wiggins.
Because all those players will have to be replaced in 2018, along with several others on both sides of the ball, the rebuilding process currently in Year 2 under Montgomery will essentially have to start over from Square 1.
That’s not the kind of prognosis that puts people in the stands or inspires donors to write big checks to pay for the renovations that are about to be made to Dowdy-Ficklen.
Sensing that, ECU chancellor Cecil Staton issued a statement a few weeks ago imploring Pirate fans to “remain undaunted” in support of the players representing their school.
“I hope you will join me in loving them and appreciating them for their dedication and determination,” Staton wrote. “We want to be competitive on the field of competition. All of us do. But we also want the best for our athletes, whether it’s on the field, in the classroom or in life after college. Let’s support them across the board. And let’s be sure they know we’re supporting them.”
While most Pirate fans do still support those wearing the purple and gold and appreciate the effort those youngsters are putting forth on and off the field, it’s going to take more than just a pep talk from the boss and a win against UConn every 11 months for them to get enthusiastic about showing it.
They’re going to need something tangible to give them hope before they start coming back.
Increased roles and the noticeable improvement of youngsters such as Hussein Howe, Darius Pinnix, Mydreon Vines, Aaron Ramseur, Devon Sutton and others would be a good start.
Ultimately, though, it might take more drastic measures — specifically, a change in the leadership of both the football program and athletic department — to finally get things headed back in the right direction.
Only time and the numbers on both the top and bottom lines of the postgame stat sheets will tell.