EDITOR’S NOTE: UPDATED TO INCLUDE A SECTION INADVERTENTLY OMMITTED DURING AN EARLIER EDITING PROCEDURE
This hasn’t been the football season that East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery envisioned.
A 52-27 loss at Houston last week dropped the Pirates to 2-7 overall and 1-4 in the American Athletic Conference going into a home game with Tulane (3-6, 1-4) on Saturday at 7 p.m.
That outcome meant a third straight losing season for ECU, a third straight year the Pirates have been denied a bowl trip.
Recruiting, staff changes and schematic adjustments were supposed to produce an improvement on last year’s record, which was 3-9 overall and 1-7 in the AAC. Improvement in those terms is still possible and Montgomery has not backed off on his personal drive.
What keeps him going when faced with adversity?
“My players,” Montgomery said. “Our team and then seeing the growth that is so hard to see sometimes from the outside, knowing where we were and where we are. It’s very similar to watching kids grow up, seeing them read for the first time or seeing them learn something for the first time and then, actually go out and do it.
“There’s two parts to the process. We’ve gotten past the part of just doing things right. Now, we do things right. Now, it’s time to start doing things well. I mean that’s what we’re trying to preach to our kids. They know the benefit of going to class now. They know the benefit of being a great person. They know the benefit of studying their assignments. They know the benefit of practicing well and practicing hard and right. Now it’s time for these guys to start doing it well.
“But my players, these guys, the text messages that I get at 9 p.m. or 6 a.m., talking about how much they appreciate not only me, but what I do for them, what I am to them in their lives and just the discipline that I’ve instilled in some of our young players, even some of our old players, that’s what sustains me.
“It’s always challenging, but I’m built for this. This is exactly what I was tasked to do. We don’t make excuses. We just go to work every day and fix it.”
Long sleeves at Houston
It was easy to spot Montgomery last week. He had the visor and was one of few wearing long sleeves in the unseasonable Houston heat.
“Usually with the sun, I wear long sleeves,” Montgomery said. “When I’m not in long sleeves is when it’s freezing cold and I’m making a statement to the team or when I’m on vacation. It was warm. It was probably a little bit warmer than what I thought. Honestly, Zo (equipment manager Alphonso Smith) doesn’t even pack short-sleeve stuff for me because he knows how much I love the Adidas stuff and all the branding that we’re trying to get done. Once I start wearing a certain look, I usually keep the same look every single week, even in practice most times.”
Houston found quarterback
The Cougars appear to have found a quarterback in D’Eriq King, who made key plays in a 28-24 upset at South Florida the previous week. Kyle Postma got a lot of playing time earlier in the season.
King completed 15 of 21 passes for 330 yards with three touchdowns against the Pirates. He also had a rushing score.
“They are a really good team,” Montgomery said. “They found King. That’s why they were able to beat South Florida. They kind of worked to get better through the South Florida game.
“However, we had a lot to do with the outcome of the game. You look at the first play of the game, where we don’t execute on offense, the first offensive series. We had a schemed-up play and we really kind of trick them, get the ball down the field and we don’t make a play right there. Then we punt the ball and then we get a stop by our defense, which was a critical time because not only did we not score a touchdown and lose the momentum from not scoring a touchdown but then we get a stop to get the momentum back. The next time we go in, we turn the ball over, which turns it in to a 14-0 game. Those critical five to six plays is something that we’re going to have to get better at.,
“I was impressed because our young players immediately came to the sideline at the end of that quarter and start talking about that ‘six or seven plays that we’ve got to correct. We’re better than this.’ That’s something that we’re trying to get done. They went back out and they competed the rest of the game.
“We can’t have mental lapses. Our margin for error is at a point right now, we’ve got to play clean games — play games like we did against Brigham Young where we capitalize on some of the mistakes of other people. We get the benefit this week though of coming back home, Bagwell Field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, our fans coming out. We need them to come out, Military Appreciation Day, not only supporting the Pirates but supporting our military for their service.
“It’s going to be rocking in there again and our guys will have that energy. We’ll play really well this weekend.”
Gardner Minshew and Thomas Sirk have each made starts for the Pirates at quarterback this season. Minshew completed 52 of 68 at Houston for 463 yards with thee TDs and one interception.
The Pirates were in no hurry to name a starter against the Green Wave.
“I’ve already made the decision,” Montgomery said Wednesday. “I haven’t announced it. … We will announce it somewhere in the next couple of days. It’s more for game planning. We want them to have to game plan for everybody because we’ve game planned for both of them. It’s just about who runs out there first and who kicks it off and who goes and plays well. I really think we’ve got two guys that can both get the job done. … There’s a good potential that you’ll see both of them.”
Minshew’s stock went up last week.
“We really liked the way he managed the game, handled the football and made some big-time throws on third down,” Montgomery said. “I really liked the way he moved up in the pocket. We’re really working with him to go up in the pocket and not lateral. Up in the pocket, you can still generate a good base to throw the football but also you can go a lot of different ways with the football. The moment that you go lateral, the ball has to go to that side and if routes are working away from you, you’ve eliminated two to three routes and the ability to check it down to the back because usually the back’s check down is right in the middle of the field. So the moment you move lateral vs. up in the pocket, you also put stress on both tackles to create holding calls. We’re coaching as tight as we can but we really liked the way he played.”
Five players had five or more catches for ECU, including Trevon Brown with 11 catches for 141 yards and Quay Johnson with 14 receptions for 115 yards.
Justin Sandifer stepped in at left offensive tackle with the dismissal of Messiah Rice from the team prior to the Houston game. The senior, who transferred to ECU in 2015 from Hinds Community College in Raymond, MS, was effective at Houston.
“He graded out pretty good,” Montgomery said. “He didn’t give up a sack. He played at a high level in the passing game. We didn’t run the ball as much as I like to run it, but those extended handoffs (passes to the perimeter) were great. There was a couple of times when we threw it out there because that’s what the read told the quarterback to do that I thought Sandifer did a good job in the run game. The production at that position actually went up a little bit. I think it was because he was energized and boosted up and ready to go. It hadn’t been a bad spot for us all year but he came in and played well.”
Tulane coach Willie Fritts brought an option offense from Georgia Southern in 2015.
“They’re in the gun and he’s been able to run this kind of a system for a long time, but it has grown,” Montgomery said. “I think it’s the maturation process, not only of the offense, but also of the people that he has and putting into the system. He can create the triple from the gun. It looks like the zone read and it turns into the triple. Then, all of a sudden, it looks like zone read and it’s heavy run action pass. He can throw some quarterback runs in there at you. This guy is a different type runner than we’ve seen. He can run for power. He’s fast. A lot of times, the guys we’ve had struggles getting on the ground have been quick guys or elusive. It’s been our first time in a while seeing a heavy guy. It’s hard getting those guys on the ground in the passing game and the run game. In the passing game, some of those little guys, once you get your hands on them, they go down. With No. 1 (Jonathan Banks), it’s going to be much different for us. We’ve got to wrap him and get him on the ground. He’s been able to use his quarterback to throw it and run it.”
The forecast for Saturday calls for a high of 50. It will be colder by game time.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Montgomery said. “You’ve heard me talk about November football. No sooner than we talk about November football, the first weekend (at Houston) is what? 85 degrees? The next weekend looks like it’s going to be 40s and 50s, somewhere in there. So this is the elements. You’ve got to be able to manage it and I think our guys will be able to manage it.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Montgomery said. “We’re playing a more southern team than us and it can be a factor. When you play in different locations, you have to adjust to the elements. They’re built for November football. We’ve really got to do a good job of playing well in the elements.”
It was easy to lose sight of the fact that the Pirates only allowed Houston 472 yards of total offense. ECU came into the game yielding an average of 577.6. The Cougars’ point total needed an asterisk.
“We basically scored 14 points for them,” Montgomery said. “You’ve got a pick six and then you’ve got a pick, you give the ball to them. Then when you don’t score touchdowns right there, you gave them a different type of field position and everything the first play of the game. So you’re looking at a 21-point swing potentially. … You minus those 21 points right there and you’re talking about a totally different game. That’s just kind of the way that it is right now We’ve got to overcome it. We’ve definitely got to grow and increase the talent level in our personnel. There’s no question to it.
“We’ve got some guys that are extremely talented. We’ve got some guys that are giving everything that they have. We’ve got to get that combined. We’ve got to get extremely talented people that give everything that they have. So that’s what we’re working on right now.”
The ECU coach was asked about factors that will produce success Saturday night.
“We’ve got to start fast on offense,” Montgomery said. “Our defense is always going to take the energy right from our offense. If we can get some scores early, get on the board early, it’s going to give our defense some energy so we have to play well together.
“We found a few little things in our kicking game that are starting to work a little bit better. We think that we can potentially get a score in our kicking game if we continue to block the way we’re blocking on kick returns and execute some of the things that we didn’t quite get executed the early part of the year on punt return. We think that we’ve got some opportunities to make some plays on special teams. So we’ve just got to execute on special teams.
“Offensively, we’ve got to start fast so our defense can feed off that energy.”