Not only did East Carolina send its seniors out as winners at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium by turning back Cincinnati 48-20 last Saturday, the outcome made for a happier Thanksgiving week around the program.
There is a perceptible difference in winning and losing in day-to-day operations, although the skipper of the Pirate ship, Scottie Montgomery, seeks to remain even keel.
“It just makes people, of course, a lot more pleasant,” the ECU coach said. “Me, it doesn’t change my modus operandi. I don’t change very much. I just try to get right back to our flow in the week and try to make sure we capitalize on the things we did well and we fix the things that we did wrong.
“But, of course, our kids, they’re received better so they come into the building feeling better and we’re able to get their attention pretty easily and quickly so there’s a little more juice and the atmosphere in the building is better.”
The Pirates have been on an upward trend.
“Truthfully, over the last four to five weeks our atmosphere has started to take off,” Montgomery said. “The culture is starting to take off a little bit more. Just see some guys, especially some young guys realizing that if they didn’t make a few mistakes here and there, then we had a chance to be successful . So now, those things are working. Practice habits are great. We’ve just got to go out and play well this weekend.”
Takeaways from Cincinnati game
ECU jumped in front of the Bearcats, 21-0.
“The biggest takeaway was the fast start,” Montgomery said. “I talked to guys about it. We had to come out and get points on the board early, then get some stops defensively. We did that. One of the things I thought we saw was kind of the evolution of a quarterback. Not saying that he’s not going to have bad days to come, but he’s starting to understand our offense. There’s a few calls that he fixed on the field, protection issues that he fixed. Nobody in the stadium will ever know, but he operated at such a high level.
“His rapport with Trevon Brown is great. It’s growing with Tahj Deans.
“Defensively, I was really proud that we were much more aggressive on the perimeter. We had the ability to take the ball away from them. I looked up in the fourth quarter and I think it was about 270 yards offense that they had given up so a much better played game together. Then you add the special teams component to it and we played some good football all together.”
The second start of the season last Saturday for redshirt freshman Keyshawn Canady at a corner coincided with one of East Carolina’s best defensive efforts of the season. The Pirates led 578-326 in total yardage and have moved off the bottom in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense.
ECU (3-8, 2-5 AAC) faces a challenge at the Liberty Bowl on Saturday at noon against No. 17 Memphis (9-1, 6-1), which outscored Southern Methodist 66-45 last week to wrap up the Western Division’s berth in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Dec. 2.
“He has made a difference,” Montgomery said of Canady, a former Wallace-Rose Hill standout. “I talked about him a couple of weeks ago when he was ready to come back to us from injury and illness. . . . His demeanor, his size, his speed is going to be challenged this week. I think he needs to be challenged more and more. He’s going to be a guy that can get in the face of people and also play off coverage. People see tight coverage and they don’t go over there to him.
“We’ve been impressed with where he is now. He’s got a long way to go. There’s no question about it, but he’s poised to have a good weekend this weekend and then go into a great offseason and get faster and get stronger and get a better mindset about competing every game of the year and trying to be as healthy as he possibly can with a great offseason program.”
Punter, holder situation
Senior punter Austin Barnes was suspended after his arrest for driving while impaired on Sunday morning.
“Jake Verity will more than likely be our punter,” Montgomery said. “We also have a guy that we trust, Caleb Pratt, who can go in and do the job as well. Jake was a guy we thought was going to do the job for both placekicking and punting so now we’re going to get back to that with Jake. He had a good day Tuesday in practice. Guys were impressed with him. They forgot how well he can punt the ball. We think we’ll be OK there.”
Barnes also held for Verity on placekicks.
“Gardner Minshew will be our first holder,” Montgomery said. “Anthony Ratliff probably will be No. 2 in.”
Davon Grayson’s status
Davon Grayson had 57 catches for 876 yards with six touchdowns before sitting out last week’s Cincinnati game with a back ailment.
“He practiced Tuesday full, the whole time,” Montgomery said. “He told me that he was feeling a lot better. He also told me there was no way he was going out without playing this last game. This is as much as he’s practiced. It was really weird. He didn’t practice on Sunday, of course. We didn’t do anything, but he was in pain at the game. Sunday, he was still in pain. Monday, he was in a little bit of pain. Tuesday, he felt a lot better so he practiced. He’s really excited to be able to go out and finish his career.
“He’s going to play in some All-Star games, but he wanted to go out and battle one more time with his brothers.”
Seniors on Minshew
Duke graduate transfer Thomas Sirk has some insight on the development of Gardner Minshew at quarterback. Minshew completed 31 of 45 passes for 444 yards and four touchdowns without an interception against Cincinnati.
“Gardner is going to continue to get better,” Sirk said. “He’s a guy who loves the game. He’s in there watching film and studying the game, probably not like a lot of quarterbacks in the country do, and he really cares about it. I think you’ll continue to see him improve as he moves forward.”
Senior receiver Jimmy Williams said Minshew, a junior, is becoming more confident and consistent, overcoming a tendency to get down on himself.
“That comes with Gardner being Gardner,” said senior receiver Jimmy Williams. “Some games, he goes out there, he gets a little bit too hyped-up. He might make a bad play and he’s so hard on himself. It only takes one time for him to go, ‘Ahhhh,’ like I’m tired of it. I’m playing bad,’ and it gets in his mind. But Gardner came out there with that swag [against Cincinnati]. ‘All right, I’m the best quarterback to touch this field, ever.’
“When he goes out there and he does that, he’s pretty much unstoppable. Going through his reads, you watch him on film. It’s like read, read, read, throw the ball. When he plays within himself and calms down, he has his own swag. He has his confidence. Nobody can stop Gardner.”
Minshew led Northwest Mississippi Community College, which is in the Memphis area, to the 2015 junior college national championship.
Trevon Brown caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Reid Herring with 5:06 remaining last week to finish with 270 yards receiving. It was the first throw for Herring on the collegiate level although he’s involved every snap, signaling plays.
“Somebody said on the sideline that I was 18 yards short,” Brown, a junior, said of his new ECU and American Athletic Conference record. “So they put me back in the game. We look out there and Reid was at quarterback. Reid throws to us in practice, but he doesn’t really get that much playing time. No matter who’s at quarterback, I’m probably going to get the ball. He threw it and it was just like, ‘Ain’t nobody in this world going to stop me from catching this ball.’ I went up there and got it and we went to the sideline and I praised Reid, like, ‘Yeah, Reid, this is your first one.’ He was so happy. I loved it.”
Brown talked about the value of the win over the Bearcats.
“It’s a big confidence boost,” he said. “We just wanted to get a win and it’s a win at home on Senior Day to send these seniors out. We haven’t had a great season this year, but this win right here means a lot because all our fans will start believing in us again and we send these seniors out like they’re supposed to be sent out.”
Minshew stayed ready
Minshew makes his third straight start at Memphis after Sirk made six starts in a row. A strong performance in relief at Houston helped Minshew regain the starting nod.
Minshew kept his focus while on the sideline.
“You just keep working,” Minshew said. “You keep pushing. The guys have been behind me through it all. I really appreciate that from them. To come out and get the win our last home game was awesome. . . . I just went to work every day. That’s all I could do. Just stayed prepared, stay ready. I knew if I got a chance again, I’d be ready. … I have a lot of confidence with where our guys are going to be. When I have that confidence, it allows me to put it there a little sooner, just trusting that they’re going to be there.”
“Coach [Tony] Petersen (offensive coordinator) came to us before the [Cincinnati] game and he’s like, ‘Whoever’s in there, we’re going to score and we’re going to win.’ All these guys, I feel really comfortable with. We put a lot of work in in practice. They came out and made some really big plays for us.”
Avoiding slow start
The Pirates will seek to avoid the type of slow start that led to losses at West Virginia and Houston this season.
“The biggest thing that we have to do is we’ve got to come out and execute on offense,” Montgomery said. “When you execute on offense and you do it in a timely fashion — that doesn’t mean fast — that means efficient and we can put together drives. And then defensively, we can keep our guys on the sideline a little bit more, make a play on the ball down the field. That’s very critical that we do that and get into the second half of the football game in striking distance.
“We’re playing well enough on offense and defense to go out and win this football game. We’re really sound on finishing halves and we’re a great two-minute team right now. We know how to run a two-minute drill.
“We’ve got to play well in the opening quarters of both halves. The first quarter and the third quarter are going to be very critical. I think we can do a good job in both of those situations. That’s what got us down in both of those situations (West Virginia and Houston).”
This is rival week in college football with matchups including Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan and Clemson-South Carolina to name a few. In the AAC, South Florida and Central Florida meet to decide the East Division’s representative in the league title game.
The Pirates don’t build toward such an emotional, high stakes showdown. Memphis will be the eighth different team ECU has faced in the final game of the regular season in the last 10 years.
“I think that’s something that can grow,” Montgomery said. “It’s something that comes with tradition and we have a lot of tradition here. We’ve just got to go and find and get to a point in time to where so many people are aiming for us. I really think that’s the point when so many people are aiming for you and you’ve got a great team that you’re aiming for as well, eventually that rival will be created.
“I think that’s something that this program, under my leadership, we can grow and it can be something that will be really special for our fans, getting the last game of the year or somebody else getting the last game of the year. That’s something that can grow as we move forward into the future, but I think it’s great to see the Egg Bowl (Ole Miss-Mississippi State) and to see the other games that are going on. I always enjoyed watching it growing up as a kid.”
The Pirates had an early practice Thursday before a Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings at the Murphy Center. The players whose families live close enough were allowed to travel home before returning for today’s flight to Memphis.
Montgomery and his coaching staff hosted the remaining players at their homes Thursday evening.
“They’ll be around family the whole Thanksgiving,” Montgomery said Wednesday. ” . . . I have a good part of my family that will be in town. It’s a good time for our guys to see us around our families and for them to see how thankful I am to have the people in my life that I have and make sure they understand that they’re who I’m thankful for. We’ll have a great Thanksgiving day and then we’ll load up the next day and get ready to go beat Memphis.”
Thoughts on season
On the doorstep of the season finale, Montgomery sought to put 2017 into perspective.
“We’ve had to endure a lot,” Montgomery said. “You always have to endure injuries. We didn’t come out and play well the first game of the year. When you don’t play well the first game of the year, it puts a sour taste in your mouth to begin with. We wanted our quarterback to play at a higher level, but throughout the year we started to make some gains. They were hard to see from the outside, but on the inside of the building we got a little tighter. We got a little better. . . . We were able to find some of our talent that we were waiting to see. It started to come alive during the middle of the year.
“Now, we’re not guessing on the guys we recruited as much. We know the talent that we have and then to see these guys embrace the leadership of the older guys and the older guys embrace the youth of the younger guys at this point we don’t have to do that anymore. That’s been built so we’re a little bit above the foundation now. We’re moving forward with the belief of our program. All of our guys, they get it. To see them come out and play as well as they did last weekend was incredible but also to see them come back and practice Tuesday the way they practiced lets you know where everybody’s mind is headed for the program. That makes you very proud that you can see a program changing and taking shape.”
The Pirates will be seeking their eighth straight win over the Tigers although the teams haven’t met since 2012.
“Early, we’ve got to be efficient with the football,” Montgomery said. “Take care of the football and create some opportunities for our guys on third down. We get some short 3rd-and-3s and 3rd-and-4s. Then when we get a chance to score touchdowns in the red zone, I was most impressed by the way that we were able to score touchdowns in the red zone this past week. If we score touchdowns in the red zone, play well in the first and third quarter, we’re going to be in great position to win this game.
“Defensively, somewhere, I’d love to be able to steal a possession. If we can steal a possession and just get a possession ahead, we’ll be in a good spot the rest of the game.”
ECU won’t be going to a bowl game. The contest at the Liberty Bowl amounts to the Pirates’ postseason this year.
“Our guys are building it as such,” Montgomery said. “They’re just happy to be able to play with their guys the last time. We’re not going to leave anything off the call sheet. We’re going to try to call it all and throw everything that we have at them. We’re going to let these kids go out and have a lot of fun this weekend.”