MEMPHIS — Elements of East Carolina’s past, present and future emerged in a 70-13 American Athletic Conference loss at Memphis on Saturday.
The Pirates trailed 49-0 at the half and there was some question about whether a 253-game scoring streak for ECU would come to an end
“By that point, we just look at each other,” said senior tight end Stephen Baggett. “We just realize that we’re playing for each other. We don’t want to go out just making mistakes, especially the seniors. We just realized it was the last half of football we were going to play.
“We just came out firing and tried our best.”
The Pirates had not been shut out since a 56-0 loss at Syracuse on Oct. 4, 1997.
Gardner Minshew hit senior Jimmy Williams down the middle for a 33-yard score to get ECU on the board and extend the streak with 7:10 remaining in the third quarter. The Pirates trailed 56-0 before the strike.
Memphis answered immediately with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Tony Pollard.
Jake Verity, who punted the first time with the suspension of punter/placekick holder Austin Barnes, missed field goals of 52 and 40 yards in the second quarter. Coach Scottie Montgomery indicated that Verity was having trouble adjusting to Minshew as the new holder.
Aspects of the present mostly belonged to the No. 17 Tigers, who improved to 10-1 going into their journey to Central Florida (11-0) on Saturday to try to avenge their only loss of the season in the AAC championship game. The Knights downed Memphis 40-13 on Sept. 30 at Spectrum Stadium in Orlando.
The Tigers wasted no time in taking the lead against ECU as Anthony Miller took a pass from Riley Ferguson on Memphis’ first snap. Miller made a few cuts within the Pirate defense before using his speed to outrun defenders and complete an 89-yard score.
Darrell Henderson had touchdown runs of four and 14 yards in the first 30 minutes. Jonathan Cook took an interception 32 yards to the end zone to give the hosts a 21-0 lead with 4:42 left in the first quarter.
The margin expanded to 28-0 in the opening period as Ferguson connected with Phil Mayhue on a 46-yard touchdown with 56 seconds to go.
The Tigers added three rushing scores in the second quarter, including a 19-yard carry by Doroland Dorceus and a 41-yard jaunt by Patrick Taylor.
Memphis had not beaten ECU since winning 27-24 at the Liberty Bowl on Oct. 22, 2005. The Pirates won seven straight games in the series but the teams had not met since a 41-7 ECU win in Greenville in 2012.
The Pirates hadn’t closed a season against the Tigers at the Liberty Bowl since rallying for a 34-31 win in 1998. Tight end Buck Collins sparked an ECU comeback and coach Steve Logan was relieved as he hugged his sister outside the locker room following the game.
The win in 1998 put the Pirates at 6-5 for the year and avoided a second straight 5-6 season.
“That was huge,” said Logan of the outcome that likely saved his job.
Logan had an adversarial relationship with then-athletic director Mike Hamrick, who dismissed him after ECU went 4-8 in 2002.
“The scoreboard is my boss,” Logan once confided.
A win 19 years ago kept Logan on hand for a 9-3 season in 1999 that included victories over South Carolina, Miami and N.C. State.
In contrast, no coaching change is expected after the one-sided loss at the Liberty Bowl this season finished the Pirates at 3-9 overall and 2-6 in the AAC. ECU went 3-9 and 1-7 in 2016.
Hamrick didn’t hire Logan, but current AD Jeff Compher brought in second-year coach Scottie Montgomery after dismissing Ruffin McNeill. Compher received a contract extension before the season and is on record saying that Montgomery was not coaching for his job this season.
Compher indicated that Montgomery is not in jeopardy as he watched the last stages of Saturday’s game.
“Not as far as I’m concerned,” said the ECU athletic director.
Montgomery said he had no indications that he wouldn’t be moving forward as the Pirates coach.
“We talk every week,” Montgomery said of his relationship with Compher. “We talk about the direction of the program. I’m very transparent with him. I think he’s very transparent with me in every situation that we have. We’re just moving forward.”
Montgomery was asked about possible staff changes.
“We’re always under evaluation,” he said.
The athletic department faces some budget challenges and there is a contention that Montgomery is safe because ECU couldn’t afford to buy out his contract. The flip side is that the program might not be able to afford not to make a change with the possibility that season ticket revenue may decline before the Pirates open the 2018 season at home against North Carolina A&T, 11-0 after a 24-10 win over N.C. Central last week.
A 34-14 loss to James Madison, the 2016 Football Championship Subdivision playoff winners, got the Pirates’ 2017 season off on the wrong foot.
Finding speed to compete with the AAC elite will be an emphasis in recruiting during the offseason.
“I truly believe if we can improve our overall team speed, we’re quickly going to be in the battle with some of these great football teams in our conference,” Montgomery said.
It appeared that Minshew would be ECU’s quarterback of the future after completing 31 of 45 passes for 444 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 48-20 win over Cincinnati last week on Senior Day for the Pirates.
Minshew possibly opened the door for some offseason competition as he had three interceptions in the first half.
The second half was better for Minshew and the Pirates. Not only was the scoring streak pushed to 254 games, Minshew hit Stephen Baggett for a 5-yard touchdown with 3:04 left in the third quarter to cut the Tigers lead to 63-13.
“It was just a little shallow route,” Baggett said. “The only reason I scored is because the two outside receivers, Trevon (Brown) and (Deondre) Farrior had really good blocks. It was a walk-in because of them.”
Minshew and Ferguson had accounted for the four highest single game passing yardage games in the AAC this season. Previous ECU starter Thomas Sirk had the fifth highest total, but was supplanted by Minshew as the starter for the last three games.
Memphis finished with a 635-466 lead in total offense. The Tigers got 127 yards rushing from Taylor and 122 yards from Henderson.
Ferguson completed nine of 13 for 299 yards with three TDs and no picks.
Minshew connected on 28 of 54 tosses for 351 yards with two scores and three interceptions.
“We hurt ourselves early and missed some opportunities,” Minshew said. “We gave them some points.”
Tyshon Dye had 12 carries for 71 yards in the second half to lead ECU’s ground game.
Montgomery likely will be back and Brown, a junior, will see where he’s led after making seven catches for 128 yards.
“I’ve looked into [the NFL],” Brown said. “Wherever God takes me. I’ve talked to my Mom. Whatever decision I make, it’s all for the best. I love these boys here. I love the coaches. I love the atmosphere at ECU. I just want to come out here and play football.”