GREENVILLE — Pirate Nation had followed
the quarterback competition, it seemed, since last season ended with an
overtime loss at Marshall. Much of the focus as East Carolina opened
2012 was on how Rio Johnson would handle the starting assignment.
Johnson performed better and better as a
warm day at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium progressed. But aside from the
rookie's offensive leadership, the Pirates played a more complete game
in terms of defense and special teams than in either of the two previous
season openers in the coach Ruffin McNeill era.
ECU didn't have to outscore the
opposition or rely on a closing Hail Mary as in
a 51-49 win over Tulsa in 2010.
The Pirates didn't have a proliferation
of turnovers such as those that eroded an upset opportunity in
a 56-37 loss to South Carolina
in Charlotte in 2011.
In each of the last two seasons, the
first game has provided indications of negative factors that heavily
influenced the remainder of the year.
In 2010, the defense was simply among
the worst in the nation, a fact to which injuries contributed
significantly. ECU allowed 44.0 points per game that season, putting
considerable pressure on the offense.
Last year the turnovers against the
Gamecocks were a preview of an offense that would continue to struggle
with ball security. The Pirates finished with 20 interceptions and 15
lost fumbles. The turnover margin per game was minus-1.2, 119th out of
120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
What did we see out of ECU's effort in
a 35-13 win over Appalachian State on Saturday that might provide some
insight on the season ahead?
The Pirates played better as the game
progressed, an indication perhaps that strength and conditioning coach
Jeff Connors has gotten good results with his offseason running and
lifting program. A lesser team in terms of physical conditioning might
have wilted with the heat index around 100. Connors has always
emphasized being in better shape than the opposition in the fourth
The second thing to note was a solid
defensive effort. ECU tied the score at 7 on a 45-yard fumble return by
Chip Thompson, one of several junior college transfers who made an
immediate impact. After the Mountaineers drove for a touchdown on their
first possession, they would not get into the end zone again.
The 3-4 scheme is in its second season.
The players are familiar with its nuances and ECU has continued to
upgrade the unit in terms of personnel.
The third thing that appeared to be
headed in the right direction was several aspects of special teams play.
ECU was 110th nationally last year in kickoff returns. Lance Ray's
90-yard return for a touchdown was the first of three closing scores by
the Pirates for which the Mountaineers had no answer.
ECU was last nationally in net punting
a year ago but Trent Tignor showed some big leg Saturday, averaging 44.5
yards per punt with a longest of 58 yards.
A 43-yard punt return by Justin Hardy
set up ECU's go-ahead score.
Coach McNeill credited new staff
addition Kirk Doll, fellow alumnus and special teams coordinator, for
"I think we've got a chance to be a
good football team if we'll sustain our focus and continue to keep
working," McNeill said. " ... Special teams made some game-changing
plays. ... All three sides (offense, defense and special teams)
contributed to the win, which is what you want as a coach."
East Carolina athletic director Terry
Holland has made games with Appalachian State happen in 2009 and 2012,
reviving a series that had been dormant since 1979.
"You've got to give credit to
Appalachian State," Holland said. "They've got some talent and they know
how to use it. They're a very good football team. I was pleased that our
guys were able to get through that kind of game and to get down into the
third quarter when it really counted. From there on out, we were cooking
with gas. We were playing very well."
Holland spoke to the future of the old
Southern Conference rivalry.
"We won't play on a regular basis but I
do think it's something that's good for everybody," he said. "One of the
things that I think they do is they bring people here and we like
playing them. It's a good rivalry."
ECU used to play its early season games
at night to avoid the oppressive heat that sent a high percentage of
fans to the exits with the outcome still in doubt on Saturday. The
telecast on Fox Sports no doubt dictated the start time. The temperature
overwhelmed the air conditioning system in the press box as well.
"That's one of those things you just
sit there and shake your head and say, 'Why are we doing this?'" Holland
said. "Why are we doing this to college football? Is it just for the
money? Is it that important?"
Grove looks ahead
ECU inside linebacker Jeremy Grove was
in on nine tackles Saturday. The 2011 Conference USA Freshman of the
Year said the Pirates should have confidence in themselves going into a
12:21 p.m. kickoff Saturday at South Carolina, which was ranked No. 9 in
the preseason USA Today coaches poll.
"We think we can hang with anybody,"
Grove said. "We don't care who they are. We've worked too hard in the
offseason and practiced too hard, so we're excited."
Having an early afternoon game in the
heat under their belt could be an advantage for ECU next week against
the Gamecocks, whose first game, a 17-13 win at Vanderbilt, was played
"I think it will help a lot," Grove
said. "All the conditioning we did in the summer, we can bounce back."
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