GREENVILLE — Scottie Montgomery came through the pre-game smoke at the Murphy Center end of East Carolina’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, with fist pumps, a momentary prayer and the undaunted crossing of his forearms that has become a symbol of the Pirates.
The crowd of 44,161 quickly fed off his emotion.
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Game Center: ECU vs. WCU
Sept. 3, 2016
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- Game Day Slants: Defense nipped adversity in the bud by Brett Friedlander
- Game Day Photo Gallery: ECU 52, WCU 7 | Sept. 3. 2016 by Bonesville Staff
- ECU VS. WCU – Coach Mo Post-Game Press Conference (Recorded by Bonesville Staff)
“It was great,” he said. “Being embraced … by Pirate Nation was fantastic. … I felt like I walked into nothing but family, being able to see all that purple.”
The new ECU football coach had talked about the anticipation building up to the entrance. His first-year team delivered long after the smoke had cleared, executing efficiently against Western Carolina of the Football Championship Subdivision for a 52-7 win Saturday night.
Rain inundated the region for the latter part of game week but the turf was in immaculate shape as ECU traversed Bagwell Field for 385 yards in building a 31-7 halftime lead. The Pirates finished with 688 yards of total offense, including 275 rushing, an area that has received emphasis with the coaching transition.
“I was kind of worried about the weather,” Montgomery said. “We had a great practice Friday, in the rain. … Great tempo.”
Philip Nelson introduced himself by completing 28 of 32 passes for 398 yards and five scores. Nelson last played at Minnesota in 2013 but showed no rust.
“What you saw was a quarterback that understands the offense,” Montgomery said. “He lived up to everything we thought he would be. He took care of the offense.”
Nelson ran seven yards for the first touchdown in the Montgomery era, making a read from a full T set and darting into the end zone to complete an 89-yard drive on ECU’s first possession after a momentum-swinging interception by Travon Simmons.
Nelson credited his summer workouts with receivers for the cohesion in the passing game against the Catamounts, who fell to 0-52 against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents.
“I can’t say enough about the receivers coming out there three times a week during the hot summer, running routes and getting on the same page,” Nelson said. “The offensive line came out there and did some team stuff on their own. A lot of that work over the summer paid off. …
“There’s a lot of emotions. I’m just so proud of our guys. … At the same time, we’re not done here yet. This is one game. Tomorrow, it’s all N.C. State.”
The Pirates host the Wolfpack (1-0) at noon Saturday.
James Summers also took some snaps, as he did in splitting time with Blake Kemp during a 5-7 season in 2015. Summers ran eight times for 87 yards and completed his only pass for 15 yards. Offensive coordinator Tony Petersen had Summers in some sets that were well-suited to his talents.
“We haven’t had a guy with this kind of versatility,” Montgomery said of Summers, who sometimes lined up in the backfield with Nelson. “Every week, we’re learning how to use him. … He’s a dynamic talent. He’s a hard tackle.”
Zay Jones, the Pirate previously known as Isaiah Jones, had 10 catches for 180 yards and a score. His dad, Robert Jones, is now listed among the All-Americans in ECU football in a new display on the facing of the upper deck.
“The weapons that Phil has had a good night tonight,” Montgomery said. “There was a lot of balls being caught.”
Anthony Scott had 11 carries for 120 yards with one touchdown.
“We’re going to continue to try to get better at rushing the football,” Montgomery said.
ECU totaled 413 yards passing without junior wide receiver Trevon Brown, who was held out pending confirmation of his eligibility.
The action followed a standard review of submitted rosters to ECU’s compliance personnel.
First games as indicators
The first games of ECU coaches have oftentimes been good indicators of program performance during their respective tenures.
John Thompson’s first game in 2003 was a 40-3 loss at Cincinnati, foreboding two seasons in which the Pirates were 3-20.
Former ECU athletic director Terry Holland turned to Skip Holtz and his first game was a 24-21 win over Duke in 2005. Holtz would guide the Pirates to Conference USA championships in 2008 and 2009 before seeing greener grass at South Florida.
Ruffin McNeill’s first game will be hard to surpass for drama, a 51-49 win over Tulsa in 2010 in an expanded Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with Justin Jones hauling in a deciding Hail Mary pass from Dominique Davis. Close games were common in the McNeill era and ultimately a 19-16 loss to Cincinnati that prevented bowl eligibility in 2015 cost him his job.
The odds were stacked against Steve Logan in season openers. The winningest coach in ECU history took two losses to Syracuse, a 13-10 loss at Duke and a 27-7 setback at Tennessee in 1995 in his first four seasons at the Pirate helm.
After a breather against East Tennessee State (45-21 ECU win in 1996), ECU opened against West Virginia (24-17, loss) and Virginia Tech (38-3, loss) in 1997 and 1998. Logan liked what he saw from freshman David Garrard against the Hokies and the Pirates knocked off West Virginia 30-23 the following season in Charlotte.
Since 2012, ECU has opened with a team from the FCS, taking wins over Appalachian State, Old Dominion, N.C. Central, Towson and Western Carolina.
The Pirates also defeated NCCU 52-7 to start the 2014 season.
Big weekend nationally
Most national powers used to open against an outmanned opponent but that approach changed this year for many highly-regarded programs.
Alabama-Southern California, Clemson-Auburn, LSU-Wisconsin, Ole Miss-Florida State and UCLA-Texas A&M were some of the high-profile opening matchups.
Houston took advantage of its opportunities against No. 3 Oklahoma and put a feather in the American Athletic Conference’s cap with a 33-23 win Saturday.