East Carolina has long since passed the point of moral victories against Power 5 opponents, especially on days in which it outgains its brand name opposition by more than 200 yards and rolls up a 17-minute advantage in time of possession.
So it’s understandable that coach Scottie Montgomery didn’t take too well to being asked if he could draw any positives from Saturday’s 20-15 loss at South Carolina.
“No,” he said, displeasure dripping from his voice after his first defeat as a head coach. “We don’t look at moral victories and draw positives.”
The bottom line from the frustrating outcome is that the Pirates have no one but themselves to blame for a loss that could easily have been a two-touchdown victory. Their laundry list of self-inflicted mistakes included four turnovers — including two interceptions and a fumble inside the Gamecocks’ 10-yard line — along with a missed field goal, a special teams breakdown on the game’s opening kickoff and eight penalties.
That’s one more infraction than they had in their first two games combined for those of you keeping score at home.
And yet despite all that and the the golden opportunity the comedy of errors helped squander, there actually was a positive ECU can take away from an otherwise disappointing late-summer afternoon in Columbia.
Specifically, the performance of its defense stood out after a near-disastrous start that saw the opposition jump out to a 17-0 head start after only seven minutes of play.
“We got punched in the mouth,” said linebacker Terrell Richardson. “But I like the way we stayed together and kept fighting.”
To be fair, even that 17-point punch wasn’t entirely the defense’s fault.
Two of USC’s first three scores were the direct result of ECU breakdowns — with a touchdown coming on a nine-yard drive set up by A.J. Turner’s 80-yard kickoff return and subsequent horse collar penalty, and a field goal set up by Philip Nelson’s fumble deep in Pirates territory.
Regardless of how the damage was done, the hole ECU dug for itself is one from which even the best teams rarely recover. But even with the momentum, a raucous towel-waving crowd and an SEC opponent working against them, the Pirates almost did.
They held the Gamecocks to a single field goal over the final 3½ quarters while yielding just 208 total yards over a dominant stretch that kept the game within striking distance almost until the bitter end.
“Once [the defense] saw 17 on the board it was almost like, ‘That’s it, you get no more,’ ” Montgomery said afterward. “They were in a bad situation. Ten of those points were [possessions] not conducive to good defense. But our defense did a great job.”
Granted, USC and its true freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain are hardly an offensive juggernaut. But defense has never been ECU’s strong suit, either.
That’s why Saturday’s performance was so significant.
Instead of relying on the offense to carry the defense by putting up big numbers on the scoreboard, as has happened so many times in the past, this group of Pirates showed that they have the capability to stay competitive even on days in which points are at a premium.
The key to that effort has been the play of a defensive line that has overcome the adversity of losing projected starting end Darius Commissiong before the season began and quickly developed into an area of strength, thanks to the example set by senior nose tackle Demetri McGill.
“Our defense was led by Demetri McGill, who played a physical game once again,” Montgomery said. “[It was] the second week in a row that he’s played well and played above the line and also the rest of the defensive line.”
McGill, along with ends Demage Bailey, Justin Brown, Fred Presley and others up front, not only stuffed USC’s run game, but aided their teammates in the secondary by putting meaningful pressure on the quarterback in passing situations throughout the afternoon.
Through three games, the Pirates are allowing an average of just 19 points.
While that promising start doesn’t make Saturday’s avoidable loss any less difficult to stomach or soften any of the challenging tests ECU’s unheralded defense must still face — starting with this week’s game at Virginia Tech — it is at least something positive on which ECU can build as the season progresses.