East Carolina’s Pirates have not been living up to their name. The element of piracy has been missing for the most part this season.
The practice of attacking and robbing ships was standard practice for buccaneers along the Eastern Carolina coast centuries ago.
Those pirates struck fear in the hearts of their victims — moving in swiftly, attacking and plundering.
Generating turnovers is the gridiron equivalent of piracy and going into homecoming against Connecticut on Saturday at noon, the 2016 ECU team has not been able to seize much in the way of treasure.
The Pirates (2-5, 0-3) are minus-12 in turnovers, last in the 12-team American Athletic Conference. The 11th-place team, Tulsa, is barely visible from the crow’s nest at minus-3.
Captain, er, coach Scottie Montgomery is well aware of the deficiency.
“The biggest difference this year has been our turnover margin, which we’re last in,” Montgomery said Wednesday. “It’s not necessarily because we’ve been turning the ball over an inordinate amount, which we’ve turned it over way too much, but it’s basically because we haven’t gotten the turnovers.”
Sometimes, the Pirates’ “ARRRRGH,” has been turned into “AWWWWH.”
“Unfortunately, when we have gotten the turnovers, they’ve been overturned, whether it be a penalty or a targeting or whatever it may have been, they’ve been overturned,” Montgomery said.
Case in point in a 31-19 loss at Cincinnati on Saturday night was an interception by Corey Seargent on the Bearcats sideline. Seargent returned the pick from the ECU 48 to the UC 31. The Pirates trailed 17-13 late in the third quarter but the opportunity pivoted on a yellow flag.
“The momentum in a game shifts twice,” Montgomery said. “It shifts when you get a turnover but I’ve never seen the momentum shift as much as when you get a turnover and then it is overturned and you have to give the ball back. That’s such an emotional swing for both teams that it usually turns into points for the opposite team. That’s kind of what it does. The first emotional swing when you do actually get a turnover, what it does is it takes your defense off the field quicker. Puts your offense back on the field more so it gives you another chance in a stolen possession to be able to score, which increases your chances to win a huge amount.
“All those things combined, the emotional sense to it, the point that you can get more points per game and then if you do have one that’s overturned, it really takes your team a step back. Turnovers are critical for a lot of reasons. It really messes with the emotional state of quarterbacks, even on a fumble. Anyone who has coached quarterbacks knows this. If a ball is handed off and the ball is fumbled, it affects the quarterback’s emotions. That’s because quarterbacks need to feel the sense of finishing something. The next part of it is an interception, it really affects the quarterback because now he’s starting to doubt his skill and his ability and he didn’t have the ability to finish what he started. Those things have some psychological effects and some emotional effects.”
When Seargent’s interception was overturned, veteran UC quarterback and Pirate tormenter Gunner Kiel threw for 47 yards to Kahlil Lewis on the next play. Kiel hit Lewis for a 9-yard touchdown and a 24-13 Bearcats lead on the ensuing snap with 50 seconds left in the third quarter.
Montgomery questioned the call. Turns out, he had support in the AAC office from Terry McAulay, who has been referee in two Super Bowls.
“They made the call on the corner [Seargent],” Montgomery said.
The play-by-play account that UC’s media relations department put out said that the holding call was on Jordan Williams, who was in coverage away from the ball.
“I did talk to the head of officials, Terry McAulay.” Montgomery said. “He advised me that he did not see it as defensive holding or a penalty. It was a call that he disagreed with.”
Montgomery was associate head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Duke last year when missed calls on an 8-lateral kickoff return allowed Miami to top the Blue Devils, 30-27. That crew was subsequently suspended by the ACC.
Focus on improvement
ECU has been showing some positive signs despite the agony of its losing streak.
“This team is a resilient team,” Montgomery said. “We haven’t had anybody to be down. You would think that you would have that. You’ve got to understand what being a Pirate is sometimes and this is right now. We’re having to understand that our margin of error is small. We accept that. We embrace that.
“We’ve been through situations to where there may have been calls that did not go our way. I think a couple of our guys have maybe felt that but there’s also a certain sense that when you look at the tape there’s been some physical errors, fumbling, an interception where we should have thrown it here or thrown it there.”
Montgomery and the Pirates can see what’s caused the losses.
“A lot of times when you look at tape, you don’t know why you necessarily lost,” Montgomery said. “Is it a call? This has been one of those years you can see exactly why we lost the game. We’ve been in every game in the fourth quarter to win except for Virginia Tech and we’ve had some unfortunate circumstances. Because of that, they’ve been able to come back to work every single day like I need to work on this, coach. I need to work on this, this, this. . . . I love this team. It’s tough because we’re in the middle of a five-game losing streak. We’re really close to just flipping it and winning the rest of them but we also have to understand the foundations that are being built underneath it all.
“We’re one of the least penalized teams in the conference. I think we’re No. 2 in total penalties. That’s something that we work really, really hard on. I think we’re No. 3 in total penalty yardage, which is also something that we’ve worked really, really hard on, but at the end of the day it’s about points per game. That’s what we’re driving home. . . . Right now, I think we’re No. 1 in total offense but that does not equate to points per game. We’ve got to be much better at it.”
ECU is first in the AAC in total yards at 513.7 per game. The Pirates are ninth in the league in points per game at 26.7.
“We’ve got a lot of energy, a lot of juice,” Montgomery said. “My standpoint is I’m going to coach as hard as I can coach, be detailed. We know we’ve been in some situations that we’d like to be different but you can’t cry over spilled milk. We’ve got to make sure that everyone is getting better, coaches included.”
ECU calling on South Central grad
Shawn Furlow, a sophomore running back who played at South Central in Greenville, has been getting some reps in practice this week. Furlow had his longest carry as a freshman, 27 yards, in a 31-13 loss at UConn last season.
Furlow and alignment in the secondary were areas of emphasis in a heavy workout Tuesday.
“We had the input of a new player in our backfield, Shawn Furlow, so we really wanted to talk to him about the detail of every play,” Montgomery said. “The other thing was alignment in our coverage. Our coverage has suffered at times during this year. A lot of it is alignment. A lot of people think it’s maybe you don’t have this guy, you don’t have that guy, the guy that you’re playing is a freshman. Those are excuses. There are no excuses. There are no explanations. What you have to do is go back and find out the real why. The why is a lot of it had to do with alignment versus physical ability. We have to be able to coach that tighter and they have to be able to take it to the field — and do it better than what we’ve done it.
“. . . Defensively, you’d like to see the combination of pass rush connected to that coverage will give us a better chance. Other people will point to — you don’t have some of your pass rushers that you had last year. You don’t have some of the guys that you thought you were going to have. All of these things, is it taking a toll on your team? I don’t think so. . . . What you have to do is you have to make the correct decision like dismissing a player when you have to dismiss a player, doing things the right way, putting people on the field who deserve it and who work really hard. At the end of the day when the foundation is strong and we continue to grow some of our young players and the speed of our older players continues to grow, the pass rush will be great.
“Those things are things that we push to our guys on a constant basis — just doing the ordinary things better than anybody else. That’s what we’ve got to continue to do. There’s been a lot of things that happened in the last couple of games especially that we can point to to say this is how close you are. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. You’ve got to be able to actually finish the job.”
Furlow brings a unique skill set.
“He’s a physical back but what I really like about him are his feet,” Montgomery said. “I think he can put it in the hole. I also think he has one of the best jump cuts that we have on the team. He’s learned the playbook now to a certain extent the way that we want him to.
“We were also going to try to give Derrell Scott a chance. Unfortunately, he’s had a little bit of a hamstring issue that he’s had for a few weeks now. All in all, we think that Shawn gives us a chance as another change-up. We’re going to give the ball to James [Summers] as much as we can. We also want to give the ball to Shawn as much as he can handle in his first game. We know there’s a tremendous amount of stress and pressure that goes with carrying the ball for the first time in your hometown this year.
“He’s done it before but really not in this type of a sense. He’s going to get a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. His family members are going to be excited. Everybody is going to be excited. We’re looking forward to it.”
UConn is last in the AAC in scoring at 20.2 points per game but the Huskies are sixth in pass offense at 238.2 yards per game.
“Traditional UConn, you think they come out with 12 personnel (two tight ends) and run the ball down your throat, offensively,” Montgomery said. “That’s not who they are anymore. They can throw it as well. They’ll get into some spread sets now in 11 personnel, which is one tight end and three receivers and a back and still run inside zones, some different schemes and throw the ball to the perimeter a lot more.
“They’re really, really talented at receiver. Noel Thomas, from a receiving standpoint, if you throw it anywhere near him, he’s going to go catch it. I really like the way he plays the game. He reminds me in so many senses of some of the guys — like a Hines Ward-type body — that if you get it near him he’s going to finish it. He’s a true competitor. He can play multiple positions. He can work the slide. He can work the outside. Really like him as a player. Also, Bryant Shirreffs — he’s done a good job because everybody thinks he can just throw it. He’s run the ball about 120 times already this year so he presents a challenge for us.
“Defensively, their total scheme and their ability to go in and out of fronts, if he wants to — that’s the biggest deal with them, [head] coach [Bob] Diaco, coach [Anthony] Poindexter (defensive coordinator/safeties) and coach [Vincent] Brown (co-defensive coordinator/linebackers). Those are guys that I’ve known for a while, going all the way back to their days at Virginia. They have a great knowledge of what they want to do defensively.
“Defensively, they’re big. They’re big in their fronts. They’re big at safety. At the corner position, they can cover you. At the linebacker position, they can get you on the ground. We’re going to see some different schemes in their fronts but our guys are really energized. A lot of people on the outside might not feel that. I thought they played really hard this past week. I thought they played hard the game before. They’re energized and they understand what they’re fighting for and how hard you have to fight every day.
“I had a great meeting with [senior inside linebacker] Cam White a couple of days ago — just seeing his energy and his emotion and his want-to to go play again. All of them want to go play for their coaches. They want to go play for their families and they want to go play for Pirate Nation so we’re really energized and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Containing Thomas is an important factor for success for ECU.
“The one thing on our defense, we can’t let No. 5 (Thomas) beat us,” Montgomery said. “We’re trying to treat him as kind of the guy on their offense. About 70 percent of their offense is running through them, especially in critical situations. We’ve got to do a good job of containing No. 5. He’s a really, really good player. That’s where it kind of starts. We also can’t let their run game get started. No. 22 (Arkeel Newsome) does a good job with this in the interior and exterior run. He’s a lot harder tackle than people think. You see him, he’s 5-7, maybe 185, 190 pounds but his low center of gravity makes him hard to get on the ground at times. We just can’t give up the eight- to 12-yard runs. We need to stop them in first-down situations, give up one- to two-yard runs so we can get to 2nd-and-8 and 3rd-and-6.
“Offensively, we’ve got to score points. I don’t care how many yards we have. I’ve read all the deals about where we are offensively. I just want to see points scored. I want to see touchdowns. If we’ve got 180 yards and 45 points, I’m going to be really, really happy about that. We’ve got to start scoring points. When we get in the red zone, we’ve got to target the correct people, of course, but we’ve got to score points.”
Thomas is averaging 9.5 receptions per game, second in the AAC to ECU’s Zay Jones at 13.6 per contest.
Jones has 95 catches this season and 336 for his career. He is within striking distance of the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision record of 387 set by Justin Hardy of the Pirates in 2014.
Jones is already third on the all-time list. Former Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles is second with 349 catches.
ECU has won 10 straight homecomings and is 51-10 overall for the occasion. The Pirates were 30-17 winners over Tulsa at homecoming in 2015.
“It’s a special occasion,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got a lot of people coming in. A lot of the families coming in. A lot of our alumni coming in. Former players coming in. We’ve got a lot of recruits in town. We want to come out and play well but we need to score some points and stop them from scoring. We need an impressive victory. We think our kids are up to the challenge. They’re working so hard and what we want them to understand is that when you do put in the work the way they’re putting in, there will be a reward.”