After the exhilaration of a 41-3 homecoming win over Connecticut on Saturday, East Carolina will look to continue a midseason turnaround at Tulsa.
“It’s about the players and keeping them really healthy, juiced up,” said coach Scottie Montgomery in regard to sustaining momentum. “Practice has been great. The energy has been great.”
Montgomery used his communication skills effectively to refine the Pirates’ approach.
“What I wanted them to understand this week is that discipline doesn’t mean tight,” the ECU coach said after a five-game losing streak became history. “Discipline means discipline. You can be disciplined and play as free and loose and have as good a time as you want to but you’re still disciplined.
“I felt like over the last seven to eight weeks, we were so disciplined that at times our guys couldn’t really be themselves. We had a lot of talk about that this week, about going and playing — play free, play fast but keep your discipline. I thought they did that.”
Pratt breaks sack drought
The Pirates had not had a sack during the five-game losing streak but outside linebacker Dayon Pratt broke the drought in the second quarter by wrapping up Huskies quarterback Bryant Shirreffs for a four-yard loss on 3rd-and-3 at the ECU 13. UConn settled for a 34-yard field goal by Bobby Puyol on the next play for its only points of the game, cutting ECU’s lead to 7-3.
The Pirates also got sacks from Jordan Williams, DaShaun Amos and Colby Gore.
“It feels like we’re back to Pirate football,” Pratt said. “We feed off each other’s energy and the more we do that, it’s going to be an easy game. Nobody can stop us if we just do what we’re supposed to do and feed off each other’s energy.”
Pressure on the quarterback helps in coverage, too.
“It feels good to get back in the column — to see the guys go out there and have fun and execute,” said Amos, a senior defensive back. “We came out with the W. Defense kept them out of the end zone. It’s a good foundation and hopefully it rolls into next week.
“We normally blitz a good amount of times but today I did feel like we blitzed a little bit more to get that pressure on the quarterback. We covered well on the back end so — just getting after the quarterback, getting him uncomfortable so when it’s time to cover, it makes it a little easier.”
Jones approaching Hardy’s mark
Zay Jones had an exceptional day. He had 19 catches for 185 yards with a touchdown, moving into second place on the Football Bowl Subdivision career list with 355 receptions. Former ECU teammate Justin Hardy set the record in 2014 with 387 catches.
Jones didn’t know he was closing in on the record held by Hardy, who now plays for the Atlanta Falcons.
“Really?,” Jones said. “Yeah, that’s cool. I didn’t know that so that’s awesome. Right behind Hardy. Hopefully, pass him pretty soon. That would be pretty cool.”
Hardy had a catch for 13 yards in Atlanta’s 33-32 win over Green Bay on Sunday.
Jones had 81 catches in 2014 when Hardy broke the record. Jones was asked if he had been in touch with his former teammate.
“Actually I haven’t texted him recently,” Jones said. “He texted me at the beginning of the season. Hopefully, I’ll hear from him soon. I know he’s busy though. He’s doing big things at the next level. . . . I don’t have a message for Justin.”
ECU has four more games in the regular season and may achieve bowl eligibility, which could help Jones’ pursuit of a new record.
“It’s going to be great when it gets to that moment,” Jones said. “We’ve just got to keep pressing right now. Hopefully, it will be five games if we get a bowl game so it would be a lot easier for me.”
The one-sided win over UConn boosted the Pirates’ self-perception.
“Yeah, it’s huge for our momentum and our confidence,” Jones said. “I think sometimes people forget that it’s a new system so we’re still getting the hang of it as well. Guys are grasping it well and I feel like we’re really beginning to find ourselves in this offense.”
ECU continued to get enough production on the ground to serve as a balance for the passing attack.
“Our O-line and the rushing game got going with James [Summers],” Jones said. “Shawn Furlow gained some experience so it was good to see everyone just playing well.”
Summers gained 84 yards on 19 carries. Devin Anderson ran four times for 32 yards. Furlow played in a back-up role to Summers and netted 23 yards on five rushes.
Neither Hardy nor Jones arrived at ECU with a lot of fanfare. Hardy was a walk-on who had only one offer — from Division II Fayetteville State.
Former ECU coach Ruffin McNeill knew Jones’ bloodlines were exceptional. His dad, Robert Jones, was an All-American linebacker on the Pirates’ 1991 Peach Bowl team and helped the Dallas Cowboys win three Super Bowls. Jeff Blake, the Pirates’ quarterback in 1991, is Jones’ uncle. His brother, Cayleb, was on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster earlier this season.
Jones, who played at Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, TX, said closing in on the record won’t make him any different.
“That doesn’t change my mentality,” Jones said. “I was nothing coming out of high school. No one labeled me as anything. I don’t need it now. . . . I got some looks from Colorado and Arkansas State but there was nothing really set in stone. ECU was like the only legitimate offer that I had.”
Shawn Furlow was ready when called. The sophomore from South Central High School in Greenville had 25 carries for 83 yards as a freshman but had not run the ball this season.
“I just get in and produce when I can,” Furlow said. “I was satisfied with my performance today. I still can adjust and watch film and get better.”
Furlow was pleased with his unit’s execution.
“Not one turnover,” he noted.
There is a sense of relief within the team that the losing streak is over. There is also the sense that the win can lead to better things.
ECU (3-5, 1-3 American Athletic Conference) is three wins from qualifying for a bowl.
“The emotion from the team is going to be great,” Furlow said. “It’s going to be something to build on, going to the next game. Overall, it was a good win.”
Practice last week was obviously productive.
“It was high tempo, but the majority of it was just being yourself and making your plays when it comes your way,” Furlow said.
Trick plays produce TDs
ECU was 2-for-2 on trick plays for two touchdowns.
Jones hit quarterback Philip Nelson for a 2-yard score late in the first half and Summers hit Jimmy Williams for a TD covering 31 yards in the second half.
“It seemed like it was in the air forever,” Nelson said of his grab in the end zone. “I remember one image of the spiral coming at me and I knew I had to reach out for it. I kept my eyes on it the whole way. . . . It was pretty cool. . . . The emotion level went through the roof. That was incredible.
“I was just glad we called that play. I didn’t think that we were going to actually call it. I’m glad the coaches had the belief in me to be able to do that and have Zay throw it.”
The Jones to Nelson pass gave ECU a 14-3 lead with 45 seconds left in the half, answering the field goal by Puyol.
“That was a huge play, an absolutely huge play,” Nelson said. “That was a score we needed.”
Jones said the play was installed last week.
“That was something that coach [Tony] Petersen (offensive coordinator) and coach [Phil] McGeoghan (wide receivers coach) built this week,” Jones said. “We practiced it all week and it worked out perfectly.”
The gadget plays give opponents more for which to prepare. ECU’s personnel can be utilized in various ways.
“We have the versatility to do it,” Nelson said. “Guys that can catch. A wild card like James [Summers], everyone like that. That’s kind of a good thing for us. It keeps defenses on their toes. I think that’s something that we can definitely move forward implementing in our offense.”
Winning, weather welcome changes
ECU had not won since Sept. 10.
“As [losses] keep piling up, they just keep hurting,” Nelson said. “You almost get emotional, thinking about how good it feels to win and how much work it really does take to win.
“I just want to keep having fun and that’s kind of the main thing. Once we made it about having fun is when the ball started bouncing our way. We just wanted to leave no doubt and we wanted to execute on every single play. That was kind of our big thing this week.”
After a brisk evening at Cincinnati and a 31-19 loss, the temperature was 71 degrees Saturday and the weather was sunny.
Nelson, who is from Minnesota, enjoyed the mild conditions.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “I don’t know how I’m ever going to go back.”