East Carolina goes to Tulsa for an 8 p.m. kickoff Saturday and will take the momentum of its first win since Sept. 10. Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery has noticed more leadership from players after a thorough 41-3 defeat of Connecticut at ECU’s homecoming.
“Our focus has been really, really good even throughout some of the times we would like to look back on and wish we could change but we can’t,” Montgomery said. “What we’re seeing now is some guys that are really taking the leadership role by the horns, really vocalizing to their players and also to their coaches about, ‘Look, these guys give us the best chance. This guy is doing everything he can do. Maybe he’s not quite ready but he’s doing everything he can do and if he doesn’t do everything he can do, I’m going to hold him accountable.’
“We’ve had a lot of accountability, especially in our defense. I really like the way they’re practicing and they’re playing. Offensively, they’re getting to a point of where it’s all about execution. I can see it. It’s all about execution. They understand the importance of every single play. They’ve always practiced hard and practiced well but right now we’re trying to make sure that we’re right in every situation in all the details. It’s not coaches yelling and screaming and trying to get it together or working it, we’ve got guys really working hard and trying to make sure they do exactly what they’re asked to do.”
Defense sets tone with fourth-down stop
The Pirates stopped the Huskies on 4th-and-1 at the ECU 31-yard line on UConn’s first series on Saturday and went 68 yards in 13 plays to score on a 4-yard pass from Philip Nelson to James Summers on a 4th-and-2.
“That was a big, big, big deal,” Montgomery said. “The way that everything went, getting that fourth down stop after a big-time return that they had and our defense stopping them, it was a huge momentum shift but I knew that when we got to a situation we needed to score, I didn’t want three. I wanted to go get a touchdown. The other side of the fourth down stop, we were able to convert a big-time fourth down. Those two plays together were really crucial for our football team.”
Furlow as decoy
ECU had Shawn Furlow in at running back on the first scoring play. Montgomery had talked about giving the sophomore playing time during homecoming week.
“I think they knew we were trying to get the ball in his hands,” said the Pirates coach. ” . . . I thought that was a great job. That was a great call. We worked that exact situation in practice. We’ve been in a lot of 3rd-and-7s down there, 3rd-and-8s, 3rd-and-9s down there, some uneasy positions but when you get in that location where we were you have a lot of different play calls. The ability for James to play multiple positions and still know exactly what he’s supposed to be doing really helps us a lot.”
The Pirates also scored on a fourth down to go ahead 24-3 in the third quarter. Summers got into the end zone on a 4th-and-goal at the UConn 1.
“We thought that [Brian] Hardy did a good job on that, going out on the end,” Montgomery said. “Our back also did a good job of meeting the linebacker in the hole. All we needed right there was one yard. A couple of times when that has happened this year, I thought we could have been more aggressive carrying the football and converted a 1-yard run. I thought he did a good job of it.
“He ran more like running back this week than he has in the previous games. He ran a little bit like a quarterback that runs the football really well before. Now, he’s starting to look like a running back that runs the football.”
Success on road
ECU looks to follow up on its first American Athletic Conference win in the Montgomery era with its first road victory under its first-year coach.
Montgomery was asked about factors needed for success in an opposing environment. Four sacks and three take-aways were trend-changing events in the UConn game.
Another positive was the Pirates’ 5-for-5 performance in the red zone last week after some missed opportunities in scoring range earlier in the season.
“We’ve still got to create pressure from our defense,” Montgomery said. “I think our defense is going to go play really well.
“Offensively, we’ve got to be able to make sure that we create some of these X plays and turn them into touchdowns. Focus is going to be at the top of the list. This is a focused team.
“We have some depth issues at some spots. We have to stay healthy early in the game. We’ve got to be penalty-disciplined. We’ve also got to catch a few of those picks that we caught last week. Hopefully, some of those picks won’t be overturned by calls and different things during this game. If we do that, just like we did last week, we’d have been in great positon in every game we’ve been in, maybe except for Virginia Tech.”
ACC vs. AAC
Montgomery has been a player and coach at Duke in the ACC. Halfway through his first run through the AAC, he talked about the difference in the two leagues.
“They’re different, there’s no question about it,” Montgomery said. “The one thing that I will say about the Atlantic Coast Conference is that the recruiting in that conference is usually a stars recruiting at some places. . . . It’s very similar from a coaching standpoint. Guys do a great job in that conference. In our conference, I mean coaches do a really, really good job. The difference, I think the coaches in this conference, they do a lot better job of evaluating.
“I think our parity is different than the parity in the ACC. . . . In the ACC, some guys are evaluating and some guys are star recruiting. . . . Here, I think there are a lot of great evaluators and the parity is because they are doing a good job of evaluating and it’s just a competitive league.
“Every week here, I feel like any team can beat another team. I don’t care who it is. I think that any team in this league can beat another team. In that league, I think there’s certain elite teams, you’re going to have to play an absolutely-perfect game to beat them if you’re certain teams because of the recruiting aspect. But here, I don’t think that’s the same. I think you’ve got a great league. I think there is a lot of competitive nature between coaches and players. I think these guys play extremely hard. The overall sense is that these coaches work really, really hard in this conference.”
Addressing needs with junior college talent
Montgomery has talked about evaluating potential Pirate players, finding recruits with upside and developing them at ECU.
“I think that’s starting to happen everywhere because I think there’s a lot of people missing in big programs, even in Power Five conferences,” said the Pirates coach. “I think a lot of people are missing because they’re relying on a lot of the star recruiting. But here, this is a lot more developmental than acquisitional.”
The Pirates will continue to fill some immediate needs with junior college transfers.
“You’ve got to be able to bring in people that can bridge the gap,” Montgomery said. “A lot of coaches on this level have brought in some junior college guys to bridge the gap, especially in their first few years. That gives them time to really develop some of the young guys. Then they move to just bringing in young guys that they can develop. If you look around the league, people in their second, third and fourth year, really are starting to see some of that benefit.”
Tulsa utilizes spacing
Tulsa (6-2, 3-1 AAC) will spread the field. The Golden Hurricane is second in the AAC in points per game at 42.1.
“The best thing that they do with their offense, they have a good understanding of alignments so they use their splits to their benefit,” Montgomery said. “It benefits their running game a lot more than their passing game. A lot of people think that they throw it around but they run the ball effectively. They’re got two backs. Whether it’s [D’Angelo] Brewer or [James] Flanders, they’re right there at 100 yards a game. Their offensive front is very, very good. Being physical and athletic, they do a good job. When I say big and physical, maybe not the 330 [pounds] across the board but 300 pounds, 320, 290 pounds. They do a good job of comboing in their inside zone game. They’ve got some run schemes that really, really help them.
“As they remove their receivers from the interior, if they pop one, there’s a very good chance that it goes the distance, especially for teams that don’t want to play single safety football.”
Tulsa is allowing 31.9 points per game, which is 12th and last in the AAC. Still, there is some quality personnel.
“Defensively, I think they do a really, really good job of trying to keep it in front and making you execute,” Montgomery said. “Their front is definitely their strength. They do a good job of applying pressure with just four people. I think their ends are probably the strongest part of their team — relentless rushers. They tackle the football on the way to the quarterback.
“All in all, a really, really good football team and it’s been really opportunistic whether it’s been on special teams or getting turnovers and turning them into points. They play really, really good football and team football.”
ECU (3-5, 1-3) fell behind throughout a five-game losing streak that preceded the win over UConn. A series of comebacks came up short.
“We’ve got to start fast,” Montgomery said. “As a team, we’ve got to start fast. We know offensively that they’re going to play good football and we know defensively they’re going to play good football.
“We’ve got to get off the plane and get off the bus and be ready to go, play hard and good football in the first quarter. We need some stops. We need some really, really crucial stops in our territory. Field position is going to be a major deal this game.
“Special teams-wise, we’ve got to continue going in the direction that we’re going. We’re starting to turn in some good performances from special teams, everything considered.
“Offensively, we’ve got to make big-time plays in this game. I want to see some explosives. The other thing, when we get in the 3rd-and-shorts and 4th-and-shorts, we have to go be physical against a good defensive front.”