With three games left in the regular season and needing three wins for bowl eligibility, East Carolina (3-6, 1-4 AAC) has no margin for error to qualify for a postseason trip.
The Pirates must put together a three-game winning streak in order to make their 11th bowl game of the millennium. ECU went 5-7 last season and 3-5 in league play and was home for the holidays.
The Pirate seniors especially would like to make a bowl to close their college careers but defensive back DaShaun Amos said the focus is more immediate after a 45-24 loss at Tulsa on Saturday night.
“One day at a time,” Amos said. “It starts with [Sunday] — just getting in there, watching film, correcting our mistakes and getting our head back up. Getting some confidence back in the room and taking it one day at a time. When Saturday gets here, taking care of business. Prepare for the next team and the next team and come out with a W.”
ECU hosts Southern Methodist (4-5, 2-3) on Saturday at noon. The Mustangs are coming off a 51-7 home loss to Memphis.
Zay Jones is poised to pursue the Football Bowl Subdivision career catches record of 387 set by former Pirate teammate Justin Hardy in 2014.
Jones had 13 catches for a personal best 206 yards against the Golden Hurricane. His 51-yard scoring reception from Philip Nelson got ECU on the board in the first quarter after Tulsa had jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
Jones set the ECU and American record for catches in a season as he boosted his 2016 total to 127. The record is an accomplishment for the offensive unit.
“It is a positive,” said the younger son of Robert Jones, former ECU All-American and three-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys at linebacker. “The numbers that I care about right now are 45-24.
“We didn’t get it done. I could set every record but if we’re not putting up wins, it ultimately won’t matter. For me, maybe yeah but I care deeply for this football team. The city of Greenville deserves better. This football team deserves better and the players in our locker room deserve better.”
Jones has 368 career receptions. He was disappointed with the outcome against Tulsa, a program the Pirates had beaten six straight times.
“It’s a tough loss,” Jones said. “You’ve got to give credit to Tulsa. They’re a good football team. They have a really potent offense. We knew that coming in. The defense did a good job of trying to contain those guys. We just didn’t get it done as a team. We didn’t execute enough and they did.”
The Golden Hurricane led 616-474 in total yardage.
“You never want to trail these guys because they’re so good on offense and are led by a great coaching staff,” Jones said. “Everything’s possible. It’s college football. We had opportunities and we didn’t capitalize on them. We made too many mistakes, too many penalties tonight.”
ECU was averaging 4.1 penalties and 35.3 penalty yards going into the Tulsa game. The Pirates were eighth nationally for fewest flags per game but drew 13 penalties Saturday night for 117 yards.
Gardner Minshew replaced Nelson at quarterback late in the first half against the Golden Hurricane. Minshew completed 29 of 49 passes for 336 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
“Gardner is a great asset to our team,” Jones said. “We know what he brings to the table. It was good to see him get in there and make some good, competitive throws and try to lead our offense. Tulsa just did a good job of executing and we didn’t get it done. We weren’t efficient enough tonight.”
Pirates coach Scottie Montgomery noted that Nelson didn’t have a full week of practice last week due to shoulder issues. Montgomery was hopeful that Nelson would be available to be involved in all aspects of preparation this week. Jones wasn’t sure how Nelson’s down time last week impacted his effectiveness.
“I don’t know,” Jones said. “I’m just going to trust the coaching staff and the decision that they made. I still have complete confidence in Phil. I’m not sure what the situation was — if he was hurt, injured, I don’t know any of that. I’m not saying he was. The coaching staff made a decision. I trust Coach Mo (coach Scottie Montgomery) and Coach (Tony) Petersen (offensive coordinator) to make the best choice for our football team.
“When the ball is up in the air, my job is to catch the football and I tried to come out here tonight and do that for my team. It just wasn’t enough. There’s a red zone play that I didn’t come down with that I wish I could have back but that’s football. That’s life. You’ve got to move on.”
Jones appeared to be calling for a pass interference penalty after a toss in the right corner of the end zone on 2nd-and-goal at the Tulsa 1-yard line sailed long for an incompletion with Tulsa leading 38-17 early in the fourth quarter. A 43-yard completion from Minshew to Jones plus a roughing the passer penalty put ECU at the Golden Hurricane 13-yard line on the series. Tulsa sacked Minshew on fourth down to complete a goal-line stand.
“You can’t make an excuse,” Jones said. “Great players make it. I wasn’t great enough.”
Home sweet home
ECU is 3-1 at home this season. The Pirates are winless on the road.
“You’ve just got to know when you come into these competitive situations that you’re going to face a good team,” Jones said. “Our conference is a strong conference. We’re playing great football teams. Tulsa proved to be one of the best ones. They’re 7-2. . . . They have a great football team.
“When you go on the road, you’ve just got to be prepared for anything that hits you. You’ve got to deal with their fans and things of that sort. It’s a different atmosphere but we’ll get it right. We have one more chance against Temple (Nov. 26), I believe.”
Tulsa ran for 374 yards and passed for 274. The Golden Hurricane answered ECU’s comeback efforts.
“Due to their running success, the safeties were playing the run a little bit more but I don’t think that really had a lot to do with it,” Amos said. “It was more technique on our end. Fatigue — we’ve got to keep our technique when it comes to times like that and make the play when it’s at our position.
“Of course, we can’t duplicate the speed of their offense (in practice) as far as their hurry-up, but all the plays they ran we’ve seen on film. We practiced during the week. Nothing that really shocked us. It was just the speed, the tempo, which we caught up to. It was more technique and discipline. … They have a good team.”
Amos not blaming helmets
ECU slipped to 0-5 in white helmets over the last three seasons. The Pirates have played some good teams in that headgear option and Amos said that’s not a factor in outcomes.
Montgomery makes the call on ECU’s apparel. Former coach Ruffin McNeill gave seniors input on what the Pirates would wear.
The first-year ECU coach chose gold pants and purple jerseys for a 41-3 homecoming win over Connecticut on Oct. 29.
Amos downplays the relevance of uniforms. ECU has moved to adidas equipment in his last season with the Pirates.
“That has nothing to do with it,” Amos said. “That’s just outside noise. People saying we always lose in this. You look back at last year, we lost in every combination.
“People used to say we didn’t lose in black uniforms. We lost in our black jerseys. It has nothing to do with what we wear.
“We could come out here in all yellow. We don’t even have all yellow. We could come out here in all green. It’s all football. Discipline. Take care of your job. It doesn’t matter what you have on.”