East Carolina has traditionally been at its best when the program felt like it had something to prove. The perception of an insult toward the university or a chance to knock off a big-name opponent could unite the team and Pirate Nation.
The Pirates host Navy at 4 p.m. Saturday and the cause will be raising the ECU program in its own eyes.
After a 2-0 start that was followed by losses in seven of the next eight games, ECU will be about proving that it is better than the perception the prolonged adversity has generated.
Versatile James Summers will be among the seniors who will be playing their last home game.
“It’s very frustrating but we can’t let that overcome us,” said Summers, who ran 12 times for 89 yards Saturday in a 55-31 home loss to Southern Methodist. “We have to finish what we started and that’s playing together. We have to come out this week and we’ve got to let it all loose and put it all on the line for these last two games.
“That would give a lot to our fans and everybody who believes in us. I still believe in us, period. No doubt about it. I don’t care what happens. I hope we all have that mindset and come back to work.”
This will be an important week for senior leadership.
“Coach hit on that as soon as he got in there (locker room),” Summers said. “These guys have got to have something to fight for. There’s not a lot of seniors on this team but the ones that are, we’ve got to lay it on the line and set the tone for the younger guys. That will follow up for next year so they can start off on the right foot.”
After a 33-30 win over N.C. State on Sept. 10, it would have been hard to imagine that the 2016 season wouldn’t have gone better.
“I don’t think anybody who started the season in their right mind would ever think that it would get to this point,” Summers said. “But it is what it is. We’ve got to live with it. We went out there and played those games. We have to come out there and work. We have to win these last two games. It’s not impossible. It’s going to take a little more will over play.”
ECU finishes the season at Temple on Nov. 26.
Summers had a lost fumble in the second quarter against the Mustangs that was the result of extra effort.
“I was trying to get down to the ground but I don’t know how to stop my feet,” he said. “My feet kept moving there. He got it out right before I hit the ground. That’s another turnover but the defense came back and stopped them. It turned back around. We’ve got to go score the next play but all that stuff — we had too many turnovers. That was the cause of the game. We really went out there and beat ourselves today. I’m pretty sure Coach will hit on that, too.”
SMU scored 28 points off of five ECU turnovers.
The outcome against the Mustangs denied the Pirates (3-7, 1-5 AAC) a shot at achieving bowl eligibility.
“We knew we had to win three to get an extra game,” said senior strong safety DaShaun Amos. “We fell short so we have two more. They’re not going to cancel them. We’re going to come back and do the same thing we always do — try to work and try to fix the things we need to fix and go on to the next game with a positive mindset.
“It shouldn’t be hard [to get back up]. Everybody in that locker room loves to play football. We have two games left. It’s up to the seniors. They’re really going to look up to us, now that we don’t have that bowl game. They’re going to look up to us and see how we react to it. If the seniors react well, we get the juice back in the locker room. The guys have no choice but to follow our lead.”
Navy’s run-heavy option offense has produced blowouts in the last two games in Greenville. Navy won 76-35 in 2010 and 56-28 in 2012. ECU fell 45-21 in the first AAC meeting between the programs in Annapolis last season.
Amos talked about the keys in defending what the Midshipmen will bring.
“Good discipline,” Amos said. “Eye discipline. We’ve got to avoid the chops, do our cover and stop the run game.”
In addition to Zay Jones of the Pirates, there was another premier receiver on Bagwell Field on Saturday. Courtland Sutton had 12 catches for 166 yards with two touchdowns for the Mustangs. Sutton had four catches for 51 yards in ECU’s 49-23 win in Dallas last year.
“He’s a great guy, great football player,” Amos said. “He’s gotten a lot better since last year. They didn’t do anything that we haven’t seen on film or that we didn’t work on in practice. No surprises. We just didn’t execute.”
Amos echoed Summers’ comments about ECU’s demise since a 2-0 start.
“It’s almost like a dream,” Amos said. “You’re waiting to wake up, kinda, sorta. The work we put in this offseason, how we started the season, we just knew the sky was the limit. For us to fall short as many times as we have, it’s kind of disappointing but . . . we have two football games left. That’s all we can bank on right now.”
Gardner Minshew saw extensive action in a reserve role at quarterback. He completed 18 of 30 passes for 170 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The score came on an 8-yard pass to Jones to get the Pirates within 38-24 at the close of the first half. The pick was returned 80 yards for a score by Horace Richardson on the first series of the second half.
“I feel better as I go,” Minshew said. “Obviously, the pick six, can’t have that. As a whole, I feel like I’m getting better and doing more things well. . . . A few mental lapses and we gave them some easy points.”
Minshew was pressured on the throw that Richardson took the other way to the end zone.
“I got heated up a little bit and I missed the ball a little bit outside,” Minshew said. “Zay did everything he could to catch the ball. We just got an unlucky bounce but that’s completely on me. … I got heated up and missed the throw.”
Jones took responsibility for the pick but Minshew disagreed.
“He can say what he wants but, no, it was definitely my fault,” said the transfer who led Northwest Mississippi Community College to the junior college national championship in 2015.
He didn’t dwell on the turnover that gave SMU a 45-24 lead when the Pirates were driving to pull within a touchdown.
“You have to have a short memory,” Minshew said. “You’ve got to go out there expecting to score every drive no matter what happened the previous drive. I feel like we did OK doing that. You just can’t have turnovers in the first place.”
The score at the end of the first half created some optimism for an ECU comeback.
“It was definitely big,” Minshew said. “It pulled the game closer and we knew we were going to get the ball at the start of the second half. We just couldn’t capitalize on that momentum.”
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tony Petersen has been helping Minshew became more comfortable.
“I’ve done some things well,” Minshew said. “I’ve done some things not so well. I’ve just got to go back to work and focus on the things I need to work on. [Petersen] does a great job of coaching us, all the quarterbacks, of putting us in position to succeed.”
After losing a chance to make a bowl, the Pirates still have competitive opportunities.
“Obviously, it’s a pride thing,” Minshew said. “With the bowl out of the picture now, our focus turns to Navy. We just have to do better than we did this week.”
Jones has 380 career catches, seven behind former teammate Justin Hardy, who holds the Football Bowl Subdivision record. Jones’ focus has been on team goals as his receptions total has climbed and that won’t change.
“Things didn’t turn out the way we wanted them to,” Jones said after the SMU game. “No more bowl contention but there’s still a lot to play for. I’m going to go out and play for these seniors and these guys and lay it on the line. I know they’re going to do the same for me. That’s kind of our motivation moving forward. . . . Just doing the best I can for these guys and playing for them these last two games is going to be my mindset.”