There was some disappointment among the East Carolina players who were available for interviews Saturday after a 66-31 home loss to Navy on Senior Day.
The group of Pirates were mostly seniors, with an exception of sophomore quarterback Gardner Minshew, who replaced injured senior Philip Nelson.
There was excitement about Zay Jones emerging as the new Football Bowl Subdivision career receptions leader.
There was some remorse among the upperclassmen that their college careers will be completed Saturday at Temple.
Even though the Pirates are 3-8 overall and 1-6 in the American Athletic Conference, the group has battled the adversity and embraced the struggle.
“I’m going to miss it,” said James Summers, who gave 39,480 fans at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium an 81-yard touchdown run to remember. “I’ve been through three different programs just to get here. That’s rough. When I got here, I finally settled down, but work never stops. That’s where my heart is right now. I’m leaving one situation and going to another one.”
Summers was at his best in home wins over Virginia Tech in 2015 and N.C. State earlier this season but that isn’t what stands out to him in retrospect.
“Being in the locker room with those guys,” Summers said. “Working out with those guys. Going through hard times with those guys. I mean those are the moments I cherish the most because you’re never going to have anybody around you who’s going to have your back like that. I love them to death.”
McGill in the middle
Demetri McGill has come back from an ankle injury to give the Pirates a staunch presence at nose guard in 2016. He battled again on Saturday but coach Scottie Montgomery said the defensive front lacked the depth to deal with the well-directed drive blocking of the Midshipmen.
Navy rushed for 480 yards.
“We didn’t tackle well,” McGill said. “Navy is a very tough team. They’re very disciplined and they go 100 miles an hour no matter what. . . . I love how we didn’t give up, no matter what the score was. Offense didn’t give up. Special teams didn’t give up. Defense didn’t give up.”
McGill has his own theory on what makes the Midshipmen tick.
“I look at it like this — they go to class, they do their training and all that stuff,” he said. “I think when they step out on the football field, it’s relaxing for them. That’s when they get away. That’s their down time.”
ECU led 17-7 when Jones was recognized for his 388th career catch, breaking the record set by former ECU teammate Justin Hardy in 2014. An open date for the Atlanta Falcons allowed Hardy to be on hand.
“I want to congratulate Zay, breaking the record,” McGill said. “He’s worked very hard on that. … He did what he does when he has to do it. He’s a very good teammate. He works very hard on the field. Off the field, I know I can pick up the phone and always call him for anything.”
Jones has downplayed the pursuit of the record as the team has lost eight of its last nine games.
“It’s a team sport,” he said. “It’s what I signed up to do. I know it’s not all about me individually.”
Case in point was Jones’ all-out effort to make a block for Summers on his 81-yard run.
The career receptions record came with 11:15 left in the first half on a 19-yard pass from Gardner Minshew to the Navy 31.
“I was like, ‘I just did it. Wow, this is crazy,'” Jones said. “It seemed like the crowd got louder and louder every time I touched the ball. To have that final moment, it just meant a lot to me. It was special to share that with everyone in the stadium. . . . Everything was building up to the catch and then after I got it, the coaches’ said, ‘All right, let’s just go play football.’ I was like ‘Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s just go play.’
“It wasn’t an easy catch. Football is not an easy game. You’ve got to go out there and battle. . . . It was a good concept that we had drawn up, almost like a double move. It enabled me to get open, see the defender and go up and make a play. It was a good ball by Gardner. . . . [Justin] told me he was proud of me. Coach Mo was like ‘Let’s go play. Let’s go win. Proud of you. Let’s go finish strong.'”
Jones closed ECU’s scoring with a 77-yard TD catch and made sort of a Lambeau leap at the East end of the field to celebrate with family members. His dad, Robert Jones, was an All-American linebacker on the 1991 Pirates team that went 11-1. The elder Jones was on three Super Bowl champion teams with the Dallas Cowboys.
The younger Jones needs five catches to surpass the FBS record of 155 receptions in a season.
“I’m just going to be excited for the next opportunity to go out there and compete for the final time for this university,” he said.
With the career record in reach and playing his last home game in college, Jones dealt with a lot of emotions on Saturday.
“There’s a lot,” he confirmed. “This being my last time playing at Dowdy-Ficklen — it just meant a lot to me on Senior Day. . . . It’s a team sport. You always want to win and finish strong but we have that chance this week.”
Plowman’s streak continues
Senior Davis Plowman hit a 43-yard field goal to end the series that included Jones’ record-breaking catch. Plowman has made eight straight field goals.
His latest gave the Pirates at 17-7 lead.
“I’m glad it came after Zay’s catch,” Plowman said. “I don’t mean to compare his catch with a field goal but it was a great feeling.”
Wind increased during the AAC contest. Plowman was 4-for-4 on extra points Saturday but the breeze made the conversion kicks a challenge.
“The wind was brutal, the windiest day I’ve ever played in,” Plowman said. “It was registering like 15 to 17 miles per hour but you just felt the awesome gusts. I was throwing up grass on the sideline before every time I’d kick in the net. I was watching the flags and the flags were sort of switching. … When I was on the sideline, the flags on the uprights were going left. Then I threw some grass up and it was true. Then I get on the field and they were blowing the other way. I had to adjust every time on the field. It could change as I’m kicking the ball.”
Plowman hasn’t changed anything from a technique standpoint in his streak.
“I’ve been more consistent, trying to kick the same every time during the streak, which people tell me,” Plowman said. “It’s something that I don’t even keep track of. The thing was I had two blocked that were inside 30 yards, which I’ll take some blame for that. I could have gotten the ball up a little higher, a little bit faster.
“I’ve had three misses that I take full credit for — one in the first game, one against N.C. State and then the one at USF, the 42-yarder that hit off the upright. I didn’t adjust for the wind properly. I just learned from all that little kind of errors that make my kicks go out. I work hard every day in practice to just get more consistent and focused. Every single kick matters. You practice to the point that everything matters.”
ECU has switched from Nike to Adidas equipment this year. A kicker’s footwear is a vital accessory.
“I like the Adidas cleats a lot,” Plowman said. “The only thing I don’t like — I don’t like the Adidas football. I like the Nike footballs a lot better. They’re just easier to hit. They’re good balls. I just like those better, but I’m biased towards them.”
Maybe Plowman will change his mind about the Adidas balls since he’s putting them through the uprights on a regular basis.
Minshew gains experience
In Minshew’s first start, he completed 16 of 25 passes for 238 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
“He went out there and played to the best of his ability,” Jones said. “The ball didn’t bounce his way in some certain scenarios but hats off to him for coming up, stepping up and being a leader. The offense was his team out there. I’m proud of him.”
Navy scored on nine straight possessions and the Pirates couldn’t keep pace.
“We started off very hot, very fast” Minshew said. “I felt really good. Then we kind of stalled out. We had the two three-and-outs. That really set us back, put our defense in a hole. We just can’t do that. We’ve got to go back and see what we could do better to put our team in a situation to win at the quarterback position. We’re going to have to go back and re-evaluate and just go from there.”
Minshew did his part in helping Jones get the record.
“It was very special,” said the junior college transfer. “I’m just so honored to be a small part of what’s been an amazing career and a season and a record-breaking night for Zay.”
The starting assignment was bittersweet for Minshew as Nelson was sidelined with a sore throwing shoulder.
“Me and Phil are really close,” Minshew said. “We’ve been talking through the whole time. It’s been hard on him. I hate it for him — a guy that’s given everything he can for this program. For him not to be able to play on his senior night, was really hard.”
The breeze was so strong that stadium personnel couldn’t hoist the No Quarter flag for the fourth quarter.
“It wasn’t that bad until the second half,” Minshew said. “The second half, it was pretty windy. I thought I was going to throw that fade to Zay out of bounds but the wind kind of saved me a little bit. Zay, it’s about impossible to overthrow him so you really just have to put it out there. That’s what I tried to do.”
Jones ran under the pass and latched onto it for the 77-yard score, his second TD grab of the game. He finished with 12 catches for 212 yards.