GREENVILLE — The first game of 2017 looked too much like East Carolina’s first season in the Scottie Montgomery coaching era.
That was disappointing to many, including the Pirates coach, who were expecting improvement from the level of play that produced a 3-9 overall record last year and a 1-7 mark in the American Athletic Conference.
Recruiting, staff hires and schematic changes had created optimism going into the season opener but James Madison stuck a needle in the Pirates’ balloon.
The Dukes had three scoring runs of 70 or more yards in the second half in a 34-14 win at ECU on Saturday night.
Senior Cardon Johnson of the Dukes bolted 85 yards on the first snap of the second half for a 14-0 lead. He had an 80-yard run early in the fourth quarter to put JMU ahead, 27-7. The final score for the visitors came on a 70-yard run by Georgia Tech transfer Marcus Marshall with 2:34 remaining.
“Those big plays made the difference,” said strong safety Bobby Fulp, who picked off a Dukes pass that set up the first score of the year for ECU.
Johnson had 17 carries for 265 yards.
The Pirates will have little in the way of momentum going forward. But it’s likely they will feel like they have something to prove after losing for only the second time in the last 13 home openers — and to a Football Championship Subdivision team, albeit the defending FCS playoff winners and the top-ranked team this season in the 63-scholarship division.
“We have to get the next guy down next week,” said ECU linebacker Jordan Williams, who was in on a game-high 14 tackles. “James Madison is in the past. We’ve got to look forward to next week.”
The Pirates will play at West Virginia on Saturday at noon. The Mountaineers open the season tonight against Virginia Tech.
“Just knowing our gap assignments will be key,” Williams said. “Not leaving gaps open. Guys rallying and tackling in the backfield. If it does break, we’ve just got to rally and tackle.”
JMU finished with a 614-372 command in total yardage although the Pirates led 28-23 in first downs. Former Pirate assistant coach Donnie Kirkpatrick is JMU’s offensive coordinator.
Although ECU was outgained 228-114 in the first half, the Pirates only trailed 7-0 at the break. ECU won the toss and elected to receive but picked up just two yards on its first series.
The Pirates had not been shut out in the first half at home since trailing 14-0 to Southern Miss on Sept. 15, 2007, in an eventual 28-21 loss.
The Dukes had nine starters returning on defense from a team that went 14-1 on the way to the FCS title.
Four starters returned on offense for JMU, including quarterback Bryan Schor, who scored on a 4-yard keeper with 5:11 left in the first quarter to complete a 9-play drive that covered 82 yards. Tyler Gray added the extra point for a 7-0 lead but Gray subsequently missed a 35-yard field goal attempt on the Dukes’ next possession.
ECU’s Jake Verity missed a 51-yard field goal with 8:51 left in the half after the Pirates faced a 4th-and-15 after driving from their 17 as far as the Dukes’ 29. D’Ante Smith stepped back to block before the snap, incurring an illegal procedure penalty before Minshew threw incomplete on third down.
Thomas Sirk relieved Minshew briefly in the first quarter, completing his only pass for five yards and keeping once for three yards.
Minshew completed 7 of 18 passes for 82 yards with an interception in the first half. Davon Grayson had four catches for 54 yards.
Grayson finished with seven catches for 86 yards. Deondre Farrier had seven catches for 68 yards.
Graduate transfer punter Austin Barnes saw plenty of action in the first 30 minutes, averaging 49.2 yards on four boots.
Sirk took over in the second half, finishing 21 of 35 through the air for 210 yards with two picks.
Sirk was ready to get back to work.
“It starts tomorrow (Sunday),” said the Duke graduate transfer. “It starts with the recovery of our bodies tomorrow, coming out and having a great Sunday practice and trying to fix mistakes and watching the film. We’re going to watch the film and we’re going to be critical of ourselves, try to go out there and get better. We’ve got a big-time game next week.”
True freshman Darius Pinnix scored on a 6-yard run to complete a 2-play drive following the pick by Fulp. That cut JMU’s lead to 14-7 with 10:11 left in the third quarter.
Devon Sutton forced and recovered a fumble on JMU’s ensuing possession to give the Pirates the ball at their 36. Sirk completed three passes to put ECU at the Dukes’ 41. Three rushes brought up a 4th-and-2 before Pinnix missed an exchange from Sirk and the Dukes got the loose ball.
Sirk threw effectively on a closing 72-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard scoring drive by Derrell Scott with 23 seconds to go.
Montgomery said the Pirates will make adjustments.
JMU was able to overcome 14 penalties for 172 yards, many of those coming on defensive pass interference.
“They were around (9.3) yards per play,” Montgomery said. “We were around (4.5) per play. When you play like that, it doesn’t matter how you are operating, you aren’t going to win the football game.”