Coaches are always telling us that things are never as good or as bad as they seem to the naked eye once they’ve had a chance to go back and analyze the tape of their team’s performance in a particular game.
And that was probably the case with Scottie Montgomery and his staff on Sunday after they relived all the gory details of East Carolina’s unsightly 34-14 pounding at the hands of James Madison.
Surely they must have found at least a few positives on which to hang their hats and begin the process of recovery from a setback some on social media are categorizing as the worst in school history.
Then again, maybe not.
It was that bad.
Although season openers naturally lend themselves to knee-jerk overreactions — both good and bad — since they’re the only thing we have to go on when it comes to a team’s performance in a given year, it would be hard to imagine the Pirates getting off to a worse start than what they did Saturday.
It’s not even the that they got spanked so badly by an FCS opponent. The Dukes, after all, return 12 starters from a team that won their division’s national championship last season and start this year ranked atop the FCS poll.
What made Saturday’s loss so stunning and painful is the way it unfolded.
This was supposed to be a new and improved ECU team, one in which the players were more familiar with Montgomery’s system and Montgomery was more familiar his personnel. It’s a squad that supposedly addressed its most glaring shortcomings during an offseason in which it made the switch to a 4-2-5 defensive alignment and deepened its talent pool by bringing in five graduate transfers, including two that won national championship rings at Clemson a year ago.
It all sounded so promising.
Until the Pirates actually put their new product out onto the field for the first time. Once that happened, the only thing that looked new were the ECU logos painted in the end zones at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The running game that was among the least productive in American Athletic Conference in 2016 mustered only 70 net yards and a paltry 2.3 yards per carry. It was a failure compounded by the fact that Tyshon Dye, one of those Clemson transfers brought in to help solve the problem, didn’t get a single touch.
The new, more aggressive scheme that was supposed to be the answer to a defense that ranked last in the league against the rush last season and was torched for an average of 41 points per game? It was even more porous than ever while surrendering an incredible 422 rushing yards, including touchdown runs of 85, 80 and 75 yards.
And while Duke transfer Thomas Sirk came off the bench in relief of starter Gardner Minshew to post a respectable 21 of 35 performance for 210 yards, it really didn’t matter who was under center the way the offensive line in front of them got manhandled.
“I’m clearly disappointed in the way we performed today,” Montgomery said after the debacle, “especially with the kind of camp we’ve had, the kind of spring we’ve had.” [Replay the audio of Montgomery’s postgame press conference…]
The coach went on to suggest that the moment might have been bigger than some of his team’s first-time starters expected and that their nerves got the best of them.
“We put them in scrimmage situations to get to this point,” he said. “And we just didn’t respond.”
The problem with practice and scrimmage situations is that they don’t always paint an accurate picture of how prepared a team really is, since the only head-to-head competition they provide is between teammates. Clearly, Montgomery miscalculated the effectiveness of his team’s preseason readiness.
The good news is that with 11 games remaining on the schedule, he and his staff have the time and opportunity to do what they can to improve on Saturday’s debacle. The terrifying news is that things can still get worse before they get better.
With the next three games on that schedule coming against nonconference powers West Virginia and Virginia Tech along with preseason American Athletic Conference favorite South Florida — teams with more talent, size and depth than James Madison — the Pirates are staring an 0-4 start directly in the eye and facing the possibility of another season defined by misery.
That’s a futility not seen at ECU since John Thompson’s forgettable two-year reign as coach in 2003-04, a record that really is as bad as it seems to the naked eye no matter how many times you go back and evaluate the film.