East Carolina got a sobering dose of reality in its season opener in the form of a 34-14 loss to James Madison. A year ago, the Pirates dismantled Western Carolina 52-7 to open the Scottie Montgomery coaching era at ECU.
That first game in 2016 was hardly an indicator of the overall course of the season (3-9, 1-7 American Athletic Conference) and maybe the setback from the defending Football Championship Subdivision winners won’t be either.
The Pirates are looking to make a better showing at West Virginia in a noon contest Saturday.
“We thought we had a great preseason camp this year,” Montgomery said. “We thought we just had a good to moderate camp last year and we came out and played a lot better the first game. We’re hoping that this will jolt all of us and make us understand, unlike last year, we probably did not have a big enough jolt after winning the first couple of games. We hope this will jolt all of us and get us going in the right direction.”
Despite the stunning result last week, the ECU coach did find a few silver linings.
“We felt like we got good play defensively out of Jordan Williams (inside linebacker) and Kiante (Anderson, defensive end) and also Tim Irvin (Pirate rover),” Montgomery said. “On offense, there were a couple of performances. Davon Grayson played at a really high level and competed throughout the whole time.
“Special teams, I thought our punter [Austin Barnes] did a really good job of putting the ball where we wanted to put it, kicking away from some guys at times and really placing the ball. Even the time it went in the end zone, placed it well. Really was happy with his performance.”
Barnes averaged 49.2 yards on four punts.
“Outside of that, we just felt like we had a whole lot of small issues that needed to be fixed that were really, really blatant in the game and throughout the first quarter on offense and first half on offense,” Montgomery said. “Defensively in the second half, a couple of just missed gap alignments and assignments from a couple of people that we can fix and we’re going to fix.”
The Pirates have focused forward in workouts this week.
“Practice has been great,” Montgomery said. “I know a lot of people wonder how can you bounce back. This team did not expect this to happen to them. Thank goodness for our captains. The captains have done a good job of bringing these guys and talking to them and making sure they understand how important every single play is. We’ve had a good week of practice, but it doesn’t matter what we say, it just matters how we play.
“Nothing else. Whatever is being said to them or how we do this or how we do that, the most important thing is how we go out and practice and how we go out and play. Nothing else.”
Possible turning point
ECU was down 14-7 in the third quarter against the Dukes, got a turnover and drove into JMU territory.
“That should have been a turning point for us,” Montgomery said. “That’s why I said what I said about the offense not giving our defense the energy that it should have had. When you get a turnover after giving up a score like they gave up and then we didn’t score with it, that makes things really, really difficult.
“That turnover was directly connected to a snap. [Darius] Pinnix goes into the book as a fumble but he had very little to do with that fumble. When they scored after it, you’re talking about a 14-point swing, which would have been all the momentum in the world that the Pirates could have needed. We got a big play (turnover) and then if we have a score there, then you’re talking about a complete difference of energy. We thought at that point in time, we lost the energy of our defense. They had done their job. They gave us the ball in a great situation and we didn’t get anything from it.”
The depth chart this week indicates that true freshman John Spellacy may start at center with Garrett McGhin possibly moving to left guard. Duke transfer Thomas Sirk has been named to start at quarterback after relieving Gardner Minshew in the second half last week.
Defense yields big plays
ECU’s defense yielded scoring runs of 85, 80 and 70 yards last week.
“We’ll be better on defense,” Montgomery said. “I have no concern whatsoever about how much better we will become on defense. I’m very concerned about the way we tackled from the secondary in three instances. I thought those plays we should have made tackles. They could have been 8- to 12-yard plays. That’s the biggest thing we’re working toward right now is making sure we always have people in position in the secondary to make some of those plays when we lose gap control.
“Defensively, some of our pressure, we were able to move the quarterback out of the pocket. We hadn’t seen that in a long time. Tim, being active on the perimeter, we hadn’t seen that in a while. Bobby, being able to be so long and being around the football, we hadn’t seen that. I just thought that we, overall, we do have more talent out on the field. We’ve got to make sure we put the talent in the spot to be able to stop some of those big plays. If you stop those big plays, you’re looking at a totally different team.
“But, also, if you score touchdowns, you’re looking at a totally different team.”
The Mountaineers dropped their season opener 31-24 to Virginia Tech in Landover, MD, on Sunday night.
“Offensivey, they’re a zone scheme team with occasional power or counter play,” Montgomery said. “The quarterback doesn’t keep the ball unless he does it with the play call. It’s not necessarily a read. That means that the quarterback is a really, really good player and he listens to what’s coming from the sideline.
“They use several quick throws, especially in 1st-and-10 situations. They utilize their tempo and their really, really wide splits to leverage a lot of times their pass game. What we’ve got to do, we’ve got to control some of the vertical and inside routes by the weakside receivers. We’ve also got to understand they use a lot of stacked and cut splits all over the place. Will Grier at quarterback is just so mobile and he has the confidence to make plays outside of the tackles. Also, No. 2 (Ka’Raun White), so much speed, so much quickness. These guys do a really good job on the perimeter of spacing you out.
“Us adding some talent in space will definitely help us in this game. It will be played a little different than the James Madison game. From their offensive scheme, they’re a little different and we have to be prepared for that.”
“On defense, the biggest concern that we have is going against kind of an unorthodox defense. The 3-3 stack is a look that you can get to several different pressures quickly, but also what hurts a lot of people is being able to get to eight-man coverage and dictate what you can do in the passing game. We think that adding a person that can run in the run game at the quarterback position and also adding back a couple of weapons on offense is going to give us the ability to play a different tempo game with them as well.”
Montgomery was asked what he wanted to see from the Pirates in the second game of the 2017 season.
“The first thing that I want to see is I want to see our quarterback position go out and do exactly what we want them to do,” said the ECU coach. “I’ve spent a lot of time this week with the quarterback this week and with the offense this week and with our receivers. The first thing we’ve got to do is get him to go out and have the ability to execute this game plan, not the last game plan, not worry about what might have went on. His timing will be better with his receivers. The main concern is getting our quarterback started early and started clean. That’s not necessarily having 200 yards of offense in the first quarter. That means let’s not have any mental errors in the first quarter. Let’s make sure we go with the ball, whether it’s complete or incomplete, where we want to go with the football. That’s our main deal.
“On defense, what I want to see, I want to see a defense that will play 100 percent together. Safeties that will play in the alignments that we want them to play in to be in position. If we do get out of gap, try to make a gamble and create a little bit of a pressure situation on what we think could be a pass down and ends up being a run, then our safeties can get guys down in four to six yards.
“Those are the things that we want to see right out of the gate. The other thing that we want to see is we want to see a team that can go out and operate from the sideline to the field. We’ve been in the stadium during camp. We’ve run practices with headsets. We think we’ve got some of the guys over a little bit of the shock and awe, how it feels to play in a major situation, major college stadium. Now they get a chance to go play in another major college stadium. Hopefully, the first experience, which wasn’t a great experience for any of us, will help them.”
James Madison won a lot of respect on Saturday night but Montgomery knows it could have been a different game.
“Very good football program,” Montgomery said. “Coach [Mike Houston] has done a good job. I thought Everett (Withers, previous JMU coach) had done a good job. They did a good job of getting the correct people and putting the correct people on the field, whether they come from here or there. They did have a lot of winning experience and I think it definitely helped them.
“But I’m still in the mindset if you just play good football and clean football and you can remove the turnovers, you can remove the penalties and you can remove the things that we can control, nothing to do with them before the snap, I think the outcome would have been totally different. Our guys have kind of got that message from me, understand it. Of course, there was a lot of pain. We’re all in pain. It hurts but we’ve licked our wounds, dropped those scabs and we were able to move on Tuesday. Guys were able to come to me and tell me that they’ve moved on. . . . They want to all stick together and do things the right way. I hate what happened to us but I love the aftershock of what our team has been able to do of scheming against West Virginia.”
The Pirates have another home game on Sept. 16 against Virginia Tech before an open date preceding the AAC opener with South Florida in Greenville on Sept. 30.
“I think we can utilize our schedule,” Montgomery said. “We get a really great football team (JMU) to start. Then another great football team (West Virginia) that’s going to challenge you through scheme defensively and speed on offense. Then another good football team (Virginia Tech, home, Sept. 16) that’s physical so it will take us through the gamut of everything before we get to an open date and get ready and prepare for our conference.
“A conference championship is the ultimate goal. . . . It is all about winning. That’s what we’ve worked so hard for. If people could just see how much we’ve done and [how] much this program has just transitioned and not having the issues in the offseason, being together and being prepared, always being on time and working exceptionally hard. It’s all about winning. That’s what we have to be able to give our team and fan base and everybody around, and our families, the feeling of what it feels like to win and not the feeling of defeat. We won’t get as high on wins, nobody will, as we will get as low on defeats. That’s why we’re in the business and the sport that we’re in, at the end of the day it’s all about winning. We have tried to pride ourselves and make sure these guys are winners everywhere. We’ve got to have that pride and make sure they win on the field.
“Despite the situation, it doesn’t matter. You can’t let people make excuses for you. We’ve got to go out and win football games.”