With a deviation from the norm in preparation this week due to a rescheduled game last Sunday at Connecticut, East Carolina made an adjustment in its weekly routine in advance of its noon kickoff Saturday at home against South Florida.
“Coach [Jeff] Connors (assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning) and I met last week on getting the team energized and ready to go on the short week,” said ECU coach Scottie Montgomery. “But winning was the biggest deal that we talked about and how it would push us into this week.”
The Pirates topped UConn 41-38 for a 1-0 start in the American Athletic Conference. After an afternoon of Indian summer heat against the Huskies, ECU’s team had a refreshing experience Tuesday. Normally, there is a weight-lifting session early in the week.
“We decided to take them to the pool,” Montgomery said.
The Pirates splashed around before heading to practice and then worked out despite more water in the form of showers.
“We had a lot of rain Tuesday,” Montgomery said. “We were flying around. We threw it and caught it as well as we ever have, whether it was raining or not. When you have one of those days, you feel a lot of positive energy.”
USF presents an opportunity for the Pirates to beat a nationally-ranked team for the first time since a 70-41 win over then-No. 25 North Carolina on Sept. 20, 2014. The Bulls are No. 18 in the Associated Press poll and No. 17 in the coaches poll.
“We’re happy that we’ve got a great football team, one of the best in the country coming in here to play us,” Montgomery said. “The challenge is to go out and win another conference game. We’re just looking at one day at a time, one game at a time.”
The pool trip wasn’t entirely recreational.
“Coach C and the rest of the staff nailed it,” Montgomery said. “Wonderful pool work. It sounds easy, but you’re doing high knees, stretching and doing all kinds of basic exercise routines. It’s just under water. It is fatiguing to a certain extent, but what it does is rejuvenate the body and the muscle. A lot of our guys really benefited from it.”
ECU has been starting fast. The Pirates jumped out to a 17-7 first-quarter lead on Virginia Tech before the Hokies regrouped for a 64-17 riumph. The Pirates were up 41-21 at UConn before the Huskies rallied.
“What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to maintain focus throughout every quarter and what we’ve done at this point is now we can start to extend it every week,” Montgomery said. “The better and better you get at executing, the better you’ll be in the fourth quarter. And we’ve got to make sure that we continue to work that into the fourth quarter. I really think execution on offense in the first, second and third quarters on third downs was exceptional.
“It can continue to be that way as long as when fatigue hits us, we execute at the same level. My biggest concern right now is making sure that our guys just every single play in practice just are directly connected to doing exactly what we ask them to do the right way and execute, meaning finishing with the catch, finishing with the ball in the outside arm versus the inside arm when we’re running to the perimeter so that we can use our off hand as a stiff arm.
“I mean that’s execution. I think that our guys are understanding, What we’re also getting from young players is to become better players. I’m in the middle of that. If you get young players becoming better players, now your older players will be a lot fresher later in the game. So we’re able to play more bodies. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue to extend some of the execution that we’ve had in the early starts of the game.”
Important duo progressing
Wide receiver Jimmy Williams and safety Tim Irvin missed the UConn game. Williams experienced flu-like symptoms before kickoff and Irvin had a lower leg issue, basically a sprain.
“Jimmy is feeling a lot better,” Montgomery said. “He’s getting his weight back up now. He lost a lot of weight over two to three days. Since Tuesday, he started gaining his weight back. … Tim came out and went through individuals Tuesday and looked OK. He didn’t look like he was anywhere near where he needs to be to play in the football game. But he looked OK. I’ve seen guys look a lot worse than him but be able to play in a game. So we’re going to keep our fingers crossed with Tim and hopefully he’ll show up.”
Follow up with AAC office
Montgomery said after the initial win of the season that he questioned a personal foul call on inside linebacker Cannon Gibbs that moved UConn from the ECU 39 to the ECU 24 on the Huskies’ last possession. The series concluded with UConn missing a tying 33-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
Montgomery followed up on the call with the league office. Gibbs brought down Quayvon Skanes on the play in question.
“They responded to me on Tuesday and they agreed that they did not think it was egregious enough to be a personal foul,” Montgomery said. “They didn’t think that it had enough force with it. It was a single, one-on-one tackle. He was trying to get extra yardage. He was pulling away from Cannon. Cannon felt the only way he could get him down was basically to drop his weight and pull him down backwards. And that’s exactly what he did. He didn’t use as much force as originally thought.”
The Pirates were victimized on UConn’s previous score when Arkeel Newsome escaped a group of potential tacklers and went 79 yards for a Huskies touchdown to cut ECU’s lead to 41-38 with5:48 to go.
“My angst on the sideline about not tackling when we get three and four people to the ball — my energy flows to the coaches to those players and I want him on the ground,” Montgomery said. “I didn’t think Cannon was trying to be malicious and the league office agreed that he did take him down backwards but they did not believe it was with enough force to be considered a personal foul.”
Bulls pulled away
ECU was within 24-22 last season at USF with less than seven minutes remaining before the Bulls pulled away to a 38-22 win.
Montgomery was reminded of a targeting call that took Bobby Fulp out of the game and overturned an ECU interception.
“One of the things that hurt was the targeting no doubt because it didn’t go our way and it would have come way up the field,” Montgomery said. “And then that turned into a touchdown. But the bigger part of it is that you lose the actual student-athlete that was [charged with] targeting. And then we lost another player, another defensive back, in that game and they won the game in the end by throwing a post route on someone that was two people down in the depth chart. That was critical in the game.”
The Bulls have changed coaches since last season with former Texas coach Charlie Strong replacing Willie Taggart, who went to Oregon.
“This year they’re a different team,” Montgomery said. “Last year, they used their passing game a little differently than they’re using it now. Their running game is just exceptional. They’re using [quarterback Quinton] Flowers. Instead of using [Marlon] Mack and [D’Ernest] Johnson, now they’re using [Darius] Tice and Johnson. They’re running the ball at a much higher clip than they ran it last year. They’re doing it well.
“Their vertical passing game is based off the quarterback’s ability to scramble and some good wide receiver deep speed. Some of the splits they put those guys in really favors the vertical routes, the quick gains and the quarterback runs. Once you have all that space, that quarterback can get loose. He can make guys miss. They’re using a lot more different personnel this year. I’m seeing more 11 (one tight end) personnel, even seeing some 12 (two tight ends) personnel.
“They have really transitioned to a wonderful running football team.”
Montgomery could see some progress with the defensive unit at UConn even though the Huskies accumulated 596 total yards.
“When I look at it on tape, they were where they were supposed to be for the most part, but didn’t always tackle,” Montgomery said. “In the early part of the year, I was really disappointed because we weren’t where we were supposed to be. We weren’t gap sound. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do.
“All of a sudden, I turn on the tape. Guys are where they’re supposed to be, their keys are right but we’ve got one-on-one tackles, sometimes two-on-one and three-on-one and we don’t make it. They’re getting a better understanding. To say that they’re playing better is something I’ll reserve for when they’re actually getting the guys on the ground.
“It’s time for them to put it together. . . . Winning feels good, but I want to win and become better on both sides of the ball and special teams every week.”
This will be ECU’s third noon start of the season. The Pirates also will host Temple at noon in the next game on Saturday, Oct. 7.
“I like noon games for a lot of reasons,” Montgomery said. “I think it focuses us the night before. I think it makes you have to wake up and just go play the game. It doesn’t allow coaches to over-think things and try to fix everything on the day of the game. And also I really think that it gives our kids the ability to lose some of the distractions of a 6 o’clock game.
“I like the fact that we are at home. I think it would’ve been really, really tough for our kids to play on Sunday night and then have to travel and play again on Saturday. Just a lot . . . [of] school work, a lot of people don’t understand. You know I’m really concerned about our kids academically. And I want to make sure they get the best opportunity to be great in their classes.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for what the professors do on this campus. I want our kids to have that ability to get as much of an education as they can and have the energy to do what they need to do so there’s a lot of factors that go into it. But I’m glad that the league has worked together to get this taken care of.”
ECU’s trip to UConn was part of an AAC schedule adjustment that allowed USF to make up a game at UConn that was originally scheduled for Sept.9. That contest could not be played due to factors relating to Hurricane Irma.
Montgomery was asked about keys to beating the Bulls.
“Offensively, I think the No. 1 key is that we got to take care of the football,” said the ECU coach. “This is a team that has benefited in a lot of senses in all their games from taking the ball away. If you watch the Temple game (43-7 USF win, Sept. 21), you watch a team that couldn’t get started because of their inability to maintain possession of the football. And they’re a good football team.
“Our defense, the No.1 key to this game, we have got to tackle these talented three guys, No. 2, No. 6 and No. 9. We’ve just got to tackle Johnson, Tice and Flowers. That doesn’t mean we always have to have tackles for loss. We just have to get them down, even if it’s a 5-, 8-, 9-yard gain. We have to run to the football and every single person has to tackle the football. . . . We’re going to do whatever we can do to play through the echo of the whistle to get these guys tackled.”