GREENVILLE — Folks can see what they want to in East Carolina’s 1-4 start that included a 61-31 home loss to South Florida on Saturday.
Judging by the fan exodus from a crowd of 34,883 on a beautiful afternoon at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Pirate Nation has seen enough.
But strength of schedule is one factor that should be weighed. The No. 18 Bulls (5-0) are the fourth nationally-ranked team to deal the Pirates a loss.
ECU went into the game with the No. 21 strength of schedule in college football, according to computer analyst Jeff Sagarin of USA Today. That compares favorably to top-ranked Alabama, which had a No. 26 strength of schedule rating as it faced Ole Miss on Saturday night.
“We’re playing tough teams,” said second-year ECU coach Scottie Montgomery. “There’s no doubt about it. . . . That was a very talented team. We’ve seen other talented teams as well.”
The Pirates, who slipped to 1-1 in the American Athletic Conference, were facing the Bulls on a short week after a 41-38 win at Connecticut on Sunday. In contrast, the Bulls hadn’t played since a 43-7 win at home against Temple on Thursday, Sept. 21.
The Pirates were originally supposed to have a bye week before playing the Bulls but the schedule was rearranged to allow USF to make up a game with the Huskies that was postponed due to Hurricane Irma.
Maybe the longer down time figured in after ECU closed within 38-31 on a dive into the end zone by quarterback Thomas Sirk with 6:31 left in the third quarter.
That was the crest for the Pirates in week five as USF closed with 23 unanswered points. That wasn’t as overwhelming as the 57-point barrage landed by No. 12 Virginia Tech in a 64-17 rout in week three but it was enough to virtually clear the stands.
ECU showed some grit as Sirk hit Stephen Baggett with a 2-yard jump pass for a touchdown as time expired in the first half. Rather than settle for a field goal on 4th-and-goal, the Pirates took the momentum into halftime. ECU trailed 31-24 at the break, the difference coming on a pick six that Bulls linebacker Auggie Sanchez returned 43 yards for a score after the ball caromed off the hands of Pirate receiver Quay Johnson.
“The plan going in was for it to be a possession for possession game,” Montgomery said. “We were hoping the third and fourth quarter, it would be a 3-point game, a 7-point game for us or for them. Then get Davon [Grayson] going and Trevon [Brown] and those guys outside.
“But what happened is we fell down a possession. When they scored late in the third quarter, it made it tough to do what we wanted to do.
“Offensively, the execution of the plan went pretty well until we got behind. Then we started looking like a team that wasn’t really us. We didn’t want to get into a drop-back passing game, but when you get down by so many points you can’t run the quarterback or you’ll never catch up to get back in the game.”
A 48-31 deficit early in the fourth quarter caused Montgomery to go for a 4th-and-2 at the ECU 33. A pass to Jimmy Williams was ruled incomplete although it looked like Bulls defender Naytron Culpepper arrived before the ball. Montgomery reacted as though he expected pass interference. He didn’t say officials missed the call in his postgame remarks.
“I don’t have enough money yet to start getting fined,” Montgomery said. “I’ve got a college fund for my kids that I’ve got to take care of. . . . I didn’t understand, but my wife won’t allow me to just throw money away so I’m going to hold my comments.”
The Pirate defense came into the game ranked No.129 among 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams for yards allowed (624.8) but actually had its best game of the season, yielding 575 yards to the Bulls. USF accumulated 390 yards rushing.
Montgomery has already made an in-season change at defensive coordinator.
“There are some things we’ll do that you’ll see,” said the ECU coach. ” . . . We’ve got to win some of those one-on-one situations better. I thought our guys, especially in our secondary, got really close to receivers and did not make the play. We’re way too close to guys not to be looking back for the ball. A couple of times, we looked back for the ball and they still made the play. . . .
“They effectively ran the ball on the perimeter. I thought the quarterback [Quinton Flowers] caused us a lot of problems.”
Flowers, who has been mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate, completed 10 of 18 passes for 160 yards with two touchdowns. He ran 10 times for 93 yards with one score.
Sirk completed 20 of 43 for 302 yards with two TDs. His 18 keepers produced 87 yards and a pair of scores.
Baggett said the jump pass reception was his biggest thrill as a player. It was his first touchdown catch.
“That was like the best moment of my life,” he said. “It was my first one and something I’ll cherish forever, but in the long run it’s the game and the win that really matters. It was an awesome feeling but it was really for nothing when you think about it because we have to get wins.”
Baggett had a view from below when Sirk went airborne for ECU’s final score.
“I loved it,” said the senior tight end. “I was blocking on that play. I looked up on the scoreboard. He jumped right over me. It’s great for our brotherhood when you see your brother score. You get hyped up. He’s just a hard worker. I’m proud of him. He had a good game today.”
Baggett believes something along the lines of what doesn’t destroy you can make you better.
“You can’t help but progress when we play these Top 25 teams,” Baggett said. “Whenever you play someone that’s supposed to be better than you, you get better yourself. I just hope we come together and play full games. We have the talent to compete. We’ve just got to put it together for four quarters.”
Clemson graduate transfer Korrin Wiggins had a team high nine tackles, including seven solo stops. He hasn’t lost faith in his unit’s potential.
“I feel like we’re going to be a great defense,” Wiggins said. “We’re ready for a good Temple team to come in here.”
The Pirates host the Owls at noon Saturday. Maybe fans will take a cue from a former national champion.