Maybe it was the combination of an early evening kickoff and perfect fall weather.
Maybe it was the presence of all those alumni coming back for homecoming or the perception that for a change, East Carolina actually had a realistic shot at winning.
Or perhaps athletic director Jeff Compher’s admonishment earlier in the week that members of Pirate Nation fight with their team instead of against it hit home.
For whatever the reason, the vibe around Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in the hours leading up to Saturday’s nonconference matchup with Brigham Young was noticeably different than it’s been for other recent home games.
In a positive way.
It’s a feeling spelled out in the message written on a banner towed over the stadium by a small plane.
“We believe … Go Pirates … arrrrgh,” it said.
The rallying should be familiar to ECU fans. It’s the same one used by the Pirates’ legendary 1991 team that capped an 11-1 season with a dramatic Peach Bowl victory against N.C. State.
While this year’s squad is as far removed from that championship unit as Greenville is from, say, Greenland, the sentiment appears to have produced — on this one occasion, at least — a similar winning result.
The inspired effort was best summed up on one play late in the first quarter.
With ECU trailing 7-0 after an early mistake, Thomas Sirk fired a long pass down the far sideline. Wide receiver Trevon Brown, outmuscling a BYU defender, made the catch, turned up field and began sprinting toward the end zone.
The 6-foot-2, 211-pound junior, whose career has gone through more stops and starts than rush hour traffic, made it clear he wasn’t going to be denied — dragging multiple Cougars on his back for the final 10 yards.
But as Brown lunged to the pylon for the tying score, the ball popped out of his hand. It was picked up by an opposing player and ruled a fumble.
It would have been a demoralizing turnover that could easily have sent ECU down a familiar path had the call not been overturned on review.
Brown was ruled to have stepped out of bounds just after making the catch, setting the stage for a short Sirk touchdown run a few plays later.
Coach Scottie Montgomery said the key reversal was “huge,” joking that he was thankful for instant replay. But even more important than the result of the play was the message Brown’s effort sent to his teammates, BYU and the announced crowd of 38,835 in the stands — that even though the Pirates were 1-6 and clearly going nowhere fast this season, the players haven’t quit.
“That was a kid giving everything he had to get into the end zone,” Montgomery said. “There’s no way I’m going to coach them any different than that.
“These guys are true Pirates. There’s other things we have to work through. The problems are not all fixed, but we’re working every single day to build. That’s what I want everybody to understand. I want it to happen as fast as it possibly can happen, but we’re going to do it the right way.
“We are building. Our kids believe.”
That belief was finally reinforced and rewarded with positive results Saturday night.
Instead of letting adversity snowball as they did in the second quarter against Temple, the Pirates played through it this time without losing confidence. Their defense, which came into the game ranked dead last nationally in both scoring and yardage allowed, made tackles it doesn’t usually make and broke up passes that usually go for long gains.
Although the offense had trouble getting into the end zone after that first touchdown, it still managed to put points on the board thanks to four Jake Verity field goals.
Even after Sirk went down with an elbow injury late in the third quarter, ECU didn’t miss a beat. Gardner Minshew simply came off the bench and put the game away by throwing touchdown passes to Brown and Quay Johnson.
As the clock ran out after one final defensive stop and a badly needed 33-17 victory, Minshew turned toward what was left of the student section, jumped and punched the air with the intensity of a man that just learned he’d hit the PowerBall jackpot.
“It’s like a load off our shoulders just to give Pirate Nation a feeling of excitement and something to brag about,” sophomore cornerback Colby Gore said afterward.
As euphoric as the moment might have been, the excitement of Saturday’s victory should be tempered by the fact that BYU is anything but a world beater itself. In fact, the Cougars are something of a mirror image of the Pirates in that their offense — they came into the game averaging only 11.4 points per game while losing six of their first seven — is as challenged as ECU’s defense.
One win against a team whose only victory is against Portland State isn’t enough to change the minds of a skeptical fan base or convince school administrators that Montgomery should be retained for at least another season. How the Pirates bounce back following a bye week in their next game at Houston will be telling.
But even acknowledging the quality of the opposition, or lack thereof, there were reasons to be encouraged by Saturday’s performance. The most significant was the play of several emerging youngsters, including freshman linebacker Aaron Ramseur, freshman safety Tank Robinson and sophomore nickleback Devon Sutton.
They are the kind of players that will be the key to turning the Pirates’ fortunes around.
Whether the victory against BYU was the start of that resurgence or simply a momentary ray of light amidst an otherwise dark era in ECU’s football history won’t be known for awhile.
But every comeback has to start somewhere. The first step is believing it can happen.