One of the nice things about a bye week is that it allows players and fans to waive the “24-hour rule” and enjoy victories such as East Carolina’s 33-17 homecoming beatdown of Brigham Young just a little longer than usual.
One of the bad things about a bye week is that is allows players and especially fans just a little extra time to overanalyze their team’s latest performance.
So with a week still to go before the Pirates play again, let’s go ahead and ask the question: Did ECU’s much-maligned defense really play as well as it looked against BYU a week ago at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium or was its season-best effort simply the product of its opponent’s equally bad offense.
The answer is probably a little both.
How much of each element factored into the equation won’t be known until this week’s game against Houston. But at this point in a season full of lopsided losses in which opponents put up video game offensive numbers, there’s at least reason to hope now that some meaningful growth and improvement has finally begun to take place.
There are two main reasons for the cautious optimism.
One is the addition of defensive guru John Gutekunst to coach Scottie Montgomery’s staff as an advisor.
A veteran with nearly 50 years of coaching experience, including previous tenures at ECU, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Duke and most recently N.C. A&T, among other career stops, Gutekunst brings a vast knowledge of the game to the program, along with a fresh set of eyes to observe and identify areas that need the most attention.
“On every play you do five things on defense,” Gutekunst told Bonesville’s Bethany Bradsher. “There’s stance, your alignment, your key, your responsibility — if it’s a run, pass or option — and then the last thing is to execute it.
“Four of those five things have nothing to do with talent. I can’t change talent. It will change as they start doing those four things better, because they’ll become quicker, faster and more confident.”
Another factor that will help bring about that change is experience. And to the credit of Montgomery and his midseason replacement of defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson with Robert Prunty, the Pirates have begun to rely more and more on young talent as the season has gone on.
Take a look at the final box score from the BYU game.
Three of the Pirates’ top four tacklers in the game were either freshmen or sophomores and eight of the top 11 were underclassmen. With conference championships and bowl eligibility realistically out of the picture at 2-6 and 1-3 in the AAC, the final four games of this season can be looked upon as the first four games of 2018.
“We’re building to make sure that we continue to get better and the young people are doing a great job,” Montgomery said. “Some of our older players are bridging the gap for some of these young people. When they can be jealous they are not, they are trying to help them get on the field and make them make more plays, so I am really excited about that.
“I realize it’s not going the way that I want it to go, probably not the way that a lot of people want it to go, but we are building.”
Redshirt freshman linebacker Aaron Ramseur, who has grown with each passing week since moving into the starting lineup, has been the most impressive of those young defenders. He led the team with 12 tackles against BYU, including one for a loss.
Sophomore safety Devon Sutton had 10 stops while fellow defensive back Tank Robinson added six along with a pass breakup as part of a unit that held the Cougars to 421 yards of total offense.
That’s a 179 yards fewer than ECU’s nation’s worst average coming into the game. The 17 points allowed were by far the fewest allowed this season and a full 33 points fewer than the previous average.
Sure, the challenge of stopping a BYU offense that came into the game averaging just 11.4 points was considerably less daunting than it was against Power 5 opponents West Virginia and Virginia Tech or AAC juggernauts South and Central Florida.
But it’s still an accomplishment considering that the Pirates were torched for 34 points and 523 yards by Temple, which still ranks dead last in the AAC in virtually every offensive category.
“This is one big step and we’ve got to take more big steps and get ready for the next thing,” Ramseur said after the BYU game. “We’ve got an extra week to perfect, watch film and practice against this new team. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to make sure that when we go to this next team we can bring out another win and just keep winning.”
That next team, Houston, offers a fair and reasonable measuring stick to help determine whether BYU was simply a momentary blip on the radar against a struggling opponent or the beginning of a long road back to respectability. The Cougars currently rank eighth in the 12-team AAC in scoring and seventh in total offense.
If nothing else, ECU’s recent success, modest as it was, has helped plant the first few seeds of belief and confidence in a defense that lost a lot of both as a result of its early season beatings.
Not to mention a victory to savor during that long week without a game.