For a few fleeting moments, extended by a calming week off, there was reason to hope — and perhaps even believe — that East Carolina had finally turned a corner and taken the first baby steps back toward football respectability.
Turns out ECU’s encouraging homecoming victory over Brigham Young was nothing more than a momentary rest stop on a still unfinished journey down to rock bottom.
It took less than a quarter Saturday at Houston for the promise of that BYU game to fade away like a mirage to a thirsty traveler trudging through the desert. Three quick Cougar touchdowns and a 21-0 deficit ended any delusion that things might have changed for the better.
The record-setting performances of quarterback Gardner Minshew and wide receiver Trevon Brown were only small consolation for the Pirates. In the end, the final score of 52-27 and the ugly numbers that accompanied it on the stat sheet were all too familiar, as was the lament coach Scottie Montgomery used to explain away yet another lopsided loss.
“We didn’t execute the way we had this week during practice,” he said. “I thought turnovers on offense were a big deal and defensively we didn’t cover.”
In other words, his team is still making the same mistakes it has been since an opening night blowout at the hands of James Madison.
The 52 points allowed marked the fifth time this season that ECU has been burned for at least half a hundred. The Pirates netted just 36 yards on the ground, committed three more turnovers, leading to 21 Houston points, and allowed two more scoring plays of 62 yards or longer.
That’s nine such catastrophic plays for the season for those of you keeping score at home.
The point is that after changing defensive coordinators, bringing in a veteran defensive consultant, changing quarterbacks multiple times and going through an assorted number of other lineup changes, the only one Montgomery has left to blame for a team that has shown little-to-no growth over the past nine weeks is himself.
The second-year coach acknowledged that at least somewhat Saturday when after saying that he and his staff are putting their players “in situations where eventually they will start making plays,” he admitted that he and his assistants “need to do a better job of coaching them into those positions.”
They might not want to wait too long for that to start happening.
There are only three more games left in the season and, quite possibly, Montgomery’s tenure in Greenville. While two of those three games are realistically winnable — this week against Tulane and the following Saturday against Cincinnati — it’s more likely than not that the Pirates will finish 2017 with an even worse record than last year’s 3-9 debacle.
The Pirates’ only two wins have come against two of the few teams in the country that are worse than they are.
When athletic director Jeff Compher fired Ruffin McNeill as coach in December 2015, his reasoning was that ECU’s program “was not meeting competitive expectations.”
If it wasn’t then, what is it now?
An argument can be made that McNeill’s recruiting effort in the years prior to his ouster was lacking and the talent in the cupboard he left behind was poorly stocked, if not bare.
And to a point that’s true.
But it’s also an undeniable fact that in Montgomery, Compher took a flyer on a young replacement who, as it turns out, was clearly thrown in over his head as a first-time head coach.
So what does Compher do now?
His only two options are to cut his losses and try again by bringing in another new coach and staff to clean up the mess, in much the same way as his predecessor Terry Holland did with Skip Holtz. Or he can ride it out with Montgomery in hopes that the past two years of on-the-job training will help the young coach correct the recurring mistakes his team continues to make week after week after week after week on its ongoing trip to irrelevance.
It’s a decision Compher won’t be able to put off much longer now that the mirage of rare victory and the calming bye week that followed has faded back into the reality of disappointing performances and lopsided defeats.