Running back Hussein Howe was in no mood for moral victories in the moments after his East Carolina teammate Darius Pinnix was stopped inches short of the goal line on the final play of Saturday’s 31-24 overtime loss to Tulane.
“It’s still an ‘L’ in the win-lose column,” a dejected Howe said. “They all hurt.”
The fact is that this one did one did hurt more than the other seven Ls taken by the Pirates this season because it was the first one in which they stood a realistic chance at winning.
But let’s face it. Other than aesthetics, how much difference is there between 2-8 and 3-7?
At this point, the actual outcome of the games no longer mean as much as the effort that is given in them, the growth that is shown and the general direction in which the program is headed.
Those, after all, are some of the main factors athletic director Jeff Compher will likely use to decide whether or not to bring back Scottie Montgomery for a third season as ECU’s coach.
So instead of evaluating Saturday’s game in the traditional manner — by the disappointing numbers on the scoreboard — let’s take a look at it in a more meaningful manner.
Starting with effort.
It’s only human nature to let frustration get the best of us and think about giving up when things go bad. That’s when a season can really get ugly, the way it did for Central Florida when it barely went through the motions in its final few games on the way to an 0-12 finish in 2015.
To ECU’s credit, that hasn’t happened.
Instead of raising the white flag, the Pirates have honored the spirit of “No Quarter” and continued to battle.
Instead of giving up and losing by an embarrassingly large number after falling behind 21-0 in the first quarter at Houston two weeks ago, they played the Cougars to a virtual standoff through the final three periods.
And Saturday, instead of resigning themselves to yet another loss when trailing by 10 with just over 13 minutes remaining, they rallied to tie the game, scoring a touchdown with just 36 seconds left in regulation.
Sure, they wasted a chance to win the game by not executing on a fourth-and-short play deep in Tulane territory, a failure that has been a recurring problem throughout the season. But at least the effort was there.
As for growth, there was plenty on both sides of the ball, starting with a defense that — despite getting burned for another long touchdown and 189 yards on the ground by the Green Wave’s Dontrell Hilliard — created two fourth quarter turnovers to fuel the ECU comeback.
Freshman linebacker Aaron Ramseur had one of those big plays, an interception, and has been a bright spot in an otherwise bleak season since breaking into the starting lineup against Temple on Oct. 7.
On offense, sophomore Howe gave out a breakout performance by rushing for 108 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries — an average of 7.7 yards per run — while catching five passes out of the backfield for 36 more yards.
Another sophomore, Deondre Farrier, came up big with the touchdown catch that sent the game into overtime.
They are only a few of the young players, along with offensive lineman John Spellacy, that have the potential to be the foundation on which they Pirates can rebuild.
That brings us to the direction of the program, by far the most important piece to the puzzle that will determine the future of both Montgomery and the program.
There are, in fact, some tangible signs that the three-year decline that began before former coach Ruffin McNeill’s firing has finally bottomed out and the long climb back to respectability has begun.
The aforementioned defensive improvement in two of the past three games and the emergence of young players with multiple years of eligibility remaining are among them.
So is Montgomery’s willingness to listen to others, especially those with more experience than himself — as witnessed by the hiring of veteran John Gutekunst as a “defensive analyst.”
Then there’s the issue of a highly-rated incoming recruiting class, highlighted by potential “franchise” quarterback Holton Ahlers, and how many of those incoming freshman will remain solid in their commitment to ECU if a coaching change is made.
For all those positives, however, there are still too many unresolved problems to ignore, including but not limited to that propensity for giving up catastrophic plays. There are enough of those recurring deficiencies that the thought retaining Montgomery and his current staff might seem, at least to some, like banging your head against a wall over and over again in hopes that it won’t hurt as much the next time you do it.
Of all the arguments against giving Montgomery at least one more season to turn things around is his record. He’s just 5-17 in his two years, 2-12 in conference play, a mark made even more unsightly by losses to an FCS team and perennial doormat Tulane.
With two more games left to play, there is still time to improve the aesthetics of the Pirates’ bleak situation.
While the outcomes of those games may or may not affect the big-picture decision Compher will have to make in the upcoming weeks — if he hasn’t made it already — at least one more “W” in the win-loss column sure would feel a lot better heading into the offseason than the painful alternative.