East Carolina was picked to finish last in the East Division in the American Athletic Conference’s preseason football poll last week.
That’s no great surprise considering that the Pirates are coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons, with an untested quarterback set to take over and a defense that ranked dead last among FBS teams a year ago.
The good news is that preseason predictions don’t always hold true. As league rival Central Florida proved by going from winless to undefeated in the span of just two years, it is possible to make a dramatic rapid improvement.
This isn’t to say that Scottie Montgomery’s team is going to shock the world by running the table and claim an unofficial national championship this season. But Montgomery’s goal of at least six wins and a bowl game isn’t out of the question.
Here are five keys that will go a long way toward making that happen:
- Don’t lose to an FCS team to start the season: The Pirates’ downward spiral last season began early when they didn’t just lose to James Madison at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, they were thoroughly dominated by the Dukes to the tune of 34-14. Yes, JMU was the defending national champion in its division and went on to play in the title game again in 2017, but that doesn’t matter. Under no circumstances is it ever okay for an FBS team ever lose to an FCS opponent, especially at home.
ECU faces a similar situation to start this year. Although N.C. A&T isn’t a universally recognized national champion and isn’t as formidable a foe as JMU was a year ago, it did go undefeated and claimed the Historically Black College and Universities crown. It also returns a prolific quarterback, its top rusher and top receiver. Even with a new head coach the Aggies won’t be a pushover. But they’re a team the Pirates should still beat. And they absolutely must to keep from getting knocked back again and to have any chance at getting to six wins.
- Establish some semblance of a running game: The Pirates were dead last in the AAC in rushing last season at just 107.7 yards per game, an average that was even worse when quarterback Thomas Sirk’s runs are taken out of the equation. They haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Vintavious Cooper in 2013.
To their credit, quarterbacks Blake Kemp, James Summers, Philip Nelson, Gardner Minshew and Sirk have all managed to put up impressive passing numbers to compensate for their team’s inability to run the ball consistently, but it’s tough to win with such a one-dimensional offense — especially when your defense ranks dead last in the country and gives up 45 points per game, as was the case last season.
It’s not like ECU has to rush for 200 yards per game to be successful, just enough to keep defenses honest, extend drives by picking up first downs in short yardage situations and occasionally pound the ball into the end zone inside the red zone.
- Put pressure on the opposing quarterback: Needless to say, new defensive coordinator David Blackwell has his work cut out for him trying to shore up a unit that got lit up for 50 or more points six times last season. But while there are any number of areas for improvement, the road to respectability starts up front, where the Pirates have produced only 19 sacks over the past two seasons combined.
Any quarterback is exponentially better when he has the time to stand back in the pocket and find his receivers without the fear of getting knocked on his behind. While the Pirates’ secondary has its own set of issues, Colby Gore, Keyshawn Canady, Devon Sutton and the rest have a much better chance at preventing catastrophic big plays when the guy in the opposing backfield is running for his life instead of throwing the ball.
- Win the winnable games: Understanding that every game is a potential win, there are certain dates on ECU’s 2018 schedule that present a much more realistic chance at victory than the others. That means the Pirates need to win at least six from a group of seven games — at home against A&T, North Carolina, Old Dominion, and Connecticut, and on the road at Temple, Tulane and Cincinnati — to have any shot at qualifying for the postseason.
- Don’t hold anything back: Montgomery has to coach this season as though his future at ECU depends on it. Because almost certainly, it does. That means going for it on fourth and two inside the red zone instead of settling for field goals, onside kicking if it becomes obvious that the defense isn’t capable of stopping the other team and most important, not being afraid to use younger players when veterans aren’t getting the job done.
The new redshirt rule should help make some of those personnel decisions a little easier, especially when it comes to seeing what prized freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers is capable of doing. But redshirting really shouldn’t be an issue for a coach whose seat is as hot as Montgomery’s. If you’re going to go down, at least go down using all your resources rather than saving them to help the next guy succeed.
I would love to think we can win 6 games this year but reality says that won’t be the case. (2) 3-9 seasons have shown our talent level is much lower than the competition we’ve played against. My guess is we will have another losing season and Montgomery is done..
The Kidd says
I would urge everyone to keep in mind that Mo was behind the 8 ball with his first recruiting class because he started late. Even with that he has recruited the highest rated players that we’ve ever had (We HAD to in this league!) for 3 years. So, the past performance with McNeil recruits was going to happen with or without Mo (keep in mind we lost Lincoln Riley the year BEFORE McNeil was let go). Now, from what I have read, 80% of the recruits are his. I think you are WRONG and here is why: 1) Historically we do very well with that “chip on the shoulder” attitude, which I’m sure we all have now. 2) Nowhere to go but up. When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. A team with talent and all pulling in the same direction for respect is a dangerous thing! 3) Blackwell as D Coordinator. 4) We will be overlooked at the tough beginning of the season while the easier part of our schedule is the last half. 5) A better run game due to a better O line (I hope), we HAVE to keep opponents on the sideline while our defense takes a breath.
I am as upset at the last two seasons as everyone else, however, we can’t afford (literally and figuratively) to dump Mo next season. He’s getting great recruits and making staff changes where needed. We just paid Compher $1.2 million to go away, we can’t afford to pay Scotty $1 million to do the same and I fear many of his prized recruits will transfer (as seems the current norm) if he is fired. We’ve got to get something from this Mo experience, if he can’t win some games at least let him stock the cupboard this year and next and then rehire Skip Holtz.
How convenient to not mention A&T beat an FBS team during the ’16 season and UNCC in ’17.