One of the most hackneyed cliches in all of sports is the coach-speak mantra of “We play ‘em one game at a time.”
In the case of the 2018 East Carolina football team, though, it’s actually a sound approach to take.
Because while the Pirates will face significantly tougher tests and play games that can be construed as much more meaningful as the season plays out, the most important test on the schedule for coach Scottie Montgomery and his team — at least for now — is the first one they’ll face.
Two weeks from now at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium against N.C. A&T.
It’s a game that ECU will almost certainly be favored to win. As it should be.
There are generally two reasons why FBS teams schedule such openers at home against FCS opponents: to help the smaller school make a nice payday and to ensure their own season gets off to a positive start.
It’s a sound scheduling strategy, especially for programs that might need a little extra help in achieving the six wins necessary for bowl eligibility.
Unless, of course, it backfires.
The Pirates are only too familiar with that misfortune, having absorbed a 34-14 beating at the hands of James Madison to kick off the 2017 season.
It was little consolation that the Dukes were a talented, veteran team with most of their key players back from an FCS national championship the year before. Or that they would eventually go on to play for the title again four months later.
By losing a game it was “supposed’ to win, ECU suffered more than just one mark on the wrong side of its record. The entire program — players, coaches and fans alike — got knocked back to a point from which it never was able to recover on the way to a second straight 3-9 season.
Which brings us to Sept. 1 and this year’s opener against A&T.
At first glance, there are a lot of similarities between the Aggies and James Madison. They’re coming off an undefeated season that resulted in a national championship, albeit an unofficial one for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And while the Aggies will be breaking in a new head coach in Sam Washington, who was elevated from defensive coordinator after the retirement of former coach Rod Broadway, their roster features a large contingent of returning players.
Their offense, led by a quarterback (Lamar Raynard) that threw for 2,700 yards and won his conference’s Player of the Year award last season, his top receiver (Elijah Bell) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Marquell Cartwright), will be an especially challenging test for an ECU defense playing for the first time under new coordinator David Blackwell.
It also won’t help that A&T will have already played a game by the time it gets to Greenville, having gotten its season underway a week early in the FCS Kickoff against Jacksonville State this Saturday.
Needless to say, it’s a team the Pirates shouldn’t and can’t take for granted. And yet, in spite of all that, it’s a team they should reasonably expect to line up against and beat both physically and on the scoreboard.
Their season and Montgomery’s future depend on it.
There’s a lot of positive energy surrounding ECU’s program right now, thanks to the improvements to the team’s locker room and training facility, the ongoing renovations to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, a revamped coaching staff and significant upgrades in talent and depth thanks to two strong recruiting classes in a row.
By all accounts, the Pirates have had a productive preseason and are poised to take a noticeable step forward toward respectability. Unless, of course, all that momentum comes to a screeching halt right out of the gate once again.
Even though there will still be 11 more opportunities to play ‘em one game at a time after the A&T opener, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which ECU finds enough wins to get to the postseason or save its coach’s job without putting that first one into the win column.