North Carolina A&T coach Sam Washington had one final message for East Carolina before leaving Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Sunday.
“Tell them to bring me my money,” he said at the end of a wild locker room celebration following the Aggies’ weather-delayed 28-23 win against the Pirates.
Washington was referring to the $300,000 his school was reportedly guaranteed just for showing up and playing the game.
A tweeted Sunday night video clip from HBCU Game Day sums up the mood of the victors.
— HBCU Gameday (@HBCUGameday) September 3, 2018
The win wasn’t supposed to be part of the bargain.
But at ECU these days, a large check isn’t the only thing FCS teams are guaranteed when they come to Greenville for the opening week of a new season.
Though there were several noticeable differences, primarily in the performance of new coordinator David Blackwell’s defense and the numbers on the final stat sheet, Sunday’s loss to A&T was eerily similar to the season-crushing defeat the Pirates suffered at the hands of James Madison one year earlier.
Especially in the explanation for it offered afterward by coach Scottie Montgomery.
“At the end of the day, it comes directly back to me, the way that we performed,” Montgomery said at his regular weekly press conference Monday. (Replay press conference in a separate window…) “I thought that we were 100-percent ready to play, there’s no question about it. We had a great week of preparation. It was just we did not go out and execute the way we needed to execute to win the game.”
That’s a refrain repeated all too often during Montgomery’s tenure at ECU. You’d think that after two plus seasons, the Pirates might eventually figure out how to execute the way they need to execute to win games.
It could still happen this year. There are, after all, 11 games remaining to be played and its never a good idea to write off a season after just one week.
But despite the addition of new staff members, new players, a new offense and a shiny new team facility, it was a series of all-to-familiar problems that contributed to ECU’s demise Sunday.
Remember all that talk about how the ground game was going to be vastly improved?
The Pirates managed only 68 rushing yards against the Aggies, averaging a paltry 2.3 yards per carry against an FCS defense on just 29 carries.
Remember how hard the team was working on improving its red zone efficiency?
ECU scored just two touchdowns in seven trips inside the A&T 20-yard line. What’s worse, it turned the ball over twice inside the five — the first of those turning into a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave the underdog Aggies all the incentive they needed to pull off the upset despite being dominated statistically.
As well as the defense played, it still didn’t force any turnovers, produced only one sack and gave A&T’s backup quarterback plenty of time to find open receivers.
If there was one silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud that once again hangs over Dowdy-Ficklen — other than the one that produced all that lightning on Saturday — it is that that most of the Pirates’ opening week wounds were self-inflicted.
And presumably fixable.
The other bit of good news, such that it is, is that the opponent set to visit Greenville this week is one that traditionally brings out the best in ECU. The Pirates have won their last two meetings with North Carolina, including a 70-41 drubbing of the Tar Heels in 2014.
If that wasn’t enough reason for hope, there’s the fact that UNC also struggled to a 3-9 record last year and is coming off a season opening loss — a 24-17 setback at California in which quarterback Nathan Elliott was intercepted four times.
“I thought the North Carolina-Cal game was pretty similar to some of the things that we went through,” Montgomery said. “(UNC was) in situations where they could have won that football game a lot of different ways. Turnovers hurt them.
“This is going to be a tough opponent for us and we’re looking forward to the challenge because they are the Tar Heels.”
UNC will be without several key players suspended for selling their school-issued athletic shoes over the offseason. Among them is senior defensive end Malik Carney, who recorded eight tackles, three for losses, and a sack in last week’s loss.
Whether that makes the Tar Heels more vulnerable or more dangerous is yet to be seen.
This much, however, is guaranteed. And not the kind of guarantee that involves a $300,000 check.
Rather, it’s the palpable sense of urgency both teams figure to bring to the field with them Saturday in a game that could very well determine the direction of their respective seasons and the futures of Montgomery and Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora.
It’s a reality Montgomery addressed head-on Monday.
“There’s no question about it. We’re not going to run from it,” he said. “Right now, we’re both in a similar situation, both us and UNC. Everybody is going to direct their attention to this football game and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
“Every single coach that you ask, the game that they’re coaching is the most critical one of their careers. But this one, for all of the reasons that are connected to it, is very critical for our career.”