Football is primarily an outdoor sport and is occasionally subject to the dictates of weather. That fact was substantiated Thursday night as the NFL season opener in Philadelphia between the Eagles and Atlanta was delayed at the outset.
East Carolina players, coaches, fans and supporters needed no reminder of Mother Nature’s potential impact. The season opening 28-23 home loss to North Carolina A&T was postponed from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon because of lightning and rain.
The conditions that transformed Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium into a postcard for the Weather Channel came with a zero percent chance of rain in the Friday forecast for Greenville at 9 p.m. on Saturday.
For what it’s worth, the same forecast is calling for a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms on Saturday as ECU gets set to host North Carolina at 3:30 p.m.
The situation last Saturday made Terrell Smith, the Pirates’ assistant athletic director for football operations, a very busy man.
The statement that an army marches on its stomach is attributed to Napoleon and Frederick the Great. Third-year East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery wouldn’t disagree.
“When we were getting ready for a six o’clock game, we found out we were in a 30-minute delay,” Montgomery recalled. “Then we found out five minutes later we were in a 30-minute more delay. Then it just started going on.
“Around 8 or 8:30, somewhere around there, I started to get worried because the kids on both sides had been up since 7:30 or eight o’clock. You don’t want it to getting too late. So what I did was I got food delivered to both locker rooms.
“We had planned on playing, even if it was really late. Then we got a severe weather warning that supposedly had hail in it, so we had to make a decision whether we were going to play that night.”
As the storm moved in, it became apparent that the Aggies and Pirates were not going to meet on Saturday night.
“We both wanted to play the game so the only time that we could play the game would probably be the next day,” Montgomery said. “We knew that we couldn’t play a noon game and we knew that we didn’t want to play a six o’clock game.
“A noon game, we knew we were going to have to leave here and travel a long way to get hotel rooms and we were going to have to get the kids there and back at a feasible time so the 3:30 time worked out.
“A six o’clock game, we didn’t want to do that because we were already working on an short week. We didn’t want to have the kids coming off the field at 9:30 or 10 o’clock to have to get up the next morning as their day off and then get right back into it the following day.
“So we kind of came together on an understanding of playing it on Sunday. … Once (A&T) understood all the circumstances, they became OK with it.”
There was a weather delay of almost 90 minutes in ECU’s home win over Texas-El Paso on Sept. 29, 2012. With the Miners waiting out the storm, UTEP coach Mike Price bought some barbecue from a stadium vendor for his team. The ECU News Service reported at the time that the UTEP game was believed to be the first evacuation of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The second and third evacuations occurred within minutes of one another on Saturday night.
“I’ve been in this situation where we had like a two-hour delay about 10 years ago at Duke,” Montgomery said. “I remember our kids starting to get hungry. In the first 30-minute delay, the first thing I did I told our director of football operations to go ahead and order food for both locker rooms because I knew it could go an hour-and-a-half or two hours. What a lot of people don’t know is that the pregame meal usually happens from three to three-and-a-half hours before the game. So if they eat at 2:30 and the game is at six o’clock, you can only imagine what they were feeling like at 8:30 and they were still going to have to go out and play some more.
“These are just some things that are on a checklist that you want to make sure you do and have your program running a certain way. About eight o’clock is when I had the food delivered, I think. I’m pretty positive it was Chick-fil-A. They work really tightly with us in some quick situations where we have to feed a lot of people so I’m very appreciative of them being able to come through in that tight spot. From 2:30 to 8:30 for these young, growing men, to ask them to go play again, that would have been hard.”
With the provided sustenance, the teams began their travel to their overnight lodging.
“That was the hardest part,” Montgomery said. “The hardest part was getting them to a location and us to an equal location. We were able to find them a place in Fayetteville, which worked out and they were able to get on the road pretty quickly. Then we kind of ran into a little bit of a harder spot of getting everything together for us. . . . We arrived [in Cary] a little bit later, 1 to 1:30 a.m., somewhere around there. Terrell did a good job of making sure they were all square and then we were all square.
“We pulled out right around 10:30 (Sunday morning) so we could get back down here 12:15ish. I wanted to leave to make sure that if something happened when we were on the road, I didn’t want to roll into the stadium at two o’clock. I don’t like to travel that far the day of a game. I haven’t had to travel that far the day of a game except for one other time in my career.”
The experience provided a lesson about dealing with unexpected circumstances.
“The hard thing is that we didn’t have that huge percentage of any weather this weekend,” Montgomery said. “It looked great. I think the flexibility that comes with being in a situation like that is what you have to learn. There’s not a whole lot of times when you can play a game that following Sunday. What we’ll learn is that you’ve got to be as flexible as you possibly can.
“That was one of the reasons that I went to morning practices because the forecast for the evening in Eastern North Carolina can be difficult to predict. Unfortunately, it caused us to go into the start of a delay. By nine o’clock, it was unmanageable.”
A&T makes plays
Despite two turnovers after reaching the A&T 2-yard line, one of which went the other way for a 100-yard pick six, ECU had a 23-21 lead with A&T facing a 3rd-and-14 at its own 21. The Aggies responded with a 49-yard completion from back-up quarterback Kylil Carter to Marquell Cartwright. Four plays later, the Aggies got the winning touchdown on a 17-yard scoring pass from Carter to Elijah Bell with 7:05 left in the game.
“When we looked at it, we had an eye violation by our defensive back there,” Montgomery said of the third down conversion. “His eyes were in the backfield. In that situation, he’s in man basically. They just got behind him. We’ve got to make sure our eye discipline is much, much better in that situation.
“But overall, our defense just played so wonderful. The 3rd-and-14, if we could turn back the hands of time, we would definitely get those corrected and fixed. We had some critical errors in the game. … Unfortunately, they made us pay and our kids have to live with that. … The critical error, that’s where we are. You’re looking at a 14-point swing on the interception.
“And I didn’t have the quarterback as coached as tightly as he should have been coached to put that ball in the front flat. Even though we’ve been through it, you continually have to coach young guys. You can’t treat every situation like the guy is older than he is. What he is is a first-year quarterback starting. He’ll be better every single year. Our playmakers will continue to get better.
“Defensively, we’ve come a long way. Special teams, you got to see how important it is to have Kirk Doll (special teams coordinator) back. We did a good job. I thought we won the kicking game.”
Montgomery said the Pirates focused forward quickly in a Tuesday morning practice despite the agonizing circumstances in the season opener. ECU had more total yards, 382-269, and a 28-15 lead in first downs but fell to 0-1.
The Pirates addressed problem areas in their first workout after the upset.
“We put them in a lot more game-winning situations,” Montgomery said. “We wanted the stress to be on both offense and defense. There was a lot more good on good and we got up off the mat. We didn’t lay on the mat. I was really concerned because I know how hard our team has worked.
“We had good leadership in our locker room from Ray Tillman, from our defensive line, our running backs. It was just a great level of leadership. I just thought they wanted to be around each other and talk to each other about situations that happened in the game. They felt responsible. …
“I wanted to make it clear in my press conferences that it started with me. When you have a responsible team, they were really, really disappointed. They felt like they were put in some really, really good situations and we didn’t execute. We’ll have them in a better spot this weekend.
“I know our guys will bounce back. We’ve got a better locker room than we’ve ever had. I mean the people and the leadership in that locker room. It was great to see because we’re in pain. There’s no question about it. The good thing about it is that at certain other times I struggle to see the pain of losing. We’re in pain and we have to be able to come through this pain and bounce back.”
Minus-3 on turnovers
A&T played turnover free.
“We do have to generate takeaways,” Montgomery said. “They hit us in the hands with a couple of balls. One of the balls that hit us in the hands, they caught for a touchdown. Colby [Gore] had a good eye on it and we’ve got to make plays. Our guys understand that. . . . The one turnover was a decision. The other turnover (fumble) was a physical error. The one turnover was a decision and we can definitely control our decisions.
“Sometimes physical errors happen. Sometimes guys fall down on routes. Sometimes things happen on the football field. When it comes down to mental and critical decision making, we’ve got to do a better job of that.”
Decision making key
The ECU coach was made aware of areas where the Pirates need to develop in the contest with A&T. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Reid Herring passed for 309 yards and two touchdowns but two interceptions indicate that he remains a work in progress after his first start.
“I really feel like we’re going to play good football from the 20 to the 20, both sides of the ball,” Montgomery said. “I feel like we’re a really good team — being able to move the ball and stop guys, get guys off the field, take care of the ball on special teams and do things the right way.
“What it’s going to come down to with this team is when we do have the critical points in the game, whether it’s third down or whether it’s in the red zone on first, second or third down, our decision making has to be great. We’ve got to have great eyes on third down. That’s just something that has to happen. We’ve got to have an understanding in red zone football that we already have points. If we just don’t turn the ball over in that situation — we didn’t even need points to win the game there. We just needed to take care of the ball.
“I think Reid understands that the most important thing at the end of every possession is that we end it in a kick. We’ll continue to grow him and we’ll be better. We’ll be back on the field this weekend going against a great rival. That’s one of the best things about it. We were able to get right back into practice. We’ve got the Tar Heels coming to town so it gives us a little bit of a boost of energy.”
The Pirates meet UNC with both teams coming off season-opening losses. Host Cal dealt the Heels a 24-17 setback.
Some of the positives that were overshadowed in ECU’s setback were defensive improvement and a lack of penalties.
“We’re really disappointed in the way we performed for six or seven plays in that game,” Montgomery said. “That’s how critical football is. … We started the season very disciplined. Most teams when you start the season, you see 10, 11 penalties. Our guys came out with five penalties and did things the right way.
“We’ve got to continue to make plays. We’ve got to coach them tighter. We know that the support will be there, but we’ve got to go out and win. Our guys have got to learn what it takes to win. For us right now, it’s those critical plays.”