East Carolina World has had plenty of time to savor a 41-19 upset of North Carolina and the Pirate football team has had plenty of time to prepare for its American Athletic Conference opener at South Florida on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Those circumstances arose after ECU canceled its Sept. 15 game at Virginia Tech and traveled by bus to Orlando with the approach of Hurricane Florence.
The region is still reeling, but perhaps there will be a silver lining from the storm for the Pirates.
“When you consider the physicality of football, it’s always nice to get a little break,” said senior captain Cannon Gibbs, a linebacker who was in on three tackles against the Tar Heels. “At the same time, we would have liked to play last weekend. . . . There’s pros and cons to each perspective. We just take it for what it is. We’ve got our legs back under us and we’re just getting ready for USF.”
Value of victory
It remains to be seen if the last outcome will be a springboard for ECU (1-1) or a bungee jump from which the Pirates will recoil.
ECU coach Scottie Montgomery talked about the value of a victory in the aftermath of the triumph over UNC.
“It’s all about the locker room,” Montgomery said. “It’s rewarding the locker room. It’s very important that we start doing everything right — start practicing much better, working hard and becoming selfless. … I think it’s critically important that you win and you have big wins against opponents that you need to win against.
“That validates the hard work in the process, the building and the things the Pirate Club has helped us do feeding them. It validates a lot of things. It was really important to get that win.
“I thought we played a complete game. I thought we played really hard. I thought we could have played better. I thought we left two or three touchdowns out there on offense. We made a couple of mistakes on third down. Overall, I thought the difference in the way that we played was just how hard we played every single snap.”
Two quarterbacks helped make the Pirates more productive offensively than in the 28-23 season-opening loss to North Carolina A&T. Montgomery was involved with a two-quarterback system when he was on the staff at Duke. Thomas Sirk was once part of such a tandem for the Blue Devils before his final collegiate season at ECU in 2017, when he split time with Gardner Minshew.
“We’re in a little bit better situation at quarterback than we were in Durham,” Montgomery said. “Holton Ahlers is not just a 20-yard-in guy. He can throw it. He can really, really throw it. . . . The best part of it is that it doesn’t affect us in the training of our backup quarterback, Kingsley Ifedi.
“So if there’s anything that happened to Reid (Herring), we’d still have the same system. It doesn’t violate our ability to have the same system in the way that we practice. It’s still really, really good. It’s allowing us to get all three of our guys better. We do have the ability to play multiple quarterbacks when the defense will allow us to.”
Darius Pinnix broke free for a 47-yard scoring run against UNC that extended the Pirates’ lead to 28-19. Ahlers scored from 21 yards out to push the advantage to 35-19. It was the second touchdown of the game for the true freshman from D.H. Conley.
Ahlers and Pinnix did not play against A&T, which has now won 15 straight games over two seasons.
“We wanted to get Darius more work in the first half,” Montgomery said. “I should have done a better job of watching every single position and how much every single position was playing. He had the ability to play more based on the way I went into the game having our guys kind of already scripted out in what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get into scripting because if any injuries happen in scripting with any of the backs then you’ve got a problem, but we were able to do it. We changed some of our run schemes slightly. We were able to block much better in the offensive front. Darius was the beneficiary of that. Holton and Darius were the benefit of each other. It just so happened that they were going in there together.
“Because of Holton’s ability to pull it, we started getting safeties displaced. Once we started seeing safeties displaced I knew we needed to get the ball handed off, as long as we could live off a 600-pound double team, we could get behind it and we’d have a chance to go a long distance. I didn’t know we’d hit a home run like we hit there with Darius but he did a great job of pressing the line of scrimmage.”
ECU nemesis has departed
ECU no longer has to contend with run-throw Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers, now a halfback on the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad.
The Bulls lead the series with the Pirates, 7-1, and Flowers was a difference-maker in the last three meetings.
In 2015, he threw a 67-yard scoring pass with 4:40 left to play in a 22-17 USF win in Greenville.
Flowers ran for 115 yards and threw for 250 with two TDs in a 38-22 victory in Tampa in 2016. After the Pirates had pulled within 24-22, he hit Adams for a 62-yard momentum-changing score.
In a 61-31 win in Greenville last year, Flowers had 93 of USF’s 390 rushing yards with one touchdown. He threw for 160 yards and two scores but the Bulls were able to rely primarily on their ground game.
“He was a remarkable player,” said Pirates defensive tackle Alex Turner.
USF lost some other skill personnel from a team that was 10-2 overall and 6-2 in the AAC, but Montgomery said that recruiting has provided a solid talent base in the Bulls’ 3-0 start.
“They’ve got a lot of talent at skill positions,” said the third-year Pirates coach. “We’re going to have to stop them in space.”
ECU watched the Bulls’ 25-19 win at Illinois on Saturday as a team.
The Pirates ran for 220 yards in week two after managing just 68 yards in the season opener.
“One of the big differences with Coach [Don] Mahoney (first-year offensive line coach) since he got here is staying on the downs (defensive down linemen),” said tackle Garrett McGhin. “We really did that against Carolina and we did a great job communicating. Five pennies were working as one nickel. We were all on the same page. Everybody was doing their job, working to the second level and taking care of the down linemen.”
McGhin has some extra motivation this week. His cousin, Jonathan McGhin, played for the Bulls. The Pirates senior got some interest but no offer from USF when he was being recruited.
ECU has maintained its routine as much as possible in Orlando.
“We’re very focused,” Herring said. “The difference is we’re sleeping in a different room. We’ve got a lot of the same stuff going on at the same time of day. We’re very prepared and we’re looking forward to this Saturday.
“We’re definitely all ready. I feel like we missed it a little bit last week.”