East Carolina lost a football game Saturday.
This should not come as a newsflash, considering that the Pirates are now just 7-20 during the Scottie Montgomery era. Yet, though the result was all too familiar, this one felt different from all those other defeats.
For the first time in at least two years, ECU looked like a legitimate, competitive team against a nationally-ranked FBS opponent. For the first time in at least two years, there’s reason to be encouraged by its performance on the field and the progress it is making.
This is not to say that the Pirates or their fans should start start celebrating moral victories or be satisfied with simply coming close. The tradition of this program is much too proud for that to ever happen.
But because of the improvement shown in Saturday’s 20-13 loss at South Florida, especially on defense, there is now a legitimate reason to believe that ECU under Montgomery may finally have turned a corner and is heading in the right direction.
There is plenty of tangible evidence to support such a claim.
For one thing, this was an American Athletic Conference opponent the Pirates were playing. On the road.
In similar games last season, ECU gave up an average of 55.8 points and was outscored by the embarrassingly wide margin of 223-102.
Against USF, the 2017 Pirates were torched to the tune of 61-31.
Granted, dynamic quarterback Quentin Flowers is no longer fueling the Bulls’ offense. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the Bulls, whose 5-0 record includes Power 5 victims Georgia Tech and Illinois, are still a formidable foe with an explosive offensive unit.
And all ECU did was limit to them to nine first downs, 115 yards rushing and 296 yards overall. Its six sacks, recorded by six different players, were only five fewer than the team had all last season and just three less than the entire 2016 campaign.
The statistics are even more impressive when considering that 146 of those total yards were amassed on just two plays.
Those two plays — a 66-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter and an 80-yard run with just over 10 minutes remaining — ended up costing the Pirates the game. But that’s still much better than the six, eight and even 10 “catastrophics” ECU had been surrendering almost every week previously.
After ranking 129th nationally out of 129 FBS programs a year ago in scoring defense, total defense and tackles for loss, the Pirates are currently 10th in TFLs, 24th in total defense and 62nd in scoring defense after their first three games, allowing an average of 20 fewer points than they did in 2017.
The architect of that transformation is first-year coordinator David Blackwell, who returned to his alma mater after earning a reputation for a being a fixer of broken defenses at the FCS level. His unit at Jacksonville State ranked No. 1 in its division over the past four seasons.
By setting the bar high, stressing communication, simplifying the Pirates scheme to make it easier to understand and putting his players in the best positions to make plays, Blackwell is rapidly approaching miracle worker status for the progress he’s already made.
But as amazing a job as he’s done to this point, don’t discount Montgomery’s role in the process. He is, after all, the man who identified Blackwell as the best fit for the coordinator position and hired him.
That decision is hardly the only sign of Montgomery’s growth as a head coach.
He held spring practice earlier than usual to give his players more time to learn Blackwell’s system and to improve physically under the guidance of strength and conditioning taskmaster Jeff Connors.
Offensively, he put a renewed emphasis on running the football while avoiding the distraction of a quarterback controversy by naming sophomore Reid Herring as his starter before fall camp ever began and sticking with him.
At the same time, he proved himself to be flexible enough to find a role for freshman sensation Holton Ahlers and doing it in a way that took North Carolina completely by surprise.
Now that opponents have seen what Ahlers can do and will undoubtedly start adjusting to defend him, as USF did during the second half Saturday, it’s up to Montgomery and his staff to make the youngster less predictable by adding more wrinkles to his personal playbook.
Defensively, ECU must still find a way to eliminate the rest of those catastrophic plays and continue to shut opponents down on a consistent basis.
There’s still work to be done, starting with this week’s home game against giant-killer Old Dominion. That’s because as encouraging as the progress that has already been made might be, the only improvement that really matters — especially as it relates to Montgomery’s job status — is the one that takes place in the win column.
But at least now there’s reason to believe, not just hope, that such an improvement might actually be possible.