The mission wasn’t quite accomplished; still this East Carolina football team was thrilled to get back home early Sunday morning. The Pirates fell to South Florida, 20-13, after that two-week odyssey in Orlando to flee Hurricane Florence.
“It’s good to be back in Greenville,” said ECU coach Scottie Montgomery at his weekly news conference Monday afternoon. “We got back Sunday around 4 a.m., after a tough-fought loss against a USF team that was really talented. I thought the difference in the game was two plays on offense and two plays on defense. The two plays on offense, we threw one out of bounds and we didn’t catch the ball down the right-hand side. It’s going to be one of those games now, that we didn’t catch those guys in talent level, we caught them in how hard we’re playing.”
The group playing the hardest is the Pirate defense. The numbers are absolutely staggering. The nation’s worst defense a year ago has come leaps and bounds under new defensive coordinator David Blackwell. Even with the two busted plays on defense, which were the two plays that Coach Mo talked about, this unit is putting up numbers that many thought were impossible coming into the season.
Going into the Old Dominion game the Pirates are ranked 24th nationally in total defense. Last year the Pirates finished dead last in defense, 129th in the country. The Pirates were also dead last in the country in tackles for loss. So far this year, the Pirates are 10th in the nation. On third down, the Pirates have improved from 128th in the country to 16th. On first down the Pirates are even better, going from 114th to 3rd so far this season.
These numbers are absolutely stunning when you think about how porous the defense was a year ago.
Still, the number that matters most is wins in a season, and the Pirates had every chance to steal away a big one Saturday night in Tampa.
“Bottom line [it’s] wins and losses,” said Montgomery. “I’d feel a lot better right now if we had won the football game and the direction the team is going in. We’ve been moving in the right direction for a while; we just have to make sure at the end of the game, especially when we play tough opponents on the road. We played an undefeated team on the road and had multiple chances to win the game. . . . We’ve just got to be able to close those games out. We’ve tightened up what we do in our run game on the offensive side of the ball and we’ve tightened up a lot of things we do on defense.”
Next up is an ODU team that stunned the college football world with its 49-35 win over No. 13 Virginia Tech this past Saturday. It was the Monarchs’ first ever win over an Atlantic Coast Conference or Power 5 opponent.
The Monarchs didn’t just win. They embarrassed the Hokies, rolling up over 600 yards of offense. It was the most yardage ever hung on legendary Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster.
This was a much different ODU team then the one that trailed Liberty 14-10 in the third quarter, only to lose 52-10 to the Flames.
“Old Dominion has a great football team,” said Coach Montgomery. “They do a good job and they played much harder than Virginia Tech this past game. That’s why they were victorious. At the end of the day, you can tell that was a team that prepared like it was their Super Bowl and that’s the type of win that can give guys momentum.”
The Monarchs will bring that momentum to Greenville for only the second meeting between ECU and ODU since the then-fledgling programs played a number of times from the 1930s until 1940. The Old Dominion team during those legacy years was known as the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary.
The only other modern-era meeting between the two came in 2013, when Shane Carden led the Pirates to a 52-38 win on opening night. Carden threw for 447 yards and 5 touchdowns in the Pirate victory.
College football is a crazy sport. Old Dominion was a 28-point underdog against the Hokies and won by 14. The week before ECU was a 17-point underdog against North Carolina, and won the game by 22 points.
Just in case you’re wondering, ECU opened as a 6-and-a-half-point favorite over ODU. That number has gone down to 5 as of late Monday night.
All of a sudden this matchup with the Monarchs got a lot more intriguing.
“We’re glad we’re playing at home and want our fans to come out and support us and ‘Paint it Gold’ this weekend,” added Coach Montgomery. [We’re] looking forward to the challenge of Old Dominion and getting back to winning ways here at home.”
It should be a great atmosphere at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. ODU’s stunning win over the Hokies had to sell some tickets for this week’s game.
It’s a critical game for that ‘guaranteed bowl bid‘ from Coach Mo.
All of a sudden these Pirates have a chance at finishing .500 for September.
Don’t forget your ‘gold’ this weekend.