David Blackwell knows that his defense is more highly ranked this season, and he likes much of what he has seen from his players in East Carolina’s past two games.
But Blackwell can’t dwell on the good news when plays like South Florida’s 80-yard fourth quarter touchdown run in Saturday’s 20-13 defeat are still lodged in his memory.
“I think as a coach you always try to focus on the negative,” he said. “You look at us defensively, there were four plays in that game that kept us from pitching a shutout, and they were all us, none of them were them.”
But if Blackwell is losing sleep over the times the Pirate defense gave up crucial plays, he can take solace in the understanding that members of the Old Dominion coaching staff have suffered similar insomnia. In fact, the more Blackwell studies ODU the more convinced he becomes that ECU has traveled a very similar path to its next opponent this fall.
“They’re in some ways just like we are,” said Blackwell, in his first season as ECU’s defensive coordinator. “They’re looking at their schedule right now and they’ve lost a couple of games that they really should have won and they were a few plays away from winning, so they’re coming in going, ‘We’re a few snaps away from being 3-1 and we’re really on fire right now.’ ”
Of course, with a seismic 49-35 victory over Virginia Tech in their immediate rear view mirror, the Monarchs are coming to Greenville with plenty of confidence. Last weekend, ODU experienced a day when everything clicks the way it should.
ECU, on the other hand, is coming off its own version of ODU’s earlier loss to UNC-Charlotte — good production against South Florida for 90 percent of the game, with missteps on those few crucial plays that keep Blackwell awake at night.
From the defensive perspective, a Pirate triumph will be considerably more likely if ECU wins the turnover battle — Blackwell challenges his players to cause at least three takeaways in every game — and if the kind of tenacity that allowed ECU defenders to notch six sacks against the Bulls can be sustained against ODU.
For a team that collected only eleven sacks in all of the 2017 season, the Pirate breakthrough on the pass rush is the kind of spark that could result in a lasting defensive transformation.
“I think it does build as the game goes,” Blackwell said. “When you start getting (sacks), guys start playing with a little more confidence, a little more urgency. We’ve been a step away all year on a lot of them, we’ve had our share of tackles behind the line of scrimmage already, but closing the deal on sacks, we’ve been kind of a step away here or there.”
Sophomore defensive back Davondre Robinson, the Pirates’ leading tackler through the first three games with 19 takedowns, said that one intangible is the players’ return home after more than a week in Florida. It was oppressively hot down there, he said which required adjustment even for players used to Eastern North Carolina’s brand of heat.
But coming home was about more than escaping the South Florida heat. The players are in a comfortable environment, back in their weekly pregame routine, with the Pirate Nation ready to swarm back into the stadium to cheer with gusto. Robinson and his teammates are excited about playing in front of a home crowd and focused on tactics that can lessen the effect of the Monarchs’ strengths and make sure ECU has an answer for any unusual look ODU might throw their way.
“They do a lot of unbalanced formations, so that’s going to be the challenge is just communicating when they go unbalanced,” Robinson said of the defense’s preparation. “They’ve got some really funky formations.”
Given the ECU defensive unit’s ascent in a short time — the unit finished the 2017 season dead last among Division I teams in total defense and now stands at 24th nationally in the same category — Blackwell knows he has plenty to be pleased about. But this week, and every week remaining, will be about striving to do the right thing every time on the field, reducing the kind of missed assignments and mental errors that can torment a defensive coordinator.
“Those are the little things right now that are keeping us from being great,” he said.