Time was running out on the East Carolina football team Saturday.
With the most frustrating of losses staring his team squarely in the eyes, Coach Scottie Montgomery had a decision to make.
Punt the ball away knowing you might not get it back for a chance at the winning score or go for it on fourth-and-one from your own 28 and risk turning it over deep in your own territory.
It was one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t kind of situations coaches all across the country face every week during the course of a season.
Only in Montgomery’s case, there was more than just a game on the line.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the third-year coach’s future with the Pirates beyond this season could potentially have been riding on his choice.
In the end, Montgomery decided to kick the ball away.
That didn’t sit well with the 35,047 restless fans in the stands at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, who let Montgomery know about their displeasure with the call.
Not that a few boos were going to cause him to doubt himself.
“My high school coach told me a long time ago when I was playing that every now and then as a head coach you can’t be afraid to get booed,” Montgomery said afterward. “I knew what type of defense we had. With three timeouts, I wanted to give them a chance to get a stop. We go down the field on offense, the rest is history.”
It would have been unheard of during Montgomery’s first two seasons at ECU to put any faith at all in a defense that couldn’t stop a parked car from rolling uphill.
But this defense is different.
Three plays and 24 seconds of elapsed time later, the Pirates had the ball back in nearly the same place they had just relinquished it with 2:26 left on the clock.
And as Montgomery noted, the rest is history.
Jake Verity’s 38-yard field goal with 46 seconds left gave ECU the 37-35 victory over Old Dominion that was significant not only because it evened the Pirates’ record at 2-2, but because it marked yet another turning point in the development of a program that may finally be headed in the right direction.
This was a game ECU would have lost earlier in Montgomery’s tenure.
In fact, the Pirates have already lost a game just like it this year. Remember the season opener against North Carolina A&T?
ECU spent so much time trying to figure out how and where to line up that it allowed the final 30 seconds to run off the clock without giving itself a reasonable chance at the winning score.
The fact that quarterback Reid Herring and his offensive teammates appear to have learned enough from that experience to provide a happy ending this time around led Montgomery to call Saturday’s victory his favorite so far during his time with the Pirates.
“Our kids learned a lot about each other tonight,” the coach said. “We had to lean on the defense, we had to lean on the offense and we had to lean on special teams. … We came from behind. We came from behind to win the game. When you come from behind to win the ball game it makes your team stronger.”
By doing so, ECU has given itself a legitimate shot of accomplishing Montgomery’s goal of winning six games and becoming bowl eligible.
That having been said, there’s still very little margin for error.
Although no game is technically unwinnable — especially with the way the Pirates held their own on the road at South Florida two weeks ago — there are four, maybe five, more reasonable opportunities for wins left on the schedule. Another could potentially arise if a replacement game for the Virginia Tech cancellation can be found.
One of them is Saturday’s trip to Temple.
Although the Pirates are currently a double-digit underdog, the Owls have already lost to Villanova and Buffalo at home this season. They present ECU with a chance at building on the momentum of Saturday’s dramatic victory before heading into the toughest three-game stretch of its season against Houston, Central Florida and Memphis.
As much faith as Montgomery showed in his players over the final three minutes against ODU, even as the boos were ringing in his ears, those players now seem ready to return the favor by being just as invested in him.
“We believe,” said senior defensive end Nate Harvey, who had three of his team’s nine sacks Saturday.
At the rate the Pirates are going, it might not be long before everyone else does too.