Just when it seemed as though the East Carolina football team had turned a corner and was finally starting to head in a better direction, the Pirates took a disappointing U-turn in Philadelphia on Saturday.
It’s not just that they lost to Temple. That’s happened every year since ECU joined the American Athletic Conference in 2014. For some reason, the Owls just seem to have the Pirates’ number.
But while the outcome probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the circumstances, the way it came about was both unexpected and disturbing.
ECU looked timid and unprepared as it was dominated in all three phases of the game on the way to a 49-6 drubbing at Lincoln Financial Field.
It fell behind 28-0 in the blink of an eye and never gave a hint of competitiveness in a loss that looked, both aesthetically and on the stat sheet, hauntingly familiar to one of last year’s many debacles.
Against a Temple team that that has already lost to Villanova and Buffalo this season.
The only saving grace was that with a pair of Jake Verity field goals, the Pirates avoided being shut out for the first time since Oct. 4, 1997, against Syracuse, 259 games ago.
For all that went wrong — from the 6.0 yards per play the Owls offense averaged and the special teams touchdown allowed to the dismal 46 percent completion rate by three Pirates quarterbacks — the most frustrating aspect of the afternoon was that no one, including coach Scottie Montgomery, saw it coming.
“We had a great week of preparation. We were as sharp as we’ve been,” Montgomery said afterward. “We got on the plane and we came up here and we didn’t do our jobs.
” . . . They outcoached us. They outplayed us. They won this football game. We’ve got to make sure we understand the importance of every single snap.”
Even the best of teams have their clunkers from time-to-time. But this was more than just a simple hiccup. This was a total regression.
It’s almost as if all the positive progress Montgomery and his program had made over the first four games of the 2018 season has been thrown out the window, forcing them to start over from scratch.
With Houston, Central Florida and Memphis coming up in the next three games, this isn’t the best part of the schedule to be doing that.
To put the degree of difficulty of the upcoming stretch into its proper perspective, consider that the Cougars, Knights and Tigers are a combined 13-3 this season and beat the Pirates last season by a combined score of 185-61.
So where do the Pirates go from here?
Here’s what senior tackle Garrett McGhin had to say:
“(Sunday) when we come in for practice, … you take this and you learn from it.. You don’t come in and say this was just a fluke or anything like that. Realize what you did wrong. Realize what you did well, which wasn’t a lot, but you focus on everything and you move on from it.
“A mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.”
As for Montgomery, he promised that there “will be a lot of growth between now and next Saturday.”
That’s a realistic goal, considering it won’t take much to show growth from Saturday’s performance.
As for that other promise Montgomery made, the one about winning six games and going to a bowl he made after Memphis put a season-ending 70-Burger on ECU last December, he and his staff are going to have to pull a rabbit out of their hats to make that one happen.
With undefeated NC State being added as a potential 12th game on Dec. 1, the math just doesn’t add up to six wins at this point without the Pirates managing a win in which they’ll be a double-digit underdog.
It’s an equation that opens the question of what the threshold might be for Montgomery to keep his job.
He looked to be well on his way toward earning the chance to continue the building process beyond this season after last week’s dramatic comeback win against Old Dominion.
But now? After Saturday’s momentum killing setback?
Will four wins be enough after back-to-back 3-9 records? Will five get it done?
A lot will depend on who is making the decision — considering that consultant Dave Hart’s current three-month extension will be expiring just about the time the season is ending — and how quickly Montgomery is able to turn his team back around and get it headed in the right direction again.
If he can at all.