East Carolina’s four-game losing streak has brought out increasing negativity from the fan base as the Pirates head to Tulane for a 4 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.
ECU coach Scottie Montgomery is 8-24 overall in his third season with the program. The Pirates are 2-6 this year and 0-5 in the American Athletic Conference.
Montgomery is aware of Pirate Nation’s frustration despite indications of improvement and the bright future of true freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers,
“The first thing we do is we understand that it’s a part of being a fan,” Montgomery said. “The fans, they just want to win and you’ve got to understand that. They don’t have an inside view of everything that happens and goes on, and how slow growth sometimes happens.
“It’s hard. There’s no question about it because we’re human, just like everybody else, but this is what we love to do. We love to coach. We love to play. We see growth in certain situations.
“Hopefully, we can get it to the point where everybody is able to see what sometimes only the trained eye can see. At some times we worry about our kids dealing with it more than coaches, because, we, as players growing up we’ve had to deal with it as college players, as professionals. . . . As coaches you know you’re going to have to deal with it.
“Negativity can come sometimes when you’re doing everything right and you have a few things go wrong. When you don’t have exactly the schedule record that you’d like to have, you understand that negativity can come with it.”
The AAC is a demanding league.
“The other part of it is, I also want people to understand we’re in a situation where we’re having to fight to catch up to a conference that we fell behind in more than a few years back,” Montgomery said. “We’re trying to do the things to fight back into it. You can see the investment some the teams we’ve played against have made, the Houstons of the world, the Memphis of the world, the UCFs of the world, the Temples of the world. And those are the people we’ve played. I think it’s critical that we all understand that. Not looking for any excuses.
“I don’t want the fans to be positive and have a happy feeling about moral victories. But when we do have success, we just like for that to be recognized for the players. We really want people to see the success of some of our young guys working through some things.
“We’re snapping the ball with a center (Peyton Winstead), a true freshman, to another true freshman (Ahlers), who threw a touchdown last week to another true freshman (Tyler Snead). It went from true freshman to true freshman to true freshman against a team that last year was in the conference championship game. Before that, we played a team that claimed the national championship (Central Florida). It just goes on and on and on with the teams that we’ve played.
“We’ve got to get to a point though that we are successful enough to put together great performances from our defense and offense and get wins.”
More competitive against Tigers
At the Liberty Bowl in the season finale in 2017, ECU trailed Memphis 49-0 at the half and eventually lost, 70-13. This year the Pirates overcame a 24-14 deficit against the Tigers to tie the score at 31 early in the third quarter. ECU trailed 38-34 going into the fourth quarter before falling, 59-41.
“We have better personnel now,” Montgomery said. “We’ve just got to play well together. Last year, during the game, certain times, Iooked out there, I just felt like we weren’t where we needed to be physically.
“This year, we had a few mistakes on offense, a few mistakes on offense. We battled back and couldn’t get it done at the end against a very similar team with a lot of talent. They’ve got an NFL player at receiver, an NFL player at back. Definitely, some NFL players in their offensive line. NFL players all over on defense.
“I think that we’re playing with a few or more NFL players when it’s time for them to come out. We’ll continue to grow that number. We’re catching them physically. We’ve just got to continue to grow. I would like to see us play a complete game, offense, defense and special teams. I think we’ve closed a little bit of the gap on some of these city schools that we’re competing against. Now, we’ve got to go win. That’s what it comes down to.”
Memphis makes big plays
The Tigers had touchdown pass plays of 71 and 75 yards.
“Talent — it always, even the big plays that we made, it comes directly back to recruiting,” Montgomery said. “The NFL is also kind of a big-play league, where there’s stop, stop, stop, stop and then somewhere in the game somebody makes a huge play. You wonder how it happens. Some of it is scheme. Some of it is talent. Most of it is talent. They made some huge plays on us. …
Memphis back Darrell Henderson took a Brady White toss for a 71-yard score after ECU had gone on top, 7-0. Henderson had 21 carries for 132 yards with TD runs of 20 and 39 yards in the fourth quarter.
“We talked about (Darrell) Henderson going into the game,” Montgomery said. “He was as advertised. At the same time, if we’re a little bit more sound in some of the things that we did defensively, if we do what Coach [David] Blackwell (defensive coordinator) and I and the staff really asked our guys to do in every situation, we had a chance to be really successful. That’s why our guys are practicing really hard right now to make sure they give everybody out there an opportunity to play at a high level.”
ECU yielded a season-high point total against Memphis.
Injuries affect run game
Montgomery wanted the run game to average four yards per rush in 2018. The Pirates ran 29 times against Memphis for 107 yards, 3.7 per carry.
Injuries are part of the game but have forced some personnel in the blocking corps to the sideline.
“It’s having an effect,” Montgomery said. “We can’t cry over spilled milk, but the truth is it’s had its effect on us. The injury bug, that’s why you’ve got to continue to work depth. Thank goodness we recruited well at the center position, getting John Spellacy and then Peyton Winstead, getting those guys. They’re young.
“We’ve had two classes and we’ve had to recruit really the offensive line position in two classes that we were able to recruit. Also, D’Ante Smith and Cortez Herrin, having those guys ready and available to play, which are young guys that came in in the first original class when we came in. We’ve got to continue to do a better job there. I’d like to be 12 deep at that position, two swing guys, two tackles. two guard swing guys. That would be great for us if we can build toward that.
“(Injuries) have had their impact, but some guys have got to step up. This is an opportunity. It’s like you see some guys out wide step up and take care of an opportunity, we’ve got guys that have got to take an advantage of an opportunity with enough talent. They’ve got to get in their playbooks. They have enough talent to come in and play really well for us.”
Branden Pena and Spellacy are not expected to be available on the offensive front at Tulane.
“It looks like they’re going to be out again,” Montgomery said. “We’re working to try and get some guys back but I don’t think we’ll have either one of them for this week.”
Injuries hit defensive front, too
Ailments also have reduced depth on the defensive line.
“We have had some injuries on the defensive front, too,” Montgomery said. “We’re a little bit deeper on the defensive side of the ball. Fortunately for us, Jalen Price was able to go (Tuesday). He seems to be doing a lot better than we thought he was going to be doing. On Sunday, we were really, really worried about our numbers.
“Kendall Futrell was banged up a little bit in the game as well. We’ve got to get both of those guys back healthy before we go down to New Orleans. Practice has been a little different this week because of trying to get some guys back. At the same time, we’ve done a lot of work with the guys who are able to practice.”
Back-up QB situation
Fourth string quarterback Caiden Norman, a redshirt freshman from Cleveland High School in Johnston County, warmed up after Ahlers dinged his right shoulder along the ECU sideline last Saturday. Reid Herring was not available and Kingsley Ifedi had been sick the previous week. Ifedi did not take snaps in practice.
The Pirates utilized Darius Pinnix for a Wildcat snap before Ahlers returned to the game.
“Last week, we had the ability to practice Reid [Herring] and he just didn’t get cleared for contact because our quarterbacks don’t get contact [in practice],” Montgomery said. “Tuesday, he looked great. I don’t want to say I’m 100 percent certain it will be him but we feel really good about it being him as a back-up quarterback.”
Herring was in an automobile accident two days before Ahlers made his first start against UCF on Oct. 20. Herring dressed out for the Memphis game.
Tulane departs from the norm with its decisions to run on third down in longer yardage situations. The Green Wave also will use its cornerbacks in man coverage.
“It’s really hard to call them tendencies because it’s 50-50 on third down and four to six, whether they’re going to run it or pass it,” Montgomery said. “Across the country, it’s probably 70 to 80 percent, maybe even higher, toward the passing part of it. So, offensively, they’re going to do a good job running the ball.”
Tulane won 41-15 at South Florida last week to improve to 4-5 overall and 3-2 in the AAC.
“Defensively, they trust their corners,” Montgomery said. “They have a lot of faith in them. If you don’t have a game plan to be able to deal with some of the harassment of their corners, pressing, even the off man, then it can prove to be difficult for you. I thought they had an outstanding game plan against South Florida based on, not only the outcome, but how they frustrated some of South Florida’s routes and techniques in their routes.
Keys on Saturday
Tulane topped the Pirates 31-24 in overtime last year in Greenville. ECU has designs on reversing that result.
“The first thing we’ve got to do, we’ve got to take care of the football on the road,” Montgomery said. “That’s most critical. We’ve got to do what we did last week offensively in taking care of the ball. That’s where it all starts. Just take care of the ball.
“Offensively, you’d like to see us win those one-on-one matchups. If we can continue to get those one-on-one matchups and beat them, we’ll hopefully start to see some zone coverage with two high and probably trying to help over the top coverage and help underneath coverage and we can get our run game going in a successful manner.
“Defensively, we’ve got to get back to playing our type of defense after only one week truly of not being locked in like we normally are. Get back to just reading our keys at linebacker, communicating at linebacker. We do those things, we’ll have a great, great chance at being successful.”