There is at least one thing about East Carolina’s most recent football game on which we can all agree.
It should never have been played.
The game was scheduled on the fly primarily to help N.C. State and the Pirates make up for revenue lost by earlier cancellations caused by Hurricane Florence. While both sides had good intentions when the deal was done, changes in circumstance made the matchup a bad idea by the time game week finally arrived.
ECU was without a head coach after Scottie Montgomery was fired a few days earlier. It was without its starting quarterback with Holton Ahlers sidelined by injury. And it was totally without motivation, leaving it without any realistic hope for winning a game against a veteran in-state rival on the way to a nine-win season.
The result was a 58-3 humiliation that was so bad, the Wolfpack rubbed things in by allowing an offensive center to line up in the backfield and score a touchdown. About the only positive for the Pirates was a 49-yard field goal by Jake Verity on the game’s final play that avoided their first shutout since 1997.
As luck would have it, the same two teams will meet again on the same Carter-Finley Stadium field in the opening game of the new season next Saturday.
About the only similarities between the bookend matchups are the logos on the helmets and the venue at which the festivities will take place.
With ECU starting over fresh under a new coach, with new offensive and defensive schemes and an entirely new attitude, the question must be asked:
Do the Pirates overtly use the embarrassment of last December as “bulletin board” style motivation or do they simply flush it and act as though it never happened?
On this one, opinions are mixed.
Running back Hussein Howe is among the group still feeling the sting of the lopsided loss.
“We bring it up a lot,” said the junior, who carried the ball six times for minus-10 yards against the Wolfpack. “We use it as motivation. We use it as motivation to make sure that never happens again.”
Defensive end Kendall Futrell took it one step further.
“We don’t want to make excuses, but a lot of things happened last year and we definitely want to have a better game this year,” he said. “I’m excited about that matchup. We’re going to be prepared for it this time.”
Offensive guard Cortez Herrin is also concentrating on preparation, but he and others in the program are more concerned with looking forward at the possibilities that await their team rather than looking back at a game eight months in the past.
“The slate is clean and we’ve got everybody 100 percent on the same page,” Herrin said. “I’m excited just to ball. I’m ready to play some football and show these people what we’ve got.”
Added Ahlers, who was named as the starter by new coach Mike Houston last week: “We remember that (N.C. State game) and we’re excited that it’s our first game this year, but we’re going to focus on us because we know it all comes down to us. If we do our job, we’ll be in the game. We’ve got the coaching staff to win this thing now.”
As for that coaching staff, the man in charge has seen the tape of the State game multiple times and has said it makes him sick to his stomach every time he sees it. Specifically, he’s upset more with the Pirates and their lack of pride and effort than he is at the Wolfpack for laying the hammer down on the team he inherited.
Although he doesn’t often speak to his players about last year’s debacle, he’s made it clear that a similar performance will not be acceptable and that the final score on Saturday won’t be anything close to 58-3.
“I promise you they haven’t forgotten it,” said Houston, who was hired only about a week after the season-ending game. “How could you? How could you forget something like that? You can’t. I hope that fuels them. I hope there’s a lot of motivation because of it. There is for me.
“It’s been a long time since I was part of a game like that and I have no interest in going backwards. I have no interest in going through that ever again, so hopefully there’s some internal motivation there.”
Though it wasn’t planned that way, playing State so soon on the heels of that 55-point defeat is probably the best thing that can happen to ECU.
This is not to say that the timing will help the Pirates catch the Wolfpack off guard or that the chance at revenge will catapult them to a transformational upset — although you just never know.
It will, however, give Houston and his program an opportunity to make a clean break with the past, to officially cleanse themselves of a game that should never have been played and start the process of moving forward by showing a rival in-state fan base — and everyone else, for that matter — what ECU football is supposed to look like.