Are you a glass half empty kind of person or is your glass half full?
How you answer that question will likely shape your perspective on East Carolina’s 19-7 win against William & Mary at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday.
Either you came away encouraged by a victory earned primarily through the efforts of a stout defense, something that hasn’t happened often since the days of Skip Holtz, or you’re deeply concerned about some potentially ominous warning signs for the more difficult tests that lie ahead.
No matter what, the importance of the result should not be downplayed.
For a program that has won just nine times over the past three years combined, any victory — regardless of the score, the opponent or the execution — is as precious as a newborn child and should be celebrated as such.
That having been said, the goal of coach Mike Houston and his staff isn’t just to win a couple of feel-good games against FCS competition or to work miracles and produce a quick fix. It’s to create a culture and set a foundation upon which a winning program can gradually be built.
Step by step. Inch by inch. Day by day.
To that end, the performance of the Pirates’ defense on Saturday was a clear sign of growth. This wasn’t a pressure-free blowout like that 48-9 rout of Gardner-Webb in the home opener three weeks ago.
It was a game whose outcome was very much in doubt well into the fourth quarter, one that could have taken a disappointing turn for the worse with one blown coverage, one mis-fit gap or one broken tackle.
But an ECU defense that was statistically the worst in the country just two years ago didn’t let any of that happen. Instead, it put an exclamation point on a memorable performance when junior end Chance Purvis stopped the Tribe’s Owen Wright for a two-yard loss on a fourth-and-one play at the ECU 41 with just over eight minutes remaining.
It was one of three fourth down stops in the game for defensive coordinator Bob Trott’s unit.
“We knew they were going to go for it in certain situations, so we worked several calls right there in those situations,” Houston said after the game. “Boy that last one was huge. That last one was the one, to not only get the stop but to get it with authority. That probably put the game away right there.”
It was certainly something on which to build.
Conversely, ECU’s offensive effort was one that left a lot to be desired.
There were some bright spots, to be sure. An opening possession in which quarterback Holton Ahlers completed 4 of 5 passes while driving his team 75 yards on nine plays for a touchdown was an encouraging sign. So was the depth at running back the Pirates showed with reserves Trace Christian (91 yards on 14 carries) and Tay Williams (71 on five) filling in admirably for injured regulars.
And they didn’t commit a turnover.
But there were also a multitude of mistakes — some as big as the three sacks and five quarterback hurries the line allowed and others as small as the false start penalty that turned a third-and-four from the William & Mary 23 to a third-and-nine from the 28.
The latter helped stall a drive and led to one of four Jake Verity field goals in the game.
Another costly penalty, an offensive interference call on Audie Omotosho in a goal-to-go situation, also potentially cost ECU four points.
Kicking field goals instead of scoring touchdowns has been a recurring problem over the past few seasons. It’s a pattern that has led to Verity earning first-team All-Conference recognition, but one Houston knows must change for his team to stand any chance of winning against better competition and moving up in the American Athletic Conference standings.
“We’ve got four million mistakes we’ve got to get corrected,” the first-year coach said. “But the way the kids competed in the second half, the way they fought to overcome some adversity, the way we played defense, the way we ran the football in the fourth quarter … that’s what you’ve got to do to win ballgames.”
Regardless of whether your glass is half full or half empty.