GREENVILLE The dress rehearsal is over.
East Carolina repeatedly shot itself in the foot but managed to get off
enough rounds to kill two birds on Saturday.
The Pirates executed a winning start in
Conference USA with a 28-23 victory over Alabama-Birmingham at Dowdy-Ficklen
Stadium and achieved some needed momentum for a visit from rival North
Carolina next Saturday night.
Talk about a matchup that revs the fan
base and it's the opportunity to line up against the Tar Heels.
At least the Pirates won't have to
resurrect themselves from an 0-3 hole. Coach Ruffin McNeill was grateful
"It was great to get a win," he said.
"I've been in it a long time and wins are hard."
The Blazers were several steps down
competitively from nationally-ranked South Carolina and Virginia Tech,
who had combined to get ECU off to an 0-2 start despite Pirate leads at
halftime of both games., But the Blazers have already been to Florida
this season and didn't appear intimidated by the environment in
UAB fell to 0-3 overall and 0-2 in
C-USA but had a last chance to steal a road win after ECU's seventh
turnover, an interception by Marqui Coleman at the UAB 9-yard line with
7:02 left to play.
Backup quarterback Jonathan Perry
directed a drive that came down to a fourth-and-8 play at the ECU 18
after a timeout with 2:29 remaining.
McNeill said it was a wheel route, a
ploy the Blazers had used earlier in the game from another formation.
Perry's pass came down to running back
Pat Shed, who appeared to graze the goal line pylon on the south side of
Bagwell Field as linebacker Daniel Drake applied the hit.
"There was no doubt that (Drake)
knocked him out of bounds," said safety Damon Magazu, who had rotated
into coverage and emphatically indicated an incompletion before the side
judge confirmed it.
"I think he dropped the ball," McNeill
said of the decisive play.
Tape of the play from TV-12's Brian
North showed the ball dislodged as Shed went to the turf.
ECU took over and ran out the clock,
putting nothing between them and preparations for North Carolina but the
ECU program's 24-hour rule, which follows every game, win or lose.
Ruff said he was going home to enjoy
some time with "Pops," Ruff, Sr.
There was no replay on the last UAB
pass to Shed and no protest from the Blazers.
The factor that served to even out the
C-USA contest was turnovers. The Pirates had committed just one in the
last game two weeks earlier against the Hokies.
Maybe that's why McNell didn't want the
bye week when it took place after ECU did so many things well against
the defending ACC champions.
The Pirates had no penalties against
VPI but had four for 60 yards against UAB.
The biggest momentum swing came as a
Pirate touchdown was ruled a lost fumble by the replay crew. Instead of
a relatively-comfortable 35-17 fourth quarter lead, the Blazers took
over at their own 20 on a touchback. Perry, who came on for Bryan Ellis
after Ellis was immobilized and removed on a stretcher in the third
quarter, drove the Blazers for a score that got them within 28-23. The
Blazers went for a two-point conversion but Perry's scrambling lob was
"We had a shot there (on the final
drive) and then made some mistakes," said UAB coach Neil Callaway, a
former ECU part-time assistant in the Pat Dye era.
Neither Callaway nor McNeill had a
postgame update on Ellis's condition but McNeill expressed confidence in
ECU medical personnel and said a lot of the procedures appeared to be
The second half had been a trap door
for the Pirates in the first two games but the defense, the weak link in
2010, ultimately was able to preserve a valuable victory.
Overshadowed by the dramatics of the
closing stand were 542 yards of total offense by the Pirates. Dominique
Davis completed 35 of 42 for 361 yards with three touchdowns and three
picks. Reggie Bullock ran for 169 yards on 24 carries with a touchdown,
showing the package of moves and determination that made him junior
college offensive player of the year at Arizona Western.
"The turnovers are something we can
fix," Davis said.
McNeill said the only team that has
beaten ECU are the Pirates themselves. He was thankful it didn't happen
again against UAB.
Magazu was trying to avoid providing
any bulletin board material for the Heels.
"The fans will be amped and that amps
us, too," he said. "But we have to be careful not to be so emotional
that we don't play our assignments."
The crowd of 50,023 saw a gamut of
weather ranging from clouds at kickoff, to rain and then sunshine after
ECU regained the lead in the third quarter.
The outcome wasn't a masterpiece to
hang on the wall of the Murphy Center but what it was in its most basic
form was a win and that was what the program needed most.