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View from the 'ville
Thursday, October 15, 2009

By Al Myatt

Holtz piloting Pirates through choppy seas

By Al Myatt
All rights reserved.

A conference championship the preceding year, an abundance of returning starters, a Pirate ship loaded with depth and a coach who turned down a BCS job opportunity to remain at East Carolina were among the factors that tended to promote a sense of security surrounding the ECU football program at the start of the 2009 football season.

The atmosphere around the program has not nurtured success to this point. The Pirates are 3-3 overall and 2-1 in Conference USA without a convincing win on the resume. Inconsistency has characterized the offense and the defense has been beset by untimely breakdowns.

Frustration seems to have been wearing purple and gold a lot this season. Even the wins have had their bewildering dimensions.

A reporter's question after East Carolina held on for a 29-24 win over Appalachian State in the season opener expressed the sort of mixed emotions the Pirates have generated at the halfway point of the regular season. Coach Skip Holtz was asked if he might go home and kick the cat, given some of the unnerving aspects of the victory over ASU.

ECU had led 24-0 in the first half and appeared to be en route to a comfortable victory before the Mountaineers staged a comeback.

Holtz responded that he would not kick the cat. He said a win was a win and that was the objective. He said he might not be "Chuckles the Clown" at the next team meeting but he was pleased to have come out on top.

"A one-point win is a win and a one-point loss is a loss," Holtz said.

Holtz recalled the cat question in his appraisal of a 19-14 win over Central Florida in the first Conference USA contest three weeks later.

"I'm not going to use this expression as my own," he said. "But it's hard to kick the cat right now. There are a lot of things we've got to get better at but I thought there were a lot of positive things as well."

But does Holtz actually have a cat?

"No," he said. "No, I don't. I do have a dog, but I don't have a cat.

"The coach in you gets frustrated and upset because you look at what could have been — to play a complete game, to not turn the ball over. For us to be a good football team, we're going to have to get a lot better than we are right now, today.

"I think we've got guys playing hard. We've got some great individual efforts out there right now, But right now as far as playing together as a team and clicking on all cylinders, we're making way too many mistakes right now.

"We're going to have to turn and get those things corrected."

That was after the win over UCF, hardly a masterpiece but a valuable league win nonetheless.

ECU got a 21-17 victory at Marshall the following week but the 2-0 C-USA start may have contributed further to a false sense of security for the defending league champions.

If ever there was a game where Coach Holtz might have come home and felt like kicking a cat — or his dog — it was last week's 28-21 loss at SMU. All pets in the Holtz neighborhood should have been put on alert as the Pirates did everything but gift wrap the game in Dallas for the Mustangs.

The Pirates led the Ponies 357-294 in total yardage but ECU made too many errors to have a happy flight home.

"You can say we should have won, but we made way too many mistakes to do that," Holtz said. "When you look at it, having the redzone opportunities we did and not being able to push the ball into the end zone cost us.

"So did the two blocked field goals, one for an SMU touchdown, the 96-yard touchdown pass they threw after we had them backed up and the interception for the touchdown. Each of those was a seven-point difference. If you change four plays in that game, it could have been a 28-10 game.

"But it wasn't. We did make those mistakes. We weren't good enough to overcome all the mistakes we made and get a win."

There were some positive aspects to the SMU game, particularly in regard to the defensive effort.

"Defensively, we're improving," Holtz said. "We gave up 443 yards four weeks ago, then 336 yards, 306 yards and finally 294 yards Saturday including that 96-yard touchdown."

The Pirates still control their fate in the C-USA East Division race and Holtz pointed out that ECU was 3-3 at this point last season. The Pirates have dealt with flu in recent weeks but fall break at the start of this week allowed the healthy members of the program to focus exclusively on football.

There is a bounce back factor in play after a loss such as the one ECU sustained last week. Playing at home against Rice on Saturday should certainly have its beneficial effects.

Holtz cautioned against reading too much into the Owls' 0-6 record.

"I know a lot of people are going to look at Rice and say they're a 0-6 football team," said the Pirates coach. "I think Coach (David) Bailiff is an excellent coach. I've been very impressed with them as a football team in a lot of respects."

Rice is similar to SMU in its propensity for the passing game.

"On offense, they're breaking in a lot of new starters as they're trying to replace a great wide receiver, tight end and quarterback that they lost a year ago," Holtz said. "Toren Dixon and Patrick Randolph, their two wide receivers, are a big part of their passing game.

"Taylor Wardlow, who is their tight end, has 22 catches this season. His role is constantly increasing as his catches are increasing from week to week. They're treating him more and more like Marshall's Cody Slate.

"At quarterback, Nick Fanuzzi is a transfer from Alabama who has been injured the last two weeks. They've had to play three quarterbacks due to injury. All three are pretty much doing the same things. Fanuzzi is the one they want to go with. Against Navy, he threw for 242 yards and two touchdowns. I think they're starting to roll into something with their receivers, Wardlow and Fanuzzi all working together."

Holtz said the Owls are deceptively effective on defense.

"Defensively, they played Oklahoma State and gave up under 400 yards total offense and 3.8 yards per rush to that team," said the Pirates coach. "Against Vanderbilt, it was 10-10 at the half and a heck of a game. They were beating Tulsa 10-7 with 47 seconds in the half before a big kickoff return allowed Tulsa to tie it at 10 with a field goal. Against Tulsa, Rice gave up just 2.9 yards per rush and also held the team to under 400 yards.

"I think they're doing a lot of good things. The biggest thing that I'm seeing with this Rice team is that it's improving. They're getting better each and every week, even though the statistics might not show it."

Despite the Owls' dangerous potential, the major issues this week are really about the Pirates. ECU needs a win that answers some questions instead of creating more uncertainty about the team's achievement level.

The Pirates need to come out and play 60 minutes of football in accordance with their talent and depth. That should get ECU over the midseason hump with some momentum for the challenges ahead — and keep the pets who live among the Pirate Nation safe.

E-mail Al Myatt

Al Myatt Archives

10/15/2009 02:24 AM


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