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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

By Bethany Bradsher

Ruff & Co. place premium on winning

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

The East Carolina football players have experienced the preparations, travel and festivities of a bowl trip before, but few of them have been part of a bowl victory.

So while it might be a cliché, their assurance that “This is a business trip, not a vacation” carries  more weight than normal as head coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff make sure that bringing home a championship trophy from the Military Bowl takes mental priority over visits to the Smithsonian or the team Christmas banquet.

“Coach Ruff has been preaching it to us, we’re going to this bowl to win the game,” said junior quarterback Dominique Davis. “We’re just going to take care of business and we’ll have fun later.”

If you’re looking for a motivator with credibility, McNeill brings the right resume to the task. When he leaves for the nation’s capital next Friday, he will be departing for his 12th straight bowl game, and his Texas Tech teams were the victors in six out of his last eight bowls.

The world of bowls has been so good to McNeill, in fact, that said he would only favor a college football playoff that leaves the bowl system intact.

“We’re going to Washington, DC, for one thing, and that’s to win the football game,” he said. “We’ll enjoy the required bowl festivities and required events, but we are preparing, and our whole thought process is going to win the football game. End of discussion.”

To that end, the Pirates watched film of Maryland (8-4, 5-3) on Sunday and have been gradually introducing elements of the Terrapin system in practice this week. With a multiple offense and a 4-3 defense, Maryland looks more like N.C. State than any other team the Pirates (6-6, 5-3) have faced this season, McNeill said. And even though ECU and Maryland have never met on the football field before, the Terrapins are the fourth ACC team the Pirates have faced this year.

“I talked to Coach (Ralph) Friedgen about us being honorary members of the ACC,” McNeill said.

The challenges that Maryland will present to ECU on Dec. 29 include freshman quarterback Danny O’Brien, a Kernersville native who is effectively running an offense that averages 30.7 points a game and a defense that is allowing only 132 rushing yards per game and has sacked opposing quarterbacks 27 times this season.

“We’re going to face a lot of man defense with them, and we usually don’t see a lot of man,” said senior wide receiver Dwayne Harris, a first-team All-Conference USA selection and the recipient of the conference’s most valuable player award.

Even if ECU's practice sessions will get more Maryland-oriented from here on out, one of the great benefits of a bowl invitation is the extra time coaches are given to drill in fundamentals and to break in young players who will assume larger roles next season. Players with injuries take advantage of the several weeks between the regular season and bowl to heal up.

But everyone else is working as hard as they can, both because they want to beat Maryland and because this month is like savings in the bank for McNeill’s second campaign as Pirate head coach.

The practices, even in the bitter cold after the sun has gone down, are a relief for players like Josh Smith, a senior defensive tackle who said that he’s not sure how he would fill his time without his regular football routine.

“It’s like you’ve got four weeks again to kind of have a whole new season,” Smith said. “I don’t know what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for this. It’s really boring not to have practice every day. It gives you something to do.”

For seniors like Smith and Harris, the bowl represents something else, too — a chance to create one more indelible memory with their Pirate football teammates. According to Harris, one of the chief differences between the postseason and the bowl preparation period is the quality of the relationships that have been developed by the time December rolls around.

“It’s a great feeling,” Harris said. “I’ve got one more game left, to play with these guys, who I love to death. This game means a lot to me, just get one more game in with these guys and the coaches. It’s big.”

Harris was one of the few on East Carolina's current roster who played in the Pirates' last bowl win, a 41-38 upset of Boise State in the 2007 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

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12/16/2010 01:56 AM

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