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Game No. 4: North Carolina 42, ECU 17


Game Slants
Saturday, October 2, 2010

By Denny O'Brien

ECU needs second half adjustment

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

CHAPEL HILL — You can certainly understand East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill's disappointment following the Pirates 42-17 loss to North Carolina on Saturday. As an alum and former Pirates player, you have to figure that a win over the Tar Heels would have been a special moment in his inaugural season at the helm.

But a flurry of turnovers, penalties, missed assignments and mistakes ensured that McNeill wouldn't notch a victory over the in-state Heels. And it's difficult to identify the most discouraging detail in this lopsided loss.

It could easily be the fact that North Carolina, deeply entrenched in a major NCAA scandal, seemed especially vulnerable amid the avalanche of allegations it is facing. With each day revealing more image-smearing news, it would have seemed that the Tar Heels were ripe for the picking.

Had the Pirates held on to their second half lead, it also would have rubbed a little salt in those baby blue wounds.

Or perhaps it was the penalties — all 13 of them — that totaled 120 yards of lost real estate and often put the Pirates in uncomfortable down-and-distance scenarios. Considering that was supposed to be an area of emphasis during the off week, that certainly can't sit well with ECU's first-year head coach.

Maybe it was the fact that the ECU again jumped to a fast offensive start and led deep into the 3rd quarter before the Tar Heels went on a furious 28-point run. Given the Pirates' new trend of 28-3 second half deficits, that certainly can't be encouraging.

The question now remains whether or not the Pirates can find a solution for their second half woes.

“The penalty situation, I think when you look at it, the same thing happened at Virginia Tech,” McNeill said about the ECU meltdown. “We had some big penalties.

“Holding penalties kill you. When we sat down and evaluated it during the off week, the 3rd and 7's and 3rd and 6's, and even 3rd and 8's, our percentage of conversions was very high. Anything past that, which a couple of times came from the holding penalties, they are tough to make. I call them third and extras.”

Clearly the Pirates have unloaded plenty of pellets into their toes. No one is debating that. But the second half issues with which ECU is currently struggling extend far beyond a few holding and procedure calls.

You can't help but conclude that some of it can be traced to halftime. Because second half performances haven't remotely resembled the Pirates' production before intermission.

Against veteran coaches who possess BCS Automatic Qualifier talent, the Pirates now trail 56-3 in the second half of games. That's after piling up respectable yardage and point totals before the break, and doing a somewhat decent job on defense of limiting opponents — at least in the first half.

“We had a pretty good first half,” Pirates cornerback Travis Simmons said. “We were expecting to see a lot more play-action, especially with the game so tight.

“I guess they saw that we were a little vulnerable in the 1st half. We definitely expected to see more pass, but they came downhill and started running it. It was definitely surprising.”

It certainly looked it.

To some degree, you have to figure that opponents the caliber of Virginia Tech and North Carolina would have a leg up in making halftime adjustments. Both schools are led by veteran head coaches and seasoned staffs who've been through their share of battles.

They've been around the block enough to pick up on an opponent's tendencies and expose areas of vulnerability. That explains why the game plans for both the Hokies and Tar Heels changed significantly in the second half.

On Saturday, it was almost as if Heels coach Butch Davis brought a different team onto the field for the third quarter. Unlike the first half when offensive coordinator John Shoop emphasized the pass, the Tar Heels exposed the Pirates' undersized defensive front with extra helpings of tailbacks Johnny White and Shaun Draughn.

Meanwhile the Pirates couldn't muster much offensively outside of the 11-play, 69-yard drive that ended with a field goal and 17-14 third quarter lead. It was all downhill after that, as ECU could find no offensive rhythm the rest of the way.

As the Pirates jump back into Conference USA play with a visit to Southern Miss next week, the good news is that the caliber of talent they're facing will be significantly weaker than both the Hokies and Heels. With regards to personnel, the Pirates could definitely use a competitive break.

That still doesn't change the fact that, regardless of the level of competition, ECU desperately needs a solution for its second half struggles.

Consider it a part of the maturation process for a first-year head coach whose top lieutenants are a pair of first-year coordinators. How quickly they develop and adjust on the fly will dictate how far the Pirates progress this year.

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10/03/2010 03:46:57 AM

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