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Game No. 7: East Carolina 37, Marshall 10


Game Slants
Saturday, October 23, 2010

By Denny O'Brien

Pirates exceeding expectations

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

GREENVILLE — With its 37-10 victory over Marshall, East Carolina has officially exceeded the expectations of many for 2010.

Count me among those surprised by the Pirates' 5-2 (4-0 Conference USA) start. Had ECU started 2-5, it would have seemed more realistic given the amount of personnel turnover, the introduction of a new coaching staff, and the installation of completely new offensive and defensive systems.

That's not a scenario that typically leads to a good start. Not unless you are the type of traditional power that runs on autopilot.

But here the Pirates stand, one win away from bowl eligibility and firmly in control of their own destiny for a third-consecutive C-USA crown. When many believed they'd struggle to claw their way to four victories by Thanksgiving, they've notched five before Halloween.

“Everyone has doubts,” senior linebacker Dustin Lineback said. “Are we going to pick up the system? Are guys going to flow with these coaches? Are they players' coaches?

“At first, everyone is going to be a little shaky. But now we're clicking. At first it started with a puzzle in a box, and we're piecing it together each week. Deep down, each player knows what he can do.”

That's apparently a lot more than many of us ever considered. Especially players like Lineback, a former walk-on whose blue collar work ethic has propelled him up the depth chart and likely on a path to All C-USA honors.

And he's just one of many surprises who has helped the Pirates notch their first 5-2 start since the 2000 season.

There are guys like junior college transfer receiver Lance Lewis who were unheralded prior to the season but now are legitimate stars. There also is no shortage of role players like freshman safety Damon Magazu and receiver Mike Price, who've proven themselves capable when their numbers have have been called.

“I believe in the kids, and I know that anything is possible,” Pirates coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I had high expectations for our football team. I'm not going to back off that.

“I knew it would be a lot of work replacing a lot of starters, a lot of guys who contributed to and were mainstays in back-to-back championships here. So, I knew it would be a fight. But I'm very pleased with our guys.”

McNeill certainly had to be pleased that, despite a terribly rusty start, the Pirates thoroughly thumped a league opponent. After beating rival N.C. State in thrilling fashion last week, the Pirates were largely going through the motions early against Marshall.

To overcome the degree of uninspiring play ECU demonstrated during the opening half was a testament to how quickly this team can press the accelerator and how dangerous it can be when it is completely interested.

It took a flurry of personal foul penalties against them and a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Dwayne Harrris to give the Pirates and their crowd a spark. And once East Carolina found the gas pedal, the Herd would have faced better odds had it bused to the closest 7-Eleven and played the Lotto.

To put the Pirates' surprising success to date in proper perspective, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who could have predicted this type of start had there not been a changing of the guard. With almost the entire defense missing from the past two C-USA championship teams, it would have been a stretch to suggest this level of success with Bill Belichick as the coach.

So it hardly seemed logical to expect it with a first-year head coach.

But when many might not have believed in these Pirates during the spring or summer, it's clear that McNeill did. That belief has permeated throughout a roster that clearly has bought into its coaches and each other.

We witnessed the first evidence of that when Dominique Davis hit Justin Jones with that 33-yard prayer with time expiring in the opener. We've gotten much more with the comeback in Hattiesburg, the victory over the Wolfpack, and Saturday's pounding of the Herd.

If there is anyone who still doubts this team, it's clearly time to convert. Though the Pirates are hardly a lock to three-peat in C-USA, it wouldn't make sense to bet against them.

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10/24/2010 04:54:16 AM

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