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Game No. 5: Houston 56, ECU 3


Game Slants
Saturday, October 8, 2011

By Denny O'Brien

Humbled in Houston

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

HOUSTON — It’s been a long time since East Carolina opened a football season in a deep 1-4 hole.

Make it seven years, to be exact.

That was the 2004 season, among the darkest periods in the Pirates’ football history.

John Thompson was in the final year of his two-year tenure — the coaching equivalent of a dead man walking.

The many fans who enthusiastically embraced Thompson early on had long since detached themselves emotionally. East Carolina football was suffering from declining interest, little hope, and in desperate need of something to resuscitate a program that had fallen into a competitive coma.

While Pirate Nation is nowhere remotely close to that mental makeup today, Saturday night’s 56-3 loss to Houston has put ECU squarely in the middle of can’t-lose territory. Almost anything less than a convincing win at Memphis will make the Pirates’ fan base even more restless.

Against the undefeated Cougars, the Pirates seemingly took a giant step back, an embarrassing one that was a painful reminder of the days many thought ECU had left behind. Houston thoroughly took the Pirates apart in every possible fashion on an evening as demoralizing as the final score would suggest.

The Cougars gouged the ECU defense both on the ground and through the air en route to a 572-yard performance that could have topped 700 had head coach Kevin Sumlin not released the accelerator. The Pirates’ defense was more than accommodating by reverting back to the many defensive shortcomings they demonstrated during the latter half of 2010.

It was a discouraging display of missed tackles and poor coverage. On the rare occasion when the Pirates made a big defensive play, Houston seemed to respond with a first down.

Offensively, East Carolina didn’t remotely resemble the outfit that scored 51 in head coach Ruffin McNeill’s debut, and Dominique Davis is not even close to the same quarterback he was then. After throwing three interceptions and completing only 13 passes, the Pirates’ mainstay at the position was pulled for backup Rio Johnson.

It was the first time in his ECU career that Davis was benched due to performance.

The ECU offense that has been plagued by inconsistency this season never found any rhythm against the Cougars. The one drive during which the Pirates seemed to click was cut short by a late hit by freshman receiver Danny Webster.

The rest of ECU’s possessions were the equivalent of a clinic on rushing the passer. The Cougars, who entered the game 93rd nationally in defense, registered nine sacks on the night.

“This was on me,” McNeill said. “Like I told the kids and promised the kids, I take all the mistakes, and I can handle it. We got beat by a better team tonight. This one was on me.

"It’s a tough time for us right now being 1-4. It’s probably the worst we’ve played as a football team this year.”

Despite the Pirates’ discouraging performance, it’s much too soon to suggest the East Carolina program is in the midst of a nosedive. Given the difficult schedule, along with the schematic transition on defense, some of the Pirates’ stumbles can be understood.

At the same time, it’s also difficult to overlook that East Carolina is riding an 11-game stretch during which it has won only twice. Both of those victories occurred at the expense of Alabama-Birmingham in nail-biting fashion.

It’s not time to write off the rest of 2011 or abandon ship on McNeill or his young staff. More than half the season remains, and the Pirates still control their own destiny in Conference USA.

But McNeill and his team clearly can’t afford many more games like the blowout they suffered on Saturday.

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10/09/2011 04:39:53 AM

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