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Season's stretch run should focus on sustained execution

By Denny O'Brien

The post-game slants
and audio bytes, as
penned and digitally
recorded by staff
writer Denny O'Brien.

Game No. 8 Vitals: ECU vs. U of L

Stretch run should focus on execution
Cards seize 4th quarter, sink Pirates
Box Score & Statistics
Post-Game Audio: J.T. & Players

GREENVILLE — The objective entering the season was clear for East Carolina. With most of the starters returning from a team that finished .500 in league play, a Conference USA championship seemed a reasonable goal.  A return to the postseason was a solid bet.

Now that both have been mathematically extinguished with a 36-20 Louisville victory Saturday, Pirates coach John Thompson must set new goals for the final third of the season. 

Marked improvement and stronger finishes now should be the imperative with four games to play.

"We fought their tail today," Thompson said.  "That's a good football team, in both dressing rooms. That's a good football team we played, but this is a good football team in the purple.  We battled them.  We fought.  We just didn't make the plays that we've got to make."

East Carolina certainly had its chances in a game in which many felt it would be considerably outclassed.  But man for man, the Pirates seemed a formidable foe well into the fourth quarter, trailing only 16-13 with eight minutes left.

That's when the game underwent an all-too familiar metamorphosis, punctuated by another ECU collapse.  Like the flipping of the switch, the Cardinals' stars shined brightest at crunch time, while the Pirates faded away.

"We can't give up the big plays in the fourth quarter when we've got the momentum," Thompson said.  "It's as simple as that... fourth quarter.

"And we battled them in the fourth quarter.  We've got to find a way to win in the fourth quarter.  We just simply didn't make the plays.  They did."

During the 1990s, the final stanza almost always belonged to East Carolina.  The blueprint for Pirates victories generally unfolded like this: East Carolina plays nip-and-tuck for three quarters, then seizes control in the fourth  and puts its opponent away.

Fast-forward to 2003 and the pattern is reversed.  The Pirates have been outscored 62-24 in the final period over their last four games, 95-37 for the year.

"You hate it, the way it happened," Thompson said.  "We didn't make some plays.  It wasn't (a case of) folding.  Louisville just made some plays. That's a very, very good football team that made the plays.  We'll keep going on."

That means improving, the only way ECU can remedy its late-game woes.

Strength and conditioning coaches often are made the scapegoats when teams crumble down the stretch, but Saturday wasn't a simple case of huff and puff.  The Pirates didn't look the least bit winded in what became one of the year's most physical tests.

If anything, it boils down to inexperienced players and a lack of execution in the clutch.

By far, Desmond Robinson had his best performance to date, carving the Cardinals' defense like it was Thanksgiving lunch.  However, a key of overthrow of Terrance Copper and poor decisions late proved costly and changed the complexion of the game.

Defensively, the Pirates battled to the bitter end but didn't have the answers as the seconds ticked.  Of the Cardinals' 492 yards, none mattered more than Stefan LeFors' 35-yard scoring strike to a wide-open J.R. Russell.

It was the textbook example of the play-action pass, with Pirates' corner Erode Jean biting on the fake like a hungry croc.

That should become less frequent as ECU presses forward.  Aside from Copper and a few offensive linemen, the majority of this team's talent is its youth.

Given the way it performed for much of Saturday, a win or two over the final four games certainly is a reasonable goal.  But as the final six minutes demonstrated, the margin for error is narrow.

As the Pirates get more games under their belt, that should widen in the future.

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This page updated: 02/23/2007 01:52:14 AM.

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