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Central Florida 30, East Carolina 20
October 29, 2005
By Denny O'Brien
Story posted Sunday, Oct. 30, 2005

Opportunities shrinking for ECU



GREENVILLE — A familiar sight reappeared in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday. It was that Jekyll and Hyde football team disguised in East Carolina attire.

It was one half of tricks followed by another of mostly treats. For the second straight week, the Pirates put forth a split-personality effort against a solid opponent who shelved flash in favor of efficiency.

From the opening drive to the intermission of its Conference USA clash against Central Florida, East Carolina appeared as winded as the brisk autumn breeze. The Pirates played most of that stretch without the fight and cohesion that otherwise underscored the season to date.

The halftime horn again served as the wake-up call that jumpstarted the ECU offense into gear. But true to the script, the Pirates sputtered at crucial times, producing a familiar result.

"My heart breaks for them," first-year Pirates coach Skip Holtz said. "They've worked so hard and they deserve better. East Carolina deserves better, these fans deserve better.

"We just keep making the mistakes that get us beat. I told them that when the fire in our belly hurts bad enough after one of these losses, then we'll hold onto the football, then we'll stay in a deep third (coverage), then we'll hold our gap."

Though the game was played two days before Halloween, the 30-20 loss more closely resembled Groundhog Day.

There were enough turnovers to easily cover the number surrendered against Southern Miss on October 1. And there definitely was a big enough first half deficit to match that day, as well last week's loss at Memphis.

Toss in a few big plays by the Golden Knights and the Pirates' struggles in the red zone and you have a concise summation that would fittingly describe each of ECU's losses.

"The three most important things in winning a football game are turnovers, red zone, and big plays," Holtz said. "(They) are the three most critical things to winning a football game.

"I don't think we won the turnover battle today. I know we didn't win the red zone battle, and we gave up more big plays than you can shake a stick at for six points. And when you do those things, you're cutting yourself into too deep of a whole."

And possibly out of an opportunity to get positioned for a serious run at a postseason bid. That has to be the zenith of East Carolina's disappointment given the unlikely stakes of the day.

Prior to the season, this was a match-up that had all the makings of a game in which the only reward was a spot outside the C-USA divisional cellar.

Had those gridiron guessers hit the mark with their preseason predictions, Saturday's game would have been played with nothing on the line. The Pirates and Golden Knights would have limped painfully into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in search of pride and their first victories of the season.

A low turnout and a 3-0 triple-overtime finish figured to be the storyline — not a pair of teams in an all-out gunfight for a spot near the top of the C-USA East Division.

That either ECU or UCF would enter the game with a possible bowl on the brain seemed as logical as swimming trunks and flip-flops in the late-October shade.

But that was indeed the setting on Saturday and the Knights seized the stakes, moving ahead of Southern Mississippi into sole possession of first place in the East Division.

The difference in the end was neither talent nor coaching, the gameplan nor the adjustments. To actually be in the game with a minus-six in the turnover battle is a testament to the strides Holtz's squad made over the past week.

That once feeble rushing attack scorched the league's No. 2 run defense for a humbling 272 yards. In the process, the Pirates may have found the answer to their rushing woes.

The tandem of Brandon Fractious (10 carries, 107 yards) and Dominique Lindsay (11 carries, 73 yards) gave ECU some pop between the tackles and plenty of pep in the open field. Their play was key to the second half surge that temporarily pushed the Pirates into the lead.

Until Mr. Hyde made his final appearance of the day.

With three games remaining, the Pirates can't afford to squander another opportunity. Doing so will mathematically eliminate them from bowl contention and send their seniors off pondering 'What if?'

How well East Carolina finishes over the final stretch will depend largely on which personality appears.

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? The most likely scenario is both.

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02/23/2007 02:00:49 AM

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