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Game 8: ECU 20, USM 17 (OT)


The Slants of the Game
Sunday, October 29, 2006

By Denny O'Brien

East Carolina raises heat in rivalry

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HATTIESBURG, MS — It's been a while since East Carolina and Southern Miss played a competitive, meaningful football game. So to say the so-called rivalry between the Pirates and Golden Eagles needed a boost would be the understatement of the series.

What it received Saturday was a rare, magical 20-17 overtime win by East Carolina that perhaps was the beginning spark that could ignite an inferno between the two.

"Tonight was one heck of a football game," East Carolina coach Skip Holtz said. "It was a competitive game across the board. Both teams were hard-hitting, physical, good defensive play tonight.

"It was about two stubborn programs that were going to keep running the ball, and we were going to wait to see who was going to make the last mistake. That's really what this game came down to."

At the midpoint of the third quarter it appeared as if ECU again would be guilty of committing the final blunder. James Pinkney's errant pass found the arms of Golden Eagles safety Eddie Hicks, who kidnapped Uncle Mo and sprinted 87 yards for a 17-10 lead.

It was the type of play that often has sucked the wind out of the Pirates' sail. That ECU recovered was a testament to the ground ECU has made up as a program and perhaps is a sign of a return to parity in a series that had been non-competitive for much of the last decade.

"This series has had some great rivalry eras in it," Holtz said. "There have been some times when this was a great rivalry. But I certainly don't expect Southern Miss to look at this as a rivalry game when they've won 84-17 (in the last two years) and won five years in a row.

"To them, I'm not sure that it's the rivalry game that it is to our players, especially the way that we've been beat by Southern Miss."

Before Saturday, you had to rewind the clock to 2001 to find a game that actually made an impact on the Conference USA standings. That day the Pirates closed their season with a disappointing seven-point loss in a battle for second place in C-USA.

Since then the series has been defined by lopsided margins in USM's favor, with each game all but decided by the halftime horn. Thankfully that trend came to a merciful end.

East Carolina opened the game with the type of passion and purpose that mostly is lacking when Southern Miss occupies the opposite sideline. The defense matched the grit the Golden Eagles normally display and kept the Pirates within striking distance until Pinkney could engineer a game-tying drive that ended with him plunging for paydirt on a 4th and 1 with 13 seconds left in regulation.

For a change the game even possessed much of what you would expect in a heated rivalry. There were big plays on special teams, major shifts in momentum, controversial calls, and plenty of jawing.

Had the two teams been wearing different uniforms and performing on a different stage, you might have mistaken this for a heated SEC showdown.

"We take it as a rivalry," ECU hero Travis Williams said. "But we knew the (Southern Miss) fans and players... they didn't think this was a rivalry to them. So, we just came out here for four quarters and played smash-mouth football.

"We believed in each other the whole week. We were the underdogs."

That has been the case almost every time the two have met. And had it not been for Williams' game-sealing interception in overtime — which assured that Ben Hartman's 19-yard field goal moments before wouldn't go for naught — this perhaps turns into yet another chapter in USM's historical dominance over ECU.

Sure, there have been some decent showdowns over the years. The '95 game no doubt deserves the distinction of a classic game, and it will be remembered in both camps for the improbable way the Pirates stole one at The Rock.

Years from now we're likely to find the 2006 game on the same shelf.

But by and large this series has been an all-out dud, a snoozefest that largely underwhelms the fans who build it up to something much larger than it really has been.

For ECU-USM to meet the lofty expectations of fans, the annual stakes must parallel what the two were playing for Saturday — first place in the parity-rich C-USA East. An annual helping of headline performers and an increased dislike between the two programs also would help transform this mythical rivalry into a legitimate one.

While nothing can be done to close the geographic distance between the two, there is no reason this can't qualify as a rivalry by all other measures. But that will require more meetings akin to the most recent one.

Based solely on history, much of the burden rests firmly on ECU's shoulders. If the Pirates' effort Saturday is any indication, bank on this one heating up.

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02/23/2007 02:03:48 AM

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