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Pirate Notebook No. 321
Monday, October 1, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

Pirates ride out stressful September

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.


For the second year in a row, Denny O'Brien is a member of the voting panel for the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, commissioned by the Bowl Championship Series. O'Brien was nominated to the panel by Conference USA.

The Harris Poll is a component of the BCS Standings. This season's first Harris poll was released on Sept. 23. The initial 2007 BCS Standings, which will also take into account the USA Today Coaches Poll and an average of six computer service rankings, will be released on Oct. 14.

Here is this week's Harris Poll ballot submitted by O'Brien on Sunday:

  1. LSU
  2. USC
  3. California
  4. Ohio State
  5. Wisconsin
  6. South Florida
  7. Florida
  8. Oklahoma
  9. South Carolina
10. Kentucky
11. Boston College
12. West Virginia
13. Missouri
14. Georgia
15. Oregon
16. Arizona State
17. Cincinnati
18. Kansas State
19. Hawaii
20. Virginia Tech
21. Texas
22. Rutgers
23. Clemson
24. Florida State
25. Illinois


BVL: Harris Interactive College Football Poll
O'Brien: Pirates ride out stressful September

It's confession time. After last week’s debacle at West Virginia, I wondered if East Carolina was running on emotional fumes.

Though not quite ready to label the Pirates DOA — history advises against that — questions about AD Terry Holland’s scheduling strategy were beginning to surface.

Legitimate questions.

On one hand, the philosophy has been a smashing success at the box office. East Carolina sold its entire season ticket allotment, with capacity crowds at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium finally becoming the norm.

To be sure, that was Holland’s vision when he inked home-and-home deals with several high-profile regional schools from BCS conferences.

On the other hand, the same strategy that has reduced legroom for Pirates partisans was taking a physical and emotional toll on ECU. That fueled personal questions about East Carolina’s toughness to mentally tackle a schedule of this magnitude on an annual basis.

My thought was to forget West Virginia. Bring on William & Mary. Richmond. Somebody.

Because from inspiring to demoralizing, East Carolina’s season has already run the emotional gamut. There was the near shocker at Virginia Tech, the emotional roller coaster over North Carolina, heartbreak with Southern Miss, and shipwreck at West Virginia.

“To play the two (Conference USA) teams that won each division, two Top 10 teams, and a BCS North Carolina team in the first five games, I think was a really tall order,” Holtz said after the Pirates barely escaped Houston's Robertson Stadium Saturday night thanks to a fresh wind at their backs. “I don’t know that anybody is playing that type of schedule at the beginning.

“That mountain keeps getting steeper and they’re competing, and they just can’t get a break. All of a sudden, we got one tonight.”

It couldn’t have come at a better time. Had one of kicker T.J. Lawrence’s two field goal attempts sailed through the uprights, it might have sucked all of the competitive wind from ECU’s sails.

That much can be concluded from the Pirates’ response after their 37-35 victory over the defending Conference USA champion. Unlike the celebration that ensued last season following the win at Southern Miss, the hugs and chest bumps were overwhelmed by forehead wipes and gasps of relief.

“I think it was big,” Holtz said. “I said to the staff (Saturday) morning, it’s getting to the point where something good has got to happen.

“This team came in with such high dreams and hopes and aspirations with what they wanted to accomplish. To lose a close game at Virginia Tech and to lose the way we did [to] Southern Miss, and to have the three emotional games… the more you invest, the harder it is to throw your hands up and quit.”

But isn’t that the overriding strength of this ECU staff? As much as anything, Holtz and his assistants have shown the ability to regroup their troops after shellshock.

They did so in 2005 after a thorough pounding at Tulsa. Ditto last season after Rice kicked the Pirates out of the C-USA race and placed their bowl hopes in limbo.

Add Saturday’s win — as statistically frustrating as it was — to the list. From the key bullpen call to quarterback Rob Kass to the constant reshuffling on defense, it again was confirmed that Holtz and his advisers are adept at rewriting a winning script when the old one isn’t successful.

Mental reminder to self.

As for the importance of winning at Houston, it likely trumps the victory over North Carolina in terms of significance. The case can even be made that it is the biggest win on Holtz’s ECU résumé to date.

Just consider the stakes.

A loss likely eliminates the Pirates from the league race before the leaves change colors. And with no gimmees remaining, a return to the postseason becomes a Hail Mary at best.

At this stage, it’s tough to predict if the September docket drained ECU emotionally or better prepared it for the challenging conference grind. Only time will tell.

The remaining schedule is filled with its share of mental landmines and hangover havens. That’s life in C-USA, especially when your non-conference opponents include regional rivals and national powers.

But after Saturday, I’m convinced that ECU is at least capable of surviving an emotional tsunami.

Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.

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10/01/2007 02:43:25 AM

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