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Game 8: NCSU 34, ECU 20


Game Slants
Sunday, October 21, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

Pirates stumble in unfamiliar role

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

GREENVILLE — There’s a reason behind that figurative limp that East Carolina displayed exiting Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Saturday. For one of only a few times in the heated history of the ECU-N.C. State football series, the shoe was squarely on the other foot.

Judging by the Pirates’ 34-20 loss to ACC neighbor N.C. State, it proved an uncomfortable fit.

Unlike most meetings between the programs, it was the Pirates who entered the game wearing the infrared target. Instead of the familiar hunter role, ECU played the part of the hunted, with far more at stake than its wounded opponent.

The Pirates entered Saturday riding a three-game win streak filled with emotional nail-biters and last-second thrillers. It generated the type of buzz around Greenville that hasn’t existed since 2001 when ECU opened the season with aspirations of a Conference USA title and on many preseason Top 25 lists.

But in the year of the upset, should this have come as a big surprise? In a year when Stanford beats Southern Cal and a day when Vanderbilt beats South Carolina, is this a major shock?

Certainly not when you consider the seven-week gauntlet that led into Saturday.

“At some point, yeah I worry about playing eight weeks in a row,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said. “At some point, I worry about the emotional games that we’ve been in for eight weeks in a row.

“It hasn’t been just eight straight weeks, it’s been the quality of the opponent and the level of competition of the games. All of them have come down to the wire. At some point you get drained a little bit.

"I’m certainly not using that as a crutch, but I would have loved to have had some time to get the players to get their legs up underneath them.”

It surely couldn’t have hurt. And perhaps it would have better prepared the Pirates for the new role they inherited with Rob Kass’s one-yard plunge last week in El Paso.

That moved the Pirates to 4-3 overall and in position to make a memorable run. It was enough to send both the fans and media into a frenzy of speculation in which 10 and 11 wins were being pondered.

That’s new territory for this ECU bunch. It partly explains why this winded group performed nothing like one with double digit wins in its future.

Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a botched exchange between quarterback Patrick Pinkney and running back Chris Johnson. Nor would there have been a first quarter jailbreak that produced a blocked punt — the second ECU has surrendered this year.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t pull this one out in the second half,” Pirates quarterback Kass said. “I thought our defense played great today. They gave us the opportunity time and time again to put the ball in the end zone.

“Unfortunately we couldn’t get it done. You look at a handful of plays here and there, one way or the other, and we feel like this game is a completely different game. I give all the credit to N.C. State’s defense. That didn’t look like a 1-5 team.”

That’s for certain.

If the Wolfpack did one thing, it successfully limited ECU’s most dangerous playmakers almost to the point of irrelevance. Running back Chris Johnson and receiver Dwayne Harris had little impact after carrying major loads during the Pirates’ three-game winning streak.

State’s pursuit and solid tackling in space kept the Pirates’ big-play offense from ever taking flight. The Pack forced the Pirates to score with extended drives, which right now is hardly a comfort zone.

And if State’s defense performed nothing like a 1-5 team, its offense wasn’t far from it. Quarterback Daniel Evans picked apart East Carolina’s porous secondary en route to a 335-yard, three-touchdown day.

That he is the least talented passer the Pirates have faced served as a painful reminder of where East Carolina rests with one-third of the season remaining.

Though ECU is in solid position to contend for the Conference USA crown, it has hardly reached the point to where it can expect to win just by showing up. The Pirates’ defense — especially against the pass — makes them vulnerable regardless of the opponent. And while the offense has made strides with its big-play ability, it doesn’t boast the type of consistency you would like at this stage in the season.

Even so, the Pirates should be firmly favored in each of their remaining games against a weak lineup of C-USA’s bottom feeders.

If a league title is in ECU’s future, it must adapt quickly to its new role.

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10/21/2007 04:48:48 AM

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