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Pirate Notebook No. 359
Monday, September 29, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Week of frustration raises questions

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Harris Poll

For the third 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. As a service to readers of this site, O'Brien's ballot will be published in this space each Monday throughout the season.

The Harris Poll is a component of the BCS Standings. This season's first Harris poll will be released on Sept. 28. The first 2008 BCS Standings, which also take into account the USA Today Coaches Poll and an average of six computer service rankings, will be released on Oct. 19.

A senior columnist for, Bonesville Magazine and The Pirates' Chest, O'Brien was nominated to the Harris Poll panel by Conference USA. View a list of the Harris Poll panel members on this week's national polls page.

Denny O'Brien's Harris Poll Ballot

(Ballot cast 09.28.08)

  1. Alabama
  2. Oklahoma
  3. Missouri
  4. LSU
  5. Texas
  6. Penn State
  7. Texas Tech
  8. Brigham Young:
  9. Southern Cal
10. Georgia
11. South Florida:
12. Florida
13. Auburn
14. Ohio State
15. Oklahoma State
16. Utah
17. Boise State
18. Oregon
19. Kansas
20. Wisconsin
21. Fresno State
22. Vanderbilt
23. Virginia Tech
24. Maryland
25. North Carolina

View this Week's Complete Harris, AP & Coaches Polls



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BVL: Harris, AP and Coaches Polls
O'Brien: Week of frustration raises questions
O'Brien: Harris Poll ballot
Game Center: ECU-Houston
Box Score / Statistics
BVL Audio: Skip Holtz post-game
Talk FM Audio: Post-game Call-in Show
O'Brien: Pirates backed into corner
Myatt: ECU not spared in wave of upsets
Monroe: Kevin's Keys to the Game
C-USA Standings, Scores, Schedule
ECU Schedule, Scores, Attendance
Batten: ECU O-line gaining more stature
Myatt: New controversy swirls around rivals
Bradsher: Drew masters the art of the tight end
Bailey: No time for looking back

There is a silver lining behind the stormy week that East Carolina just endured. In case you haven’t noticed, that doesn’t happen that often anymore.

At least not since Terry Holland and Skip Holtz hopped aboard. Since their arrival, the Pirates have experienced relatively smooth sailing as the football program has ascended from the bottom depths of Division I-A to an annual postseason threat that now fills Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium regardless of the opponent.

Still, there is no denying that the past seven days have been frustrating Down East. And with the mounting frustration of consecutive upset losses and a midweek AD squabble, there is no shortage of questions — fair and legitimate ones — that warrant pondering.

Here are a few to gnaw on:

Did Quentin Cotton make that much of a difference?

There is no question that Cotton was a difference maker for the ECU defense. He was an emotional leader who led both verbally and with his play on the field.

But at this stage, there should be a steady flow of capable backups to help fill the void, especially when you consider the experience of ECU’s regulars at linebacker.

Cotton, Pierre Bell, Jeremy Chambliss, and Nick Johnson have all been significant contributors for three years running. That means each played a meaningful role as freshmen or sophomores in 2006, a year that marked one of the most impressive defenses in ECU history.

There is no reason why the Pirates shouldn’t have enough capable bodies to help fill that void. The ECU staff is filled with proven recruiters with a track record for developing players to reach their potential.

Why the Pirates are in a position where a walk-on — Matt Pick — started on Saturday is a mystery.

What is ECU’s offensive identity?

That’s too hard to tell. Last year it was a tale of multiple personalities, all depending on the trigger man that ECU had under center.

With Rob Kass in the huddle, the Pirates adopted a true drop-back approach that included a healthy dose of play-action passes and vertical throws. Under Patrick Pinkney’s direction, ECU took more of a spread approach and included some elements of the read option to take advantage of his mobility.

Having decided on Pinkney as the starter in the off-season, it seemed the Pirates might subscribe more to the same principles they used last season against Memphis and Boise State. In both cases, ECU used a spread approach and took advantage of Pinkney’s greatest physical asset — his nimble feet.

Instead, the Pirates have gone a more vanilla route that perhaps over-emphasizes the bubble screen and inside power running. As a result, opponents are growing more comfortable defending an ECU offense that seems reluctant to take its shots downfield.

Where are the playmakers? In the NFL isn’t a sufficient response. Granted that Aundrae Allison and Chris Johnson carried the majority of the offensive load the past couple of seasons, using them as an excuse for ECU’s offensive struggles this year would be overlooking the point.

In Dwayne Harris, Jamar Bryant, Davon Drew, Jonathan Williams, and Norman Whitley, there is no shortage of playmakers who can move the chains in a variety of ways. The problem is that, aside from Harris, the Pirates aren’t figuring out enough ways to get the ball into their playmakers’ hands.

Take Drew and Whitley. They provided much of the offensive spark against N.C. State, with each scoring from long range.

Against the Cougars, the two combined for three touches, all Whitley runs. Add to that the fact that Bryant and Williams heard their names called only four times combined.

Meanwhile running back Brandon Simmons logged a season-high 19 carries and hauled in a team-high five catches Saturday. While Simmons’ passion and determination are refreshing, he is the least likely member of the ECU offense to dial long distance.

Is the emotional tank dry?

It shouldn’t be. It’s true that it has been an emotional journey to open the season, but is it really that much different than 2007?

The Pirates opened last season with a trio of emotional outings, giving Virginia Tech everything it could handle in Blacksburg before returning home to face rivals North Carolina and Southern Miss. All three came down to the final moments before the outcome was decided.

The major difference this year has been the amount of attention the program received following victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia. It brought with it many distractions that perhaps overwhelmed a roster of players who are unaccustomed to the spotlight.

Even so, it’s hard to rationalize the Pirates being emotionally and mentally unprepared Saturday. Though the loss to N.C. State was no doubt disappointing, there was still plenty for ECU to play for.

The goal of winning that elusive Conference USA championship was still well within reach and the fourth largest crowd in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was on hand. Seems like that should have provided plenty of competitive fire.

Does ECU have the horses to win C-USA?

It’s too early to tell, but Saturday wasn’t an encouraging sign.

C-USA offenses are designed to spread out defenses and dictate the tempo by throwing the ball. That is ECU’s glaring weakness defensively, which was first exposed in its league opener at Tulane.

If ECU is going to represent the East Division in the league title game, it will likely need to win a shootout or two. That means the Pirates have a lot to do during the bye week to find some offense to compete with their gimmick-heavy foes.

Is it time to panic?

Not even close. Holtz and his staff are worth every penny that ECU is paying them, and there is no reason to believe they won’t right the ship.

Sure there are frustrations and legitimate questions that must be explored. But if those questions are being asked from the press box and in the stands, you can rest assured even more are being asked from the sidelines.

Holtz fixed a much bigger mess when he arrived in Greenville. Something tells me he can handle this one.

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

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09/29/2008 04:14:10 AM

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