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Game 5: Houston 41, No. 23 ECU 24


Game Slants
Sunday, September 28, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Pirates backed into corner

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

GREENVILLE — What began as the feel-good story for college football now has the makings of a giant spoof.

After opening the season with consecutive victories over Top 25 opponents, East Carolina was anointed the national media darling and the frontrunner to bust through the BCS door. It was the type of start that happens once a decade at ECU.

But following the Pirates’ 41-24 loss to Conference USA rival Houston, visions of big bowl grandeur are now the least of their concerns.

Suddenly the Pirates have gone from the thick of the Top 15 to a long shot to win the C-USA title. Because if Saturday is any indication, ECU hasn’t matured to the point that it can expect to compete for that elusive league championship.

Whether it was the hangover from last weekend’s overtime loss to N.C. State or the overconfidence of facing a 1-3 opponent, the Pirates appeared mentally and emotionally unprepared for their C-USA home opener.

“Three of the first four games were won and lost on the last play of the game, the last series of the game,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said. “They were four very emotional games, because even the one that wasn’t was a very emotional game that these guys were sky high for.

“I’m certainly not trying to find a scapegoat or just point a finger, but it is a reality that it is very difficult to play at that emotional level for five weeks.”

East Carolina certainly lacked the emotional fire that it showed in each of its first four outings. The Pirates appeared flat from the opening kick and never truly fed off the fire of the sellout crowd.

Even more discouraging is the reality that ECU’s defensive performances against Virginia Tech and West Virginia were probably a façade. The lack of offensive innovation by the Hokies and Mountaineers might be the more accurate explanation for ECU’s impressive outings to open the season.

Against the Cougars, the Pirates looked like an unprepared defensive mess. The group that rendered Mountaineers quarterback Patrick White a non-factor made Houston trigger man Case Keenum a Heisman look-alike.

Keenum carved through the Pirates’ secondary for 399 yards in front of a 43,641 announced crowd, many of whom understandably departed early. It was the fourth largest crowd in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium history, quite the stage for the Air Keenum show.

Keenum and the Houston aerial assault dinked and dunked with little resistance from East Carolina, and they were no less successful when taking their shots downfield. The ECU secondary spent most of its afternoon lost and confused, often appearing out of position and unprepared to make a play.

Offensively, the Pirates didn’t look much better. Maybe worse. ECU struggled to find any rhythm when it had possession, as Houston made the Pirates almost completely horizontal.

“It seemed like, on offense, we had a really hard time getting anything going,” Holtz said. “It wasn’t any one position.

“It seemed like it would be the right tackle break down where he missed his block. Then it would be the left guard miss. Then you drop back on third down and he’s got him, but he just overthrew it.”

The bottom line in this blowout aftermath is that East Carolina isn’t as good as the No. 14 ranking that once was attached to its name. Not even close. If that wasn’t evident by the Pirates’ struggles against Tulane, or their heartbreaking loss against N.C. State, it certainly should be by how thoroughly Houston thumped them.

Truthfully, the 17-point margin was the most misleading statistic of the day. Had Houston been more protective of the football, it could have easily eclipsed 60 points and 750 yards on the day.

That should be difficult to digest considering many were labeling the defense the new face of the ECU program. Houston exposed every blemish, and has left the ECU coaching staff with perhaps its most difficult task to date.

With so much emphasis placed on winning a C-USA championship during the off-season, Holtz and his staff are under the most pressure they have faced since arriving at ECU. It’s not that their jobs aren’t secure — they completely are — but the late-season disappointments of 2006 and 2007 have many itching for the Pirates to close the deal.

While ECU still controls its own destiny in the conference race, the Pirates now have no wiggle room. One more league loss, and the season that started with so much promise could end at some obscure postseason destination.

Keenum and the Cougars may have turned their season around on Saturday. And they might have flipped ECU’s upside down.

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09/28/2008 02:50:53 AM

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