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Game 8: ECU 13,  Central Florida 10 (OT)


Game Slants
Monday, November 3, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Once again, the stage is set

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

ORLANDO — Skip Holtz is facing his most difficult challenge in four seasons as East Carolina’s head coach. After the Pirates’ 13-10 overtime victory over Central Florida Sunday night, four must-win games remain in a regular season that has taken its share of puzzling turns.

Win all four and ECU is likely headed to Tulsa and a spot in that elusive Conference USA championship game. One stumble would severely jeopardize the Pirates’ title aspirations, perhaps leaving them to fend for one of C-USA’s lower-tier bowls.

The latter would be a disappointment considering that ECU started 3-0, rocketed into the Top 15, and beat Virginia Tech and West Virginia. That goes without mentioning the historical demons the Pirates must now exorcize to avoid a repeat of baffling late-season losses to underdog opponents the past two seasons.

ECU finds itself in much the same position as in 2006 and 2007, despite the fact that its eight-game record is an improvement at 5-3 (3-1, C-USA). Just like the last two years, the Pirates firmly control their own destiny and will likely be favored the rest of the way.

“Every game is big at this point,” Holtz said after Ben Hartman's 39-yard field goal in overtime capped ECU's comeback from a 10-0 halftime deficit. “As I told the team, this is a conference game on the road. Expect them all to be like this because this is what they are.

“We’ve talked about all of the close games that we were in a year ago – what we’ve got to do to turn and win them. It sets up next week (at home against Marshall) to be an even bigger game than this one. As big as this one was in the conference standings, next week is even bigger because we won this one.”

But if East Carolina has any chance of playing for the league title, it must quickly manufacture something that resembles a balanced offense. At this stage the Pirates have a major predicament in their passing attack, and it goes far beyond an inability to execute.

That’s a perplexing scenario eight games into a season. Sunday’s nationally-televised performance – 283 total yards – was even more discouraging when you consider East Carolina had 15 days to prepare for the UCF defense.

In the first half, East Carolina mustered a measly 89 yards while quarterback Rob Kass completed only five of 15 passes. Kass badly misfired at several open targets, though he wasn’t afforded the luxury of time or a stable of sure-handed receivers.

About the only bright spot offensively was running back Norman Whitley, who finished with 135 yards on 28 carries and a touchdown.

“Norman Whitley did a great job tonight,” Holtz said. “He made a couple of big runs on the toss sweep. I’m really proud of what he did.

“We talked about it. Sometimes when the opportunity presents itself, some of these guys have got to turn and step up. I thought he stepped up tonight. He matured.”

The good news for the ECU offense is it won’t play another defense of UCF’s caliber the rest of the way. The bad news is that there appears to be little resolution to the Pirates’ QB quandary, and the number of personnel challenges that confront the offensive staff keeps growing by the week.

Sunday ushered the loss of left tackle Stanley Bryant, the key cog along the Pirates’ offensive front. He joins an MIA list that includes Jonathan Williams and Jamar Bryant, two of ECU’s top playmakers entering the season.

Dealing with those types of casualties is difficult at almost any level of major college football. It’s typically even more significant when you reside in a league that is outside of the Bowl Championship Series.

If East Carolina wins out, it would stand as the most impressive accomplishment of the Holtz era. That includes the restoration of the program’s pride in 2005 and that impressive streak spanning the end of last season and the beginning of the current one of three consecutive victories against Top 25 competition.

Those accomplishments seem easy in retrospect compared to ECU’s current challenge.

Saturday’s showdown against Marshall now stands as the most important game of the Holtz era. Win that and the game at Southern Miss then earns that distinction.

It’s probably the most pressure Holtz has faced in his tenure at ECU. Though his employment status isn’t on the line – not even close – there is no denying that a huge emphasis within the fan base is placed on earning a spot in the conference championship game.

East Carolina has too many questions to consider that goal a gimme. But, when your offense is downright anemic, beating UCF on the road in front of the ESPN cameras is a pretty good start.

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11/03/2008 02:47:06 AM

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