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Game 10: USM 21, ECU 3


Game Slants
Sunday, November 16, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Attrition disrupts title quest

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

HATTIESBURG — You could label it unfamiliar territory for East Carolina, and you’d be dead right.

Not since the first week of September against West Virginia had the Pirates been an underdog, but they sailed into M.M. Roberts Stadium carrying that label on Saturday.

It was an odd role for a team already bowl eligible, riding a three-game winning streak, firmly in control of Conference USA’s East division, and facing a bunch that was fighting for its postseason life. Maybe it was even a show of disrespect.

Whatever it was, many from Vegas to Vicksburg believed Southern Miss would move one step closer to bowl eligibility and put the Pirates’ title dreams on hold.

And for good reason. Though ECU entered the game in charge of its division, it did so with a fairly noticeable limp. Injuries and suspensions have left the Pirates a shell of the group that opened the season with victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia, wins that propelled them into the Top 15.

Then there’s history, which almost assuredly factored into everyone’s thinking. ECU hasn’t exactly had its way with Southern Miss, an understatement when you consider the Golden Eagles’ dominating 26-8 series advantage.

So it should have come as no surprise that the Pirates lost 21-3 to rival USM and looked sloppy in the process. Given the ever-lengthening injury report — which claimed a few more casualties on Saturday — it has grown increasingly difficult for East Carolina to compete with any team with most of its frontline talent available.

“It seems like every week you’ve got a new look out there,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said. “This week wasn’t any different. Right now, that’s affecting us greatly on both offense and defense. The injuries have been hard.

"Right now we’re not good enough to just line up and just move the ball up and down the field with the extent of the injuries that we have and where we are right now.”

While it might be tempting to criticize Holtz and his staff for Saturday’s performance, doing so would be short-sighted given the bigger picture. It would completely overlook their masterful work since halftime of the loss at Virginia, a turning point that has been marked by teamwork, chemistry, and urgency.

Those are hardly givens during times of adversity, but definite necessities in response to losses to key personnel. All those ingredients were present in the blowout over Memphis and the tightrope victories over Central Florida and Marshall.

That East Carolina even controls its own destiny for the conference title is a strong testimony to the improvisational expertise of its coaching staff. It’s hard to imagine any other team in C-USA — Tulsa included — overcoming the type of in-season attrition the Pirates have experienced.

Since August, injuries and suspensions to top performers have forced ECU to shuffle through three running backs, experiment with numerous combinations at linebacker and in the secondary, press green offensive and defensive linemen into action, and reluctantly strip off a couple of redshirts.

Now the Pirates must account for the loss of their best offensive player, receiver Dwayne Harris.

It’s the type of collective peril that typically has a program looking forward to Spring Practice, not a January bowl. Yet, with Marshall's loss to Central Florida on Saturday, the Patchwork Pirates still sit soundly in control of their own destiny for the C-USA title.

“We’ve got to just shake this one off and move on from here,” running back Norman Whitley said. “We’re still first in the (division). We’ve still got a lot of things that we can do to get better.

“We’ve got UAB next week. That’s the focus right now.”

It’s exactly where the focus needs to be, too. If the Pirates have learned one thing over the past two seasons, it’s that they can’t judge an opponent by its résumé. You can bet that won’t factor into player preparation for UAB this week.

Given the Pirates’ collective physical condition, they couldn’t afford that approach against any opponent, let alone one they’ve never beaten on the road. East Carolina is 0-for-Legion Field in its history, leading many to genuinely believe there is some legitimacy to the Birmingham curse.

At this stage it is more believable that a medical spell has been cast over the Pirates, a merciless one that has woven its way through the two-deep chart. That potion finally caught up to the Pirates on Saturday, and it has made their championship hopes more tenuous.

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11/16/2008 12:48:34 AM

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