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Game No. 12: ECU 53, UTEP 21


Game Slants
Saturday, November 29, 2008

By Denny O'Brien

Seniors raised the bar

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

GREENVILLE — The 2008 senior class won’t be remembered as the most talented in East Carolina football history. It probably doesn’t even rank among the program’s top five.

Too many teams to recount produced many players who ended their careers among ECU’s all-time best. In many cases those careers were marked by individual postseason recognition and eventual jumps to the professional ranks.

That might not be a prevalent theme for the graduating football Class of 2008. But there is no question that this group can be credited for reestablishing the pride at East Carolina, a distinction proudly worn by this senior bunch that blasted Texas-El Paso 53-21 Friday to complete an 8-4 regular season.

These 24 seniors also will be remembered as the first to play in the Conference USA championship game and complete a 14-game schedule. And when the season finally concludes, ECU’s senior class could become the first to finish a season with double-digit wins since the Class of 1991.

Those are impressive accomplishments for a group that is short on superstars. While many of those milestones seemed probabilities after the Pirates opened with victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia, they were hardly givens once the injury report was filled with many of ECU’s frontline performers.

That East Carolina is even in position to compete for the C-USA title is a testament to the resilience and teamwork of its seniors.

“With highs and lows of this season, it would have been real easy to throw the towel in,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said. “But these seniors have done an incredible job. I’m really happy for them to have the opportunity to come out here and win the football game in their last time out at Dowdy-Ficklen, because they will always remember that one.

"I think it speaks volumes for the respect that the underclassmen have for these seniors, for the way that they came in there and the way that they are trying to play for the foundation that these seniors have built.”

Those underclassmen included Darryl Freeney (five catches, 106 yards, TD) and Joe Womack (four catches, 39 yards), a pair of bookend freshmen receivers who provided a glimpse of a promising future. With them on the depth chart, East Carolina’s aerial attack could reach new heights over the next few years.

Just like the Pirates’ return game could prove dynamic behind the recent discoveries of Travis Simmons and Michael Bowman. Both were explosive against the Miners and look to be dangerous weapons in areas where East Carolina has struggled for most of the season.

But as much as the Pirates’ future stars impacted the outcome of ECU’s blowout victory, this was a day that belonged to the seniors. And while East Carolina’s senior class is short on glamour and glitz, it was long on style and substance against the Miners.

Senior running back Brandon Simmons finished with a career high 111 yards on 27 carries and made four visits to the end zone. He ran over, around, and through a UTEP defense that had no remedy for ECU’s bruiser.

Quarterback Patrick Pinkney was no slouch, either, completing 17 of his 23 passing attempts for 228 yards and two touchdowns in less than three quarters of work. Had East Carolina pressed the accelerator for the entire 60 minutes, he might have broken every single-game passing record in the program’s history.

It’s safe to say that neither Simmons nor Pinkney finished with careers that rivaled those of Chris Johnson or David Garrard. Yet their team has a chance to do something that no previous ECU team has.

The primary reason this bunch is in position to claim the Pirates’ first Conference USA championship isn’t because this class is well-stocked with individual stars. If individual talent was the primary factor for determining championship pedigree, ECU wouldn’t be heads above the rest of the league's East Division.

However, when chemistry, determination, and belief is added the equation, you have the overlooked intangibles that are critical to the makeup of a championship contender. Those qualities certainly characterized the Class of 2008, which stood tallest – albeit some of them on crutches – when many expected them to stumble.

“It’s been a progress,” Holtz said. “It’s been just a slow, brick by brick, building it day by day type of situation.

“We’ve been close to turning this maybe a little quicker. But you know, the one thing that we’ve talked about since the day we got here, was that we were going to put a foundation in place that was going to give East Carolina a chance to succeed over the long haul. This senior class has really been the one that has laid the foundation.”

It’s a foundation that is far stronger than the one on which they once stood. Some like Pinkney and defensive end Zack Slate, who wore redshirts at the time, experienced the darkest days in the program’s history, days that now are distant memories.

Thanks to the hard work of East Carolina’s seniors, those days won’t return anytime soon. The ceiling is much higher at ECU because of them.

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11/28/2008 11:34:19 PM

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