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Pirate Notebook No. 396
Monday, Sept. 7, 2009

Denny O'Brien

September sun nearly melted Pirates

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

In the aftermath of East Carolina’s narrow victory over Appalachian State Saturday, the most discouraging detail wasn’t the small margin that separated the teams.

It also wasn’t the fact that the Pirates held a commanding 22-point advantage in the fourth quarter and nearly saw their entire lead evaporate against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent.

The sight of several East Carolina players limping off the field and later into the postgame press conference was troubling to say the least. That’s because the source of those limps wasn’t damaged knees or ankles — although truthfully that would have been worse — but rather cramps that sent several key Pirates to the bench.

“You know what, as best as you try and simulate game situations and physically exerting your body, you can never really do it to the extent that you do it in the game,” senior tight end Rob Kass said. “As best as we’ve trained all summer, being put in a game situation it just happened to be the heat today.

“It was still a fairly mild day, but I guess we were physically exerting ourselves out there. It just led to some cramping.”

The question is why the same didn’t occur with Appalachian State? The Mountaineers aren’t accustomed to the Down East heat and take most of their practice repetitions in comfortable 70-degree conditions.

They were playing under the same baking sun as the Pirates and with 22 fewer scholarship players. Yet it was the Mountaineers who looked fresh in the fourth quarter and conditioned to play three or four more.

It was enough for Appalachian players to make the assessment that ECU’s players appeared to be out of shape.

“We had some cramping issues on defense,” Pirates Coach Skip Holtz said. “I can certainly see where someone would say that with the cramping issues that we had. I don’t know how you prepare for cramping issues because we’ve run more in this camp than we have in any other camps that I’ve had.

“We did get fatigued out there a little bit. I think there is such a big drop off between our 1’s and our 2’s that I think coaches are very hesitant to put some of the 2’s in the game as well.”

As the Pirates prepare to face deeper, more physically gifted rosters in the coming weeks, they must resolve the hydration and cramping issues they experienced against the smaller Mountaineers.

West Virginia and North Carolina will prove less forgiving if the Pirates become crippled by cramps.

Admittedly complacent

When bluntly asked if they became complacent after building a seemingly insurmountable lead, several ECU players admitted so during postgame interviews Saturday.

The Pirates had a 24-0 lead over Appalachian State before the Mountaineers could even move the chains. And when the final quarter began, ECU still had a comfortable 29-7 advantage over an opponent that should have wilted against a physically superior bunch.

But when ECU refused to tighten its grip on Appalachian’s neck, the Mountaineers found life and nearly duplicated what they did in the Big House against Michigan back in 2007.

“Last season, we didn’t really start fast in too many games,” senior safety Van Eskridge said. “Today we came out, had a fast start and jumped on them early. I think we kinda relaxed because we were playing so well early.

“We always talk about that 'kill a fly with an axe' mentality. Go for the jugular. If you’ve got a team down you’ve got to jump on them. You’ve got to break their spirit while you can.”

The Pirates were unable to break App’s spirit partly because they lacked the killer instinct to put an opponent away. The other reason was that the Mountaineers refused to quit, which came as no surprise to ECU punter Matt Dodge.

“I was telling everybody, this isn’t going to be a blowout,” said Dodge, who transferred to ECU from Appalachian. “These guys don’t know how to lose. They don’t know how to give up.

“Them beating Michigan was not a fluke. Their coaching staff is too good. I knew they were going to make the adjustments and they did. We were lucky to come out with the win.”

Dodge-ing a bullet

Though Dodge punted more times than almost anyone expected, his right leg provided some of the key moments in the Pirates’ narrow victory over Appalachian.

Twice Dodge pinned the Mountaineers inside the ten with well-placed kicks. That flip in field position essentially led to two key scores — an ECU touchdown and then a safety.

But it was his clutch punt with 1:35 remaining that ultimately sealed the deal for the Pirates. Standing inside his own 30-yard line, Dodge belted a booming 43-yard drive with enough hang time to force Appalachian quarterback and return specialist Tavaris Cadet to signal for a fair catch.

“That was a big relief,” Dodge said. “I told God, ‘I’m going to do this one for you, and I knew that He was with me. I had faith in Him.

“I tried to get it off as quick as I could. Luckily it was a good punt.”

It also served as a bit of redemption for Dodge, who mishit key punts against Marshall and Kentucky last season. That was hardly the case against his former school.

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09/07/2009 03:19:21 AM

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