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Pirate Notebook No. 400
Monday, October 5, 2009

Denny O'Brien

Pirates better positioned in 2009

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Harris Poll

For the fourth year in a row, Denny O'Brien is a member of the voting panel for the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, commissioned by the Bowl Championship Series. As a service to readers of this site, O'Brien's ballot will be published in this space each Monday throughout the season.

The Harris Poll is a component of the BCS Standings. The first 2009 BCS Standings, which also take into account the USA Today Coaches Poll and an average of several computer service rankings, will be released on Oct. 18.

A senior columnist for, Bonesville The Magazine and The Pirates' Chest, O'Brien was nominated to the Harris Poll panel by Conference USA. View the entire 114-member panel.

Denny O'Brien's Harris Poll Ballot

(Ballot cast 10.04.09)

  1. Florida
  2. Texas
  3. Alabama
  4. LSU
  5. Virginia Tech
  6. Southern Cal
  7. Ohio State
  8. Texas Christian
  9. Iowa
10. Miami
11. Cincinnati
12. Boise State
13. Penn State
14. Oregon
15. Auburn
16. Oklahoma State
17. Kansas
18. Oklahoma
19. South Carolina
20. South Florida
21. Georgia Tech
22. BYU
23. Ole Miss
24. Georgia
25. Houston


View this Week's Complete Harris, AP & Coaches Polls


O'Brien: Pirates better positioned in 2009
BVL: This Week's Polls
C-USA Standings, Scores, Schedule, TV
Game Center: East Carolina 21, Marshall 17
Box Score / Statistics
BVL Audio Replay: Skip Holtz post-game
Talk FM Replay: Game Day Countdown
O'Brien: Defense rescues offense again
Monroe: Kevin's Keys to the Game
Myatt: "We Are Marshall" now includes Hamrick
Bailey: Red Alert! Red zone changes coming
O'Brien: Dominance over UCF has key implications

HUNTINGTON, WV — When evaluating East Carolina’s 3-2 start in 2009, it’s easy to get lost in what hasn’t occurred for the Pirates this season.

For starters, there hasn’t been that signature win against an opponent from a BCS automatic qualifier conference. Despite what were perceived as winnable opportunities against West Virginia and North Carolina, in both cases the Pirates fell two touchdowns short.

Then there is the offense, which on most occasions this season has been unable to get out of its own way. Though most of the key pieces returned from last season, the Pirates have been too much ebb and too little flow during a five-game stretch in which they’ve failed to reach the 30-point plateau.

One week it’s been the passing game, the next it’s a failure to execute in the red zone. The Pirates’ shortage of gamebreakers has rendered them a methodical, plodding bunch that thus far has been capable of chewing up real estate only in smaller chunks.

“I’m glad to get out of here with a win, but I’m frustrated with where we are as an offense,” Pirates Coach Skip Holtz said following ECU’s 21-17 win over Marshall Saturday. “I wish I could just turn and put my finger on it. But really, when you look at what we’re doing right now, the passing game is the weakness.

“We can’t do it consistently enough, and you don’t want to keep going three and out in a punt game, especially against a team like (Marshall). There are some things that we’ve got to look at on film, and we’ve got to get better as an offensive football team.”

But as much as the passing game has been a weakness — and as much as the season overall might seem uninspiring — East Carolina paradoxically finds itself in a much better position than it was through five games last year. While the overall records (3-2) are identical, ECU is in much better conference standing today today than it was last fall.

It’s somewhat hard to believe given the criticism that has surrounded the season to date, but it’s resoundingly true. Perhaps much of that is because perspective is too often attached to inflated expectations, not in reality.

The reality of ECU’s situation is that it is in first place in Conference USA’s East division after two critical wins against divisional opponents. Though October isn’t even one week old, the Pirates are the only team in their division that controls their own destiny in the conference at this stage.

And after Houston’s loss to Texas-El Paso, the Pirates also can dictate who hosts the C-USA title bout.

That’s a decent spot to be with the halfway point approaching and ECU’s best football likely still ahead. It’s ironically a better place than a team that spent three weeks in the national rankings early last year.

Defensive bailout

ECU defensive coordinator Greg Hudson has become the master of the bailout over the last two seasons. While the Pirates have spent much of that period in an offensive funk, the defense has risen to the occasion and is largely responsible for ECU’s conference success.

Just when West Virginia and North Carolina had us thinking the Pirates had regressed significantly on defense, safety Levin Neal and cornerback Emmanuel Davis returned to the lineup. Their presence has completely changed the dynamics of the secondary and also freed Hudson up to mix his coverage and blitz packages more.

The result has been seven turnovers, five sacks, and 13 quarterback hurries over the past two games. Perhaps even more important is the fact that the Pirates didn’t surrender the big play against the Herd.

While Davis and Neal have helped stabilize the back end of the ECU defense, the Pirates have also received a boost from the heart of it. Linebackers Nick Johnson, Jeremy Chambliss, and Chris Mattocks played their best games to date against Marshall, combining for 35 tackles.

Pressure win

Perhaps most impressive about East Carolina’s win over Marshall was the parameters around which the Pirates were victorious.

Saturday marked Homecoming for the Herd and what arguably was the biggest game of the Mark Snyder era in Huntington. A win no doubt would have been a defining moment in Snyder’s head coaching career — perhaps even extending his lifeline at Marshall — and it would have put the Herd in the driver’s seat in C-USA’s East Division.

The intangibles Saturday were clearly shaded green.

But after struggling on the revenge tour against West Virginia and North Carolina, the Pirates have pieced together consecutive wins in what amounted to statement games for their opponents. They’ll have an opportunity to make it a hat trick next week at Southern Methodist with its high-flying antics.

Another road win against an up-and-coming conference opponent would speak even more highly about ECU’s mental toughness.

E-mail Denny O'Brien

Denny O'Brien Archives

10/05/2009 03:00 AM

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