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Game 14: Arkansas 20, ECU 17 OT


Game Slants
Saturday, January 2, 2010

By Denny O'Brien

Seniors altered ECU’s culture

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

MEMPHIS — There was nothing fitting about the way East Carolina’s 28 seniors closed their decorated careers.

There wasn’t that coveted 10th win punctuated by a midfield trophy presentation, which would have left zero doubt about which senior class was the undisputed best in ECU history.

In a perfect Pirate world, East Carolina senior kicker Ben Hartman would have trotted onto the field with three seconds left, nailed the game winner and made his trademark victory lap around the field. Because that’s what he routinely does when placed in game-winning situations.

Just ask North Carolina and Boise State, among others.

But on a night when the Pirates manhandled a Southeastern Conference opponent — a team that should have beaten Florida and LSU — the scoreboard took issue with ECU’s otherwise dominating performance.

A pair of turnovers and a trio of late missed field goals were the Pirates’ ultimate undoing, handing Arkansas a 20-17 overtime victory in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

“When you lose like that, it definitely hurts,” said senior running back Dominique Lindsay, who finished with 151 yards on 33 carries. “We walked off that field and felt like we definitely should have won that game. We left a lot of opportunities out there.

“It’s tough because you always remember your last game, your last play. We can look back and we have a lot of memories, a lot of great games. We did a lot of stuff that people said we would never do.”

It’s true that our natural instinct in sports is to place much of our focus on the most recent result. True or not, someone once stated that teams and individuals are only as good as their last performance.

But instead of dwelling on the would haves and should haves with this exiting ECU class, it seems more appropriate to reflect on everything it accomplished.

Clearly it thrived on the challenge of facing schools from BCS automatic qualifier conferences. That was amplified by victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia last season, watershed moments that put the Pirates in the national spotlight.

These seniors also had an obvious craving for championships. They showed that in each of their last three seasons, with the trophy from the Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl and two consecutive conference titles.

And while some might use Saturday’s missed opportunity to dismiss where these seniors belong in ECU’s annals, one disappointing night doesn’t define a legacy. Even if it did, perhaps the prevailing theme would be how they bullied around an SEC foe.

“This senior class, if you go back, was probably the least heralded class that we’ve recruited since we’ve been here,” Pirates Coach Skip Holtz said. “A lot of guys didn’t have another (scholarship) offer.

“There wasn’t a guy in this recruiting class that had more than two stars. There wasn’t a three star recruit in this class, and yet this class has really bounded together. They play with heart and determination, and they have built a foundation that is built on stone.”

While this senior class will be remembered as the one that scored consecutive Conference USA championships, what truly was most indelible is the path it took. At a program historically known for offense, these seniors altered the culture with defense.

They demonstrated that to heralded Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, a projected NFL first rounder who looked mostly confused against the ECU defense. He completed only 15 of his 36 passes for 202 yards, which was well below this gunslinger’s average.

He was especially inept on third down, where the SEC’s top scoring offense was unsuccessful on all 13 tries.

The toughness the Pirates discovered on defense over the past four years also carried over to the offense. That was evident during a second quarter march during which the Pirates traveled 99 yards in 13 plays for the game’s opening score.

The ECU offensive line pushed around the Razorbacks’ front seven for much of that possession as the Pirates drained nearly seven minutes from the game clock. It did so again late during drives that set up game winning field goal attempts.

All totaled, the Pirates out-gained the Razorbacks by 110 yards, owned a 15-plus minute advantage in time of possession, and were the tougher, more physical bunch. If it weren’t for the uniforms and logos, you would have sworn that East Carolina was representing the SEC, not C-USA.

Seriously, who could have envisioned that scenario four years ago?

There is no question that this ECU senior class fell short in several games that it had no business losing. Saturday was one of them.

And yes, each member of it made more than its share of mistakes throughout their careers. Patrick Pinkney’s two interceptions and Hartman’s missed field goals are just a few of many examples.

You might recall that before this senior class arrived at East Carolina, this was a program that had grown accustomed to getting pushed around. Now the Pirates are the ones who do the pushing.

That’s one of many reasons why this senior class should be considered East Carolina’s all-time best.

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01/03/2010 05:59:34 AM

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