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Game No. 3: UNC-CH 31, ECU 17


Game Slants
Saturday, September 19, 2009

By Denny O'Brien

All not lost for ECU

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

CHAPEL HILL — It’s easy to sit and pluck the problems that have plagued East Carolina during a disappointing 1-2 start.

In Saturday’s 31-17 loss to No. 24 UNC-Chapel Hill on Saturday, almost all of the Pirates’ faults were exploited by a determined Tar Heels team that was eager to avenge the 34-31 loss it took in Greenville back in 2007.

The secondary that was torched by West Virginia quarterback Jarrett Brown last week was singed again by an equally sizzling T.J. Yates. The Tar Heels’ triggerman completed 19-of-24 passes for 227 yards, seemingly had an eternity to find open targets, and had one stretch during which he connected on nine-consecutive attempts.

At times Yates, just like Brown, closely resembled a Heisman contender.

When the ECU offense was on the field, the overall yardage production was essentially the same as it was against the Mountaineers. The Pirates finished with only 247 total yards and struggled to make plays that netted any significant real estate.

It was a statistical storyline that hardly fit a game in which the Pirates were down only one score with a handful of minutes to play.

“It’s frustrating, and it’s hard to lose,” Pirates Coach Skip Holtz said after the game. “Especially for a football team that has such lofty goals for themselves and such high expectations.

“We came in here with the expectation not only to compete, but the expectation to win. There is no moral victory in coming out of here and saying it was close, or any of those types of things. It’s a very down locker room right now.”

ECU’s mood is certainly understandable considering its success last year and the preseason aspirations that naturally followed it. With the amount of experience returning on both sides of the ball, along with some key additions, it would seem only appropriate to set the bar higher this season.

But as reality is quickly setting in on 2009, it’s clear that the Pirates won’t be able to deliver on some of the preseason talk. The non-conference schedule has proven to be more difficult than anticipated, which was amplified by the fact that East Carolina clearly was at a competitive disadvantage against the Heels.

In the aftermath of this two-game skid, it is important that the Pirates not allow it to snowball into additional losses against more underwhelming opponents. With the Conference USA slate set to begin next week against Central Florida, the level of competition will be significantly lighter most of the way out.

Though visions of perfection and BCS busting are off the table, the business of repeating as C-USA champions is still in play. And when you consider the historical perspective of the Holtz era in Greenville, there is no reason to believe the Pirates won’t brush themselves off and make a serious run at another league crown.

In both 2006 and 2007 the Pirates stumbled to 1-3 starts before rebounding and nearly taking the C-USA East Division. Last year, ECU collected itself from an especially frustrating three-game skid to win the title with, at best, a patchwork bunch.

There simply is no denying that Holtz and his staff have proven their ability to regroup and refocus the troops at times when they might seem emotionally fragile. Just like there is no denying that there are positives that can be extracted from the North Carolina loss, as well as a foundation on which the staff can continue to build.

For starters, the ECU coaches deserve credit for a more innovative offensive game plan than what had been demonstrated to date. There was an obvious emphasis on placing the ball into the hands of the Pirates’ most prolific playmakers, and the element of predictability wasn’t nearly as prevalent as we’ve witnessed before.

Dwayne Harris occasionally lined up in Wild Buc formation, threw a pass on an end-around, and the Pirates displayed a multitude of formations to the talented Tar Heels’ defense. Though the plan didn’t deliver overwhelming statistical success, the level of difficulty was significantly higher given the caliber of opponent the Pirates were facing.

If you had to rank the top defenses East Carolina has faced during the Holtz era, it would be hard not to place this Chapel Hill bunch at the top of the heap. The Heels are big, fast, and aggressive, and completely overmatched the Pirates’ veteran offensive front.

Truthfully, you couldn’t compile a bunch of defensive all-stars from ECU’s conference opponents to match the group from North Carolina.

Defensively the Pirates must improve significantly, but in fairness they have been playing without a couple of their key components. It’s hard not to envision ECU improving significantly on the back end when starting safety Levin Neal and cornerback Emmanuel Davis return.

In the end, that likely will serve as little consolation to a team and fan base that thrive on beating ranked opponents. That Saturday’s loss came against one from the same state — and against which the deep-seeded animosity stems from heated political battles — has to hurt even worse.

But when the Pirates host Central Florida next week they will still firmly control their destiny in C-USA and a potential return to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. There is still plenty riding on the season for ECU.

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09/20/2009 03:10:23 AM

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