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Game No. 5: ECU 21, Marshall 17


Game Slants
Saturday, October 3, 2009

By Denny O'Brien

Defense rescues offense again

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

HUNTINGTON, WV – At some point you have to consider the possibility that East Carolina might be incapable of piecing together a complete offensive game.

For five weeks running, the ECU offense has been a little good, a little bad, and a whole lot ugly. The Pirates have been the portrait of offensive inconsistency, a team almost as prone to delay of game penalties as one that routinely moves the chains.

The complete game that East Carolina head coach Skip Holtz has sought since the opener against Appalachian State evaded him once again in the Pirates’ 21-17 victory over Marshall on Saturday. Even after toting a 14-7 lead and a mountain of momentum into the locker room, the Pirates opened the third quarter flat and completely out of synch.

The only time ECU could find the end zone after intermission was on an un-timed down to close the third quarter. And it’s worth nothing that Patrick Pinkney’s 30-yard game-winning romp was unscripted, the product of wise improvisation and great downfield blocking.

The final outcome left Holtz happy to leave the Mountain State in sole possession of first place in Conference USA’s East division, but visibly frustrated by his offense’s lack of production. You can certainly understand. Because it seems almost a paradox that the Pirates are mathematically in better shape through five games than they were at the same point last year.

Especially with an offense that mustered only 286 yards of offense Saturday.

“I think right now the Achilles’ heel of this offensive football team is our passing game,” Holtz said. “We can’t throw the ball on a consistent enough basis, and we’re going to have to be content with winning low-scoring games until we can turn and find some big plays somewhere on this offensive football team.

“I’m glad to get out of here with a win, but I’m frustrated with where we are as an offense. 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.”

For the first half of ECU’s critical win, the Pirates again resembled the polished product most expected before the season began. They were balanced, seemed largely in rhythm, and at times extended drives without breaking too much of a sweat.

Running backs Brandon Jackson and Dominique Lindsay took turns swallowing Marshall real estate by five and seven yard chunks. That opened up a passing attack that was as fluid as it has been all season, with quarterback Patrick Pinkney connecting on 10-of-15 attempts for 100 first half yards.

Then something familiar happened to the Pirates. Halftime showed up. The weekly menace that has haunted ECU since the season opener cast another ugly spell over the Pirates, sending them into a second half offensive trance.

The team that executed with precision in the first half barely managed 100 yards after intermission, with only 31 of that coming through the air.

“First down penalties killed us,” Pinkney said. “It’s hard to get into a rhythm like that.

“It was ugly. Our defense got us two big interceptions and got us big stops at the end of the game. That’s what it’s going to take win these types of games — our team staying together and playing a 60-minute game.”

While it’s easy to get lost in the offense’s seeming inability to produce on both sides of intermission, what can’t be overlooked is the quick turnaround by the ECU defense. After getting blistered by West Virginia and North Carolina in consecutive weeks, the defense again resembles the bunch that carried the Pirates to a C-USA title last season.

After surrendering 73 first quarter yards to Marshall superback Darius Marshall, the ECU defense locked down and limited him to only 63 yards the rest of the way. The Pirates proved especially tough on first down, creating long-yardage passing situations in which the Herd continuously struggled.

With Marshall quarterback Brian Anderson in the pocket, the ECU defense was able to register a key sack, seven hurries, and two deflating interceptions. By winning first down, the Pirates rendered the Herd one-dimensional and ineffective.

Now if East Carolina could just find a solution for first down with its offense on the field — a formula that generates 2nd and 6 instead of 1st and 15. That sentiment is especially true in the second half.

Last year the Pirates plodded to a C-USA championship with a lights-out defense and an ugly duckling for an offense. They did so out of necessity.

Through two games of the 2009 conference slate, that appears to be the trend again.

But with a couple of prolific attacks remaining on the schedule, the Pirates could be walking a dangerous plank if the offense doesn’t find some consistency down the stretch. Keeping opponents in the teens is a lot to ask of any defense in pass-happy C-USA.

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10/04/2009 02:08:08 AM

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