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Game No. 10: ECU 44, Tulsa 17


Game Slants
Sunday, November 15, 2009

By Denny O'Brien

Pirates master rocky seas

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

TULSA — Maybe it isn’t the situation you envisioned for East Carolina before the season began.

Even in your wildest worst case scenario, your purple-shaded optimism just wouldn’t include a storyline that could potentially end without a victory against a BCS automatic qualifier conference, no league title, or an overall record that flirted with .500.

Truthfully Skip Holtz’s periscope probably didn’t include it, either. Ditto for the players who suited up for the Pirates in their thorough 44-17 victory over Tulsa, each of whom no doubt entered the season believing they would take another step forward and improve on the nine wins and Conference USA championship last season.

After a critical conference road victory against a team that took Boise State and Houston to the wire, the Pirates took an obvious step towards reaching their big picture goals. Drawing any other conclusion would seem unfair given what this team can still accomplish.

“This is a great win,” Pirates Coach Skip Holtz said. “To do it with some pressure on you, I’m really proud of the senior leadership.

“I think it’s a big step. There is still a lot of football left to play and a lot of things can happen, but I think it speaks volumes for these guys. There were a lot of opportunities to turn and panic in this game.”

Some of those opportunities occurred early and featured some of the recurring problems that plagued the Pirates through much of the season. The most crippling had been their inability to finish drives, which appeared early when ECU took the opening drive and marched 63 yards in ten plays but was forced to settle for a field goal.

It did again when momentum-shifting mistakes derailed the Pirates’ quest to extend their lead early in the game. Failed third down conversions, a missed field goal, and a fumble by Dwayne Harris on an errant pitch out of the Wildcat formation thwarted drives that appeared to have the end zone listed as the final destination.

It was a familiar portrait of a team that consistently unloaded rounds of ammunition through its Nike cleats.

But almost simultaneous with the thickening mist over a mostly vacant Chapman Stadium, the normally plodding East Carolina offense discovered a remedy for its toe-stubbing woes. The Pirates transformed into the type of big-play bunch that was characteristic of the days when Chris Johnson occupied the backfield.

Only this time it was Dominique Lindsay busting through the Tulsa secondary and hauling Golden Hurricane defenders with him. He was complemented by the emerging battery of Patrick Pinkney and Darryl Freeney, who connected seven times for 146 yards and a score.

“He threw the deep ball, especially in the first half, probably as well as he’s thrown it, not only this year, but since he’s been here,” Holtz said of Pinkney. “Now in the second half, we probably took a lot off of him and went back to running the ball.

“They had a good defensive game plan in the second half, but I thought Patrick really did a great job of managing the game, milking the clock here at the end. I thought he did an awful lot of good things. I’m really proud of the way he played. He was really dialed in, especially after last week’s performance and the frustration in the passing game. To see him come in and do some of the things he did was really impressive.”

Pinkney was so impressive in slicing through the Golden Hurricane defense in the first half that the Pirates reached the locker room with a 20-7 lead and an even more commanding 401-122 advantage in yardage. To put it in proper perspective, the half day of work was better than most full days that ECU had registered offensively this year.

It was a redeeming performance for a quarterback who has been the target of much criticism since the season opening snap. And it occurred against a defense that likes to blitz and pressure from almost every angle on the field.

Just like ECU at times can manufacture a little unnecessary pressure on itself.

After the Pirates surrendered a touchdown before intermission, you sensed they had reached a crossroads in both this game and their season. Would they be able to close out a desperate Tulsa crowd, or play tentative and watch a commanding lead evaporate?

When the offense shifted back to a conservative gear, the latter was very much in play. But a devastating pass rush fueled by C.J. Wilson (three sacks) generated three turnovers that produced scores.

Now with two games remaining the Pirates boast a 5-1 C-USA record and firmly control their own destiny in the East Division. It might not be the BCS grandeur that some believed a possibility in August, but it’s a pretty darn good place to be.

ECU made it pretty clear Sunday night that its glass is more than half full.

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11/16/2009 03:41:59 AM

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