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Game No. 12: ECU 25, USM 20


Game Slants
Saturday, November 28, 2009

By Denny O'Brien

Seniors capture defining win

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

GREENVILLE — In a season that previously lacked the signature victory that fans have grown to expect during the Skip Holtz era, East Carolina secured a memorable one Saturday.

The equivalent of a championship elimination game against your league rival certainly qualifies as such. So does a 25-20 victory over a foe that has been the Pirates’ historical Kryptonite, one that seemed especially bulletproof within the otherwise unfriendly confines of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

When you rank the most significant home wins in ECU football history, you now have to consider Saturday’s victory over Southern Miss among the Pirates’ biggest. While it might lack the flash of wins over programs from automatic qualifier BCS conferences, this carried a more tangible reward — the Conference USA East Division title and a berth in the league championship game.

That it occurred against a program that once owned C-USA seemed fitting. Perhaps it can even serve as a springboard that changes the tides in this revitalized rivalry that has mostly tilted in the Golden Eagles’ favor.

“They have been our Achilles’ heel,” Holtz said. “They have been our nemesis.

“I think this ranks right up there. North Carolina is a great win. West Virginia is a great win. When you put everything that was on the line, and what we were playing for and who it was against, I think that this is about as big as any of them outside Tulsa a year ago to cap our first championship in 30-something years.”

And arguably the biggest in Greenville since Jeff Blake crossed the goal line to beat Pittsburgh in 1991. That game added legitimacy to ECU’s claim to being one of the nation’s best that season, and it helped thrust the Pirates to a Peach Bowl berth and into the Top 10.

But that was before the Pirates had a conference to call home. Before C-USA called, ECU had little more than pride on the line most Saturdays and had limited postseason opportunities.

In those days a win over North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia Tech or West Virginia understandably carried more weight. This senior class had the luxury of beating each of those programs during their tenure, while never losing sight of the importance of beating conference foes.

When many look back at the career of senior quarterback Patrick Pinkney, they’ll point to his 406 passing yards in a victory over North Carolina. But that wasn’t nearly as important as the 269 he threw in a game that clinched the C-USA East Division.

And when we remember the career of sackmaster C.J. Wilson, it will be hard to forget how he terrorized West Virginia quarterback Pat White. But the 75 yards he rambled after blocking a Southern Miss PAT attempt are the most important steps he ever took on Bagwell Field.

“I’ve said it all year, they play at their best when you challenge them,” Holtz said. “It seemed like we kept trying to challenge them tonight. Time after time after time both the offense and defense.

“But that’s when this team I think plays at its best. That’s when they have really stepped up. I think that’s a real credit to this group of seniors. I had a team meeting last night and went around the room and had the seniors talk. I couldn’t have had a better message. They were awesome.”

The message they left on the field was even more inspiring to the 43,006 who paid to see it. Though there was a glaring hole left by many student no-shows, the crowd was as loud on Saturday as it was during any point of the season.

It was clear that ECU fans embraced the contributions of a senior class which is now two wins shy of becoming the winningest in school history. By beating Southern Miss, it now has the opportunity to match the 34 wins registered by the Class of ’78 that was coached by Pat Dye.

If the Pirates can beat Houston next week and follow that by a victory over a Southeastern Conference opponent in the Liberty Bowl, no other period in ECU's past can rival what Holtz and these seniors have accomplished. Among their achievements was a victory over their biggest league rival on Senior Day that decided the divisional title.

Home wins over in-state and Top 25 opponents provide memorable moments for a football program. But their shelf life hardly compares to wins that produce championships.

By beating Southern Miss, ECU now will host Houston in the C-USA championship game next week. Given the Pirates’ current position on the college football landscape, it doesn’t get much bigger than that.

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11/29/2009 03:41:59 AM

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