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Season in Review
Friday, December 9, 2011

By Kevin Monroe

Injuries, mistakes made for bumpy season

By Kevin Monroe
All rights reserved.

The East Carolina football team had a challenging 2011 season filled with more bad times than good. After five straight postseason appearances, the Pirates will watch this year’s bowl games from their living rooms.

After playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation, ECU dug itself a big whole, going 1-4 out of the gates. As the season moved along, the Pirates showed glimpses of good football but found it hard to consistently move the football and avoid turnovers.

Things looked promising even in some of the early losses, but injuries and other issues cropped up all along that hampered the team's progress and seemed to set the pace for a season that never took shape the way fans hoped it would.

Against South Carolina in week one, East Carolina tallied more first downs than the Gamecocks, had 130 more passing yards and 50 less penalty yards. The key stat in that game was 5 ECU turnovers. The Pirates actually had the led at halftime, but turned the ball over 3 straight times to start the 3rd quarter, allowing USC to take a lead that it would not relinquish. The Gamecocks were ranked 12th in the nation, yet ECU played well enough to beat them had it avoided giveaways.

After the USC game, East Carolina welcomed No. 13 Virginia Tech to Greenville. This game was the ultimate defensive battle. The Pirates faced one of the nation’s top running backs in David Wilson and, even though he had a pretty good day running the ball, the Hokies were kept off the score board for the most part. Virginia Tech’s defense, led by coordinator Bud Foster, was equally up to the challenge and shut down the Pirates' passing game. ECU lost by 7 after just missing a pass in the end zone that would have tied the score.

The UAB game is where fans started to realize this Pirate team was battling some demons. East Carolina dominated the Blazers up and down the field, tallying a season-best 542 yards on offense. That’s the good news; the bad news is that the Pirates also set a team-high in turnovers with 7. Inexplicably, ECU managed to win that game after giving UAB so many opportunities.

The North Carolina game was another one the Pirates lost control of because of penalties and turnovers. East Carolina had 8 more first downs than the Tar Heels and 200 more passing yards. But the Pirates got behind early, couldn’t run the ball and were forced to throw the ball more than desired (58 passing attempts.) North Carolina did a nice job running the football behind Giovanni Bernard and the ECU defense was unable to get off the field on some very crucial 3rd downs. A 226-yard rushing day by the Heels combined with the Pirates' 4 turnovers proved to be too much overcome.

Houston was just an old-fashioned butt whooping! The Cougars rushed for 215 yard and passed for 357 yards. Not only could the Pirates not stop them, but on most downs they weren’t even lined up yet when Houston snapped. East Carolina’s running game was completely inept with 30 rushes for 21 yards. The passing game was better, but because of the lack of a run game it became predictable. This led to another 4-turnover game.

Both Memphis and Navy had football teams that just weren’t as talented as the Pirates. Dominique Davis had his best two-game run of his career, going 70 for 84 with no interceptions and recording 718 yards passing, 4 passing TD’s and a couple of rushing scores. He set single-game and two-game NCAA records for consecutive completions. He did not throw a pick in either game. His play alone led the Pirates the road victories over Memphis and Navy. The defense also stepped up in both of those games, especially when Navy had a chance to win the game on its last possession.

The Tulane game got the Pirates back to a .500 record in front of the home fans. There was solid QB play as Davis threw for 336 yards with only 1 interception and East Carolina had its 3rd straight game with at least 125 yards rushing. The defense was on its game as well, managing 2 takeaways and holding the Green wave to only 13 points.

The last quarter of the season was tough. East Carolina had a 7-0 lead on Southern Miss and was driving to go up 14-0 before throwing an interception that was returned for six. The Golden Eagles then returned a punt for 6 and returned a blocked punt for 6 more before the end of the first quarter. It was the strangest few minutes of football I have ever witnessed. ECU never recovered from that three-touchdown blitz and went on to lose 48-28.

UTEP was a long road trip against a team East Carolina really needed to beat. That was the first loss of the season to a team not as good as the Pirates. It was on the road — and all conference games are tough — but that loss is the reason ECU isn't bowl eligible. The Miners didn’t do anything special; they just outlasted the Pirates and did what they needed to do to win.

The Central Florida and Marshall games were great games for fans to watch. The Pirates managed a really nice win at home over the Knights, but suffered a heart-wrenching overtime loss on the road to the Herd. Both games were winnable. The Pirates had 4 turnovers against Marshall, creating a disadvantage for themselves in a conference game on the road that virtually made the outcome inevitable. Marshall also had its back to the wall and needed to win to get to a bowl game. The Herd pulled out all the stops in order to get that victory.

The future for the Pirates looks bright. The team is young and Coach Ruffin McNeill is intent on continuing to grow the program by recruiting the best of the best. Only 6 of the 22 starters from the Marshall game were seniors. ECU will need to add some depth to the offensive line, running back, and defensive back positions as well as replace the quarterback.

Next year’s non-conference schedule features the likes of West Virginia, North Carolina, and Navy to name a few. The road won’t be easy but the view from here looks pretty good. Houston will be back to reality without Case Keenum, Southern Miss will likely be hiring its second new coach in five years, and Central Florida’s program is headed in the wrong direction.
It's time for East Carolina to start its rise back to the top of Conference USA.

E-mail Kevin Monroe

PAGE UPDATED 01/03/12 02:39 AM.

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