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Saturday, November 3, 2012

By Denny O'Brien

McNeill, Pirates answer doubters

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

GREENVILLE — By all measures, Saturday’s Conference USA showdown against Houston had the buildup of the most critical game of Ruffin McNeill’s tenure at East Carolina.

Fresh off last week’s 56-28 debacle against Navy, McNeill suddenly found himself in testy territory with a fan base beginning to question the program’s direction. To say that McNeill and his staff needed to demonstrate bounce-back ability would understate the situation.

There also was plenty on the line for the Pirates, namely bowl eligibility and preservation of their C-USA title hopes. ECU also desperately needed to regain its collective swagger after getting thoroughly bullied by the Midshipmen last week.

The response? A dominating performance that resulted in a much-needed 48-28 cakewalk victory over the surprisingly well-tamed Cougars.

“It was a tough week to battle back from,” Pirates Coach Ruffin McNeill said. “I thought it said a lot about our character.

“A lot of teams wouldn’t have bounced back from the week we had before. I’m proud of our coaching staff defensively. They did a great job of getting those guys to bounce back against a team that really works at a high execution level. They did a great job of controlling this team.”

Not only did the Pirates bounce back from last week’s loss, they completely outclassed a group that had won four of its last five and was still in the hunt for the C-USA West division crown. The Pirates did so with a sense of urgency seemingly absent for much of the season to date.

Offensively, the Pirates attacked with proficiency through the air and efficiency on the ground. Defensively, they forced punts on Houston’s first four possessions, which fueled a 28-0 first half lead.

In short, a coaching staff whose preparation has been questioned this year should be applauded for how well the team was prepared Saturday.

Before Houston could blink, it was on the business end of a blowout that could have been much worse. And the Pirates were doing it with a mix of Vintavious Cooper runs and Shane Carden passes.

Even more impressive was the volume of contributions from players who generally haven’t been go-to options. Receiver Danny Webster immediately comes to mind with a hat trick of receiving touchdowns, as do receiver Derrick Harris and running back Reggie Bullock, both of whom had standout days.

“We had those receivers there,” Carden said. “It was never really a confidence thing with them. It was just today.

“We got them the ball more. We want that. We want everyone touching the ball and we want everyone to score. When we’re working like that, the offense flows better.”

It’s hard to envision it flowing much better outside a pair of turnovers that negated potential scores and led to one Houston touchdown. Even the nation’s most astute offensive minds would embrace a 305-yard passing effort, complemented by 245 on the ground.

In terms of play calling, you could hardly ask for a better afternoon from Pirates offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, who kept the puzzled Coogs off balance all day. He had an answer for every Houston set, be it an all-out blitz or seven men in coverage.

With two games remaining, the Pirates now are bowl eligible with a welcome off week and two very winnable games remaining. An 8-4 finish and an appearance in the C-USA championship game suddenly feel within reach.

There’s no question, though, that East Carolina still has some serious deficiencies on both sides of the ball. The Pirates are at a clear disadvantage any time the opponent drops back to pass, and pass protection isn’t exactly a strong suit.

Saturday’s convincing victory didn’t resolve that.

But if the mettle of a team and its staff is measured by how well they pick themselves off the turf, the Pirates’ passed a serious test on Saturday.

E-mail Denny O'Brien

PAGE UPDATED 11/04/12 12:02 AM.

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