After a huge win against UNC Chapel Hill last week the Pirates came into Middle Tennessee State looking to keep the momentum rolling, but at first glance it seemed like ECU was having trouble getting motivated for the Blue Raiders.
MTSU came out flying to the ball on defense. Linebacker T.T. Barber was hitting hard for the Blue Raiders and sent ECU's top running back Vintavious Cooper out of the game with concussion-like symptoms in the first quarter. Cooper rushed for a career-high 186 yards against the Tar Heels last week.
Against MTSU, Cooper scored the first Pirate touchdown, capping a 75-yard drive by ECU on the opening possession of the game. His loss rattled the offense for a short period and the Pirates had to call on running backs Chris Hairston and Breon Allen to step up.
"When a great teammate and a great friend like that goes down, it's hard," said ECU quarterback Shane Carden. "But Hairston and Breon stepped up and did a great job for us. They get in there and there is no hesitancy."
In Cooper's absence the two backs ran for career highs. Hairston rushed for 94 yards on 18 carries and Allen had 28 yards on seven carries – proving this team has the personnel to respond and get production on the ground.
There was cause for concern when the Pirates had three straight second half red zone trips only amount to three points. Carden and the offense didn't panic and resorted to old ways finding Justin Hardy for the touchdown that would prove to be the difference.
Carden mentioned after the game it was about finding a way to get things done – and the Pirates did. Despite leaving points on the board, the offense still racked up 511 yards on 98 plays continuing its potent start to the season.
The defense lived up to its hype and showed why it was ranked top five nationally against the run coming into Saturday's contest. The unit held the Blue Raiders to just 89 yards rushing for the game with an average of 2.8 yards a carry.
Although MTSU isn't known for being extremely dangerous running the ball, this game reiterated the fact that ECU's rushing defense is here to stay in 2013.
The only opponent to break the 100-yard mark against ECU this season is Florida Atlantic. The Owls had 104 yards in a 31-13 Pirate victory. In the last three games, which included two ACC opponents, ECU has been dominant against the run. Virginia Tech only had 53 rushing yards and UNC Chapel Hill only 67.
With that being said, the secondary has been impressive through five games as well.
Every game a different defensive back has stepped up. Against Virginia Tech it was cornerback Adonis Armstrong, last week it was strong safety Chip Thompson, and this week it was free safety Damon Magazu who played huge for the Pirates. He led the team with 11 tackles and the interception that sealed the game.
In the end it was a grind to get the win, but the Pirates did it to keep the idea of winning Conference USA one last time on the forefront.
"It was a fist fight," ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill said. "We knew that coming into the game. They have a really good football team and we knew that. We've got a pretty good football team as well. I knew after last week's win that it was going to be emotional and that we would be coming into a tough environment."
It's encouraging to see both the offense and defense still rolling, but clock management is an area Ruffin McNeill and his staff needs to address moving forward. The Pirates blew a chance to make it 21-10 at the end of the first half against MTSU when Shane Carden was stopped on the goal line.
Had ECU called one of its two timeouts it went into the half with, the team could have drawn up a better play to try and make it a two-possession game. It seems as though the penalty issue from the first three games has been addressed, but clock management is next on the list.
This game taught me ECU can respond to adversity when one of its best players goes down and grind it out to get a conference win that may not be the prettiest. It also taught me if this team doesn't hurt itself with penalties and turnovers there's no reason it should slow down.