Four Downs: UConn-ECU
The 18th ranked Pirates needed to play a full 60 minutes to outlast a pesky Connecticut team, 31-21, Thursday night. Here are my four downs from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. FIRST DOWN: PIRATES SHINE WHEN IT MATTERS MOST Former ECU coach Skip Holtz had a saying, “It’s an ugly baby, but’s it’s our baby,” that he’d usually say following wins like the one the Pirates endured on Thursday. ECU was penalty-riddled once again and entered the fourth quarter deadlocked, 21-21, against an opponent it was favored to beat by four touchdowns. And with all the pressure pressed against their shoulders, the black-clad Pirates refused to let the game, their composure and, most importantly, their dream season slip away in front of their home fans. After an ugly missed field goal in the first half, senior placekicker Warren Harvey connected from 33 yards away to give ECU a 24-21 lead; The Pirates’ defense, which had just been gashed for a pair of long touchdown passes in the third quarter, forced the Huskies into three consecutive three-and-outs; and the offense finished the job with a put-away touchdown run by Breon Allen with 1:25 remaining in the game. “When we needed to make plays — when we needed to score — we did,” ECU senior quarterback Shane Carden said. “I think that’s the biggest pull-away from tonight. Obviously it wasn’t our best, not nearly close ... but we won the game.” SECOND DOWN: MISTAKES PILE UP ONCE AGAIN All week long, coaches and players answered questions about how they were going to address their penalty problems heading into this game. The issue was obvious and identified at South Florida, but clearly not addressed — as the Pirates were flagged 11 more times for 105 yards against Connecticut. To ECU’s credit, eight of those penalties occurred in the first half, which prompted an irritated coach Ruffin McNeill to set his team straight in the halftime locker room. “We only worry about us. We forgot us (in the first half) and got caught up in other things, so I was disturbed with that,” McNeill said. “I brought it up to them at the half and they understood. We got caught up about what they were doing, and what they were saying and forgot about what our job is.” The adjustments proved to be far more difficult for ECU’s cornerbacks Thursday. The Pirates’ starters, junior Josh Hawkins and senior Detric Allen, had easily their poorest showing of the season against the Huskies. On UConn’s first play from scrimmage, following an ECU touchdown that put the Pirates ahead 14-0, Allen busted a coverage and was beaten over the top for a 43-yard gain that set up the Huskies’ first touchdown of the game. If that wasn’t bad enough, Allen tripped in coverage on the first possession of the second half, which allowed UConn an easy 32-yard touchdown to tie the game. As a result, sophomore Dashawn Benton replaced Allen for the remainder of the game. The Pirates led again — 21-14 — later in the third quarter when they were victims to another missed assignment. UConn receiver Deshon Foxx gained separation from Hawkins for what should have been a short gain, but was instead an 88-yard touchdown due to Hawkins losing his footing as he attempted to make a tackle. It was the longest score allowed by ECU since 2009. “We’ve definitely played way better,” Hawkins said. “I’m definitely not satisfied with what the DBs did and actually what I did myself.” THIRD DOWN: ECU CAPTURES FIRST GOAL OF THE SEASON Before every season begins, McNeill meets with all of his coaches and players to create obtainable goals for themselves. Although he usually says wins and losses are not discussed, McNeill has always said becoming bowl eligible is the first goal, first and foremost. With their win against UConn, the Pirates are officially bowl-eligible. It can be easy to underscore this accomplishment with the team’s national ranking and all the lofty expectations that have been bestowed on them. But, for McNeill, it is still something that he cherished and certainly does not take for granted. “It’s not just here, it’s college coaching,” said McNeill, smiling, as he referenced the importance of securing that coveted sixth win wherever he’s coached. “For 34 years, we’re into getting into bowl games. That’s the whole key.” ECU has now gained bowl eligibility in three consecutive seasons and eight of the last nine years. FOURTH DOWN: PIRATES AWAIT COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF RANKINGS History will be made next Tuesday night when the College Football Playoff committee unveils its first Top 25 rankings. Expected to be included, ECU is the highest ranked team from outside a “Power Five” conference in both the AP and Coaches Polls, but Saturday’s result likely will not do it any favors. The committee will see that ECU was a significant home favorite and struggled to coast past a UConn team that has failed to win an FBS game this season. It also doesn’t help that the Pirates’ signature victory — a 28-21 road victory at No. 17 Virginia Tech in September — looks far less impressive since the Hokies got drubbed at home, 30-6, by Miami Thursday. Despite those variables, the Pirates are focused only on what they can control and drowning out the rest of the outside noise. “I don’t think about any of that,” Carden said. “I think about winning games.”
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