Self-inflicted wounds have plagued the East Carolina all season. The Pirates place second to last for least penalty yards per game with an average of 90.25 yards a game.
For the fourth time in eight games, the Pirates accumulated over 100 yards in penalties. This time, it caught up with them in the form of a disappointing, 20-10 loss on the road to Temple. Along with the plethora of turnovers, penalties helped derail many scoring opportunities.
One of those penalties was an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Josh Hawkins. After what he described as poor pass interference call, he approached an official and let him know his opinion on the call.
“They had been giving us some bad flags all game,” said Hawkins. “I just lost it a little bit. They said ‘gain your composure’ and gave me the penalty. I thought I was going to get thrown out of the game.”
Now, with an open date prior to a Thursday-night game in Cincinnati, coaches and players are doing what they can to alleviate the problem. The American Athletic Conference ranks at the top of all conferences for most penalty flags thrown. In light of that, coaches had conference officials at practice this week in an effort to better learn how the AAC’s referees work.
“We’re exposing them to the college officials,” said fifth-year head coach Ruffin McNeill. “We had them call it as close as they could like we’d see in a game. In this new league, they’ve done a great job. As they make calls, they explain why. Our kids absorbed it very well and after that we had a question and answer.”
The players have already found having AAC referees at practice to be helpful.
“There are some things they’re teaching us that we didn’t know and some things they showed us that we should be looking for,” said Hawkins. “It was good to have referees out here help us out and telling us what flags would be called and why they’d be called.”
On top of that, players are taking the extra time this week to getting back to the basics. The goal is to return to the fundamentals in an effort to correct some of the more consistent mistakes that have popped up this season.
“We’re just trying to make sure we focus on our fundamentals and technique,” said offensive lineman Ike Harris. “That way, we can assure ourselves we’re playing with proper technique and using all the fundamentals we know that (offensive line) coach (Brandon) Jones instills in us then we won’t cause penalties.”
As the season goes on, the players and coaches are gradually adjusting to the new conference’s officiating. The Pirates have only played four games in the AAC, so, over time, they’re getting accustomed to the way the game is called.
“I think early on, it took us a little while,” said Shane Carden. “We were playing different conferences. We had SEC and ACC guys. We got here and, I think, just understanding that they’re going to look for everything. We’ve just got to understand what they’re calling and change our game for that.”
ECU was able to defeat Virginia Tech, South Florida and Connecticut despite getting flagged for over 100 yards in each contest. With four games left—all in conference—the Pirates can’t afford to average 90 penalty yards a game and expect to contend for the AAC championship.