Pirates Reflect on UCF Hail Mary

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Several of ECU's defensive players and coaches relived their heartbreaking loss to UCF following Sunday afternoon's practice at the Cliff Moore Practice Complex.

Rick Smith has developed several war stories during the span of nearly four decades coaching football at all levels of competition.

The Pirates’ nightmare finish in their regular season finale against UCF had the second-year defensive coordinator, who specializes in coaching defensive backs, reopening old wounds from previous defeats that were stolen in the most bizarre of fashions.

While serving as Kentucky’s defensive backs coach in 1993, Smith remembers losing a game against Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators on a go-ahead touchdown catch by Chris Doering with two seconds remaining. Then, it was LSU wide receiver Devery Henderson in 2002 that broke Smith and the Wildcats’ hearts on a 75-yard score as time expired.

Then there was ECU’s 32-30 loss on senior night, which ended on Justin Holman’s 51-yard heave that evaded three Pirate defenders to fall into the hands of Breshad Perriman for the Knights’ game-winning score.

“They’ve been fine since then,” Smith said of the team’s mood 10 days after the fact. “Of course, it still hurts. It’s going to hurt them until the day they die.”

Junior safety Domonique Lennon was one of the Pirates who went up to knock down the last-second Hail Mary attempt. But when the ball was in the air, Lennon, who stood at the goal line, mistakenly advanced one step too many and when the pass narrowly floated over his outstretched arms, there was nobody behind him but Perryman.

In the immediate aftermath of loss that was viewed in primetime by a national audience, Lennon didn’t run away from his mistake.

“That night, I had to man up and I watched it. I watched it one time and said ‘I’m going to let it go.’ I tried to go to sleep, but I sat there and looked at it about another 40 times,” Lennon said. “As I kept playing it, I was like, ‘Man, just one more step. One more step.’”

Lennon’s classmate, linebacker Zeek Bigger, who was one of the more emotional players after the game, added, “I’ll never forget that game. It’s just that simple. I’ve never played in a game like that before.”

Smith said there was some “finger pointing” after the game that was mostly directed at sophomore Dayon Pratt, whose primary objective was to not let anybody get behind him, but Smith shouldered some of the blame when looking back at the play in hindsight.

“Part of it was coaching on my part. You have a ‘jumper,’ which is Pratt. He jumped too early, didn’t jump straight up and he’s never been asked to do that night,” Smith said. “We’ve should have done that at one of the night practices earlier in the year, so that was on us.”

Between the game and last Saturday, the Pirates did not practice. It was the team’s longest hiatus from the Cliff Moore Practice Complex since it began preseason camp in August.

During that time, fifth-year ECU coach Ruffin McNeill tried to temporarily get away from the game — making appearances to sign copies of the new children’s book he had written — but it wasn’t before long that he was back on the road making home visits on the recruiting trail. McNeill joked that while he was gone, he gave his wife, Earlene, his credit card to take care of some of the Christmas shopping for the other coaches’ wives.

Immediately following every win or loss, McNeill references the 24-hour rule that he implemented at East Carolina when he arrived five years ago. However, even he admitted to breaking his own rule in the Pirates’ latest loss.

“I didn’t get over it in 24 hours,” said McNeill after his team’s first bowl practice in preparation for the Pirates’ Birmingham Bowl matchup with Florida. “It wasn’t until today. I got over it today at 1:10 p.m. when I spoke to the team.”


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