Four Downs: Towson

GREENVILLE, N.C. — Brian Wudkwych breaks down ECU’s narrow 28-20 victory over FCS foe Towson in the opening week of the season Saturday.

Towson’s well-spirited bout with East Carolina came to an exciting end on Saturday night. The Tigers could very well have forced overtime if not for a fourth down, teeth rattling hit by safety Terrell Richardson on receiver Sam Gallahan to break up a would-be first down catch in the final minutes of the game. Here are my four downs from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

FIRST DOWN: Blake Kemp STILL AN UNKNOWN

Despite having the best statistical first half of any first-time starting quarterback since Ruffin McNeill came to the program six years ago, nothing outside of the stat sheet made a sizable impression during junior signal caller Blake Kemp’s debut.

Sure, he finished with an impressive 29-of-37 performance with 230 yards to boot, but Kemp did little outside of bubble screens and short routes. That’s not on Kemp, though. Dave Nichol calls the plays and Kemp does his best, but the fact that the coaches refused to test his arm to any significant capacity tells us that a.) they don’t trust in his arm strength, or b.) it was about getting the junior quarterback comfortable.

Both are fine, really. A coach’s job is to put his players and team in a position to succeed, and playing to a quarterback’s strength is hardly questionable. But what happens when the Pirates are pitted against faster, more talented receivers and the slants and bubbles screens won’t get 10 yards a play. That’s when things become interesting.

The only thing truly answered at the quarterback position today was that Kemp is plenty capable of hitting his short-to-mid range targets.

SECOND DOWN: EVERYBODY LOVES CHRIS

Redshirt senior running back Chris Hairston has waited a long time for this moment. After years of minimal playing time, he finally got his chance to be the go-to guy in the ECU backfield and he ran his way to 154 yards on 18 carries and four touchdowns.

“Words can’t even describe how I’m feeling right now,” Hairston said. “After years of playing behind some great running backs, getting my feet wet a little bit…and now it’s time and I’m the guy. I have to execute and produce.”

The four-touchdown performance marked the first time since Chris Johnson in 2007 that a Pirate rusher found the end zone four times in a single game. Coming into the contest the senior back had just five touchdowns in his career.

Without Hairston, much of ECU’s offense would have been ineffective. The threat of the senior prevented the Towson defense from getting too involved in taking away the screens and outside passes and forced Tiger defenders into the middle of the field where Pirate blockers were waiting to spring the back.

“Chris has earned it,” McNeill said. “He earned his opportunity…he’s faced adversity. I’m proud of him but Chris had some guys helping him in front, blocking for him. On those long runs it’s because receivers are blocking for him downfield.”

THIRD DOWN: DEFENSE BENDS BUT DOESN’T BREAK

The Pirates defense underwhelmed for a majority of the game, allowing the Towson offense to seemingly move the ball at ease into ECU territory. It was there, however, that the defense made its stands and kept the opposing team out of the end zone.

Towson’s offense marched into Pirate territory on seven of their 10 possessions but the Pirates held the Tigers to just two touchdowns and four combined scores. A missed field goal by Towson kicker Sam Hurwitz helped the home team’s cause but when their backs were against the wall, especially late, the Pirate defense stood tall.

It all came to a pinnacle on Towson’s final drive of the game when Richardson laid his big hit on Gallahan, forcing the ball loose and helping his squad avoid a disastrous upset.

“We just really wanted to stop them, and we knew we could stop them,” senior linebacker Zeek Bigger said. “There was no doubt that we could stop them and the play that Terrell Richardson made right there was a great play.”

FOURTH DOWN: PENALTIES STILL A PROBLEM

Blame it on rust, inexperience or anything else but ECU’s eight penalties and 102 penalty yardage is a cause for concern across the board.

Just like last season, where the Pirates didn’t avoid shooting themselves in the foot via penalties until the final weeks of the season, ECU found itself helping the opposing team with sloppy plays.

Isaiah Jones got the penalty party started in the first quarter with a holding call that negated a 12-yard gain. Terrell Richardson tacked on 15 yards of his own thanks to a personal foul on a drive that cut ECU’s lead to 14-10.

The Pirates picked up six more penalties in the second half.

“I think the difference is us,” McNeill said of the penalties. “We’ve talked about it and I feel that’s a part that we’ve addressed in camp. We have to be a better job as a team. I have to do a better job emphasizing it. We’re going to do it the way that I say to do it, I’m not going to allow it. We’re going to fix it.”

The Pirates may have gotten away with it on Saturday but other teams won’t be quite so forgiving. What the coaches and players did to fix their penalty crisis a season ago is unknown, but McNeill and his team had better hope, for their sake alone, that they figure it out again.


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