FOUR DOWNS: FLORIDA

GAINESVILLE, Fla — Brian Wudkwych breaks down ECU’s narrow, 31-24, defeat in The Swamp at the hands of the Florida Gators.

FIRST DOWN: NO STAGE TOO BIG

ECU’s habit of traveling to play Power 5 opponents has helped increase national attention of the university and its football program. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium served as the latest host to ECU’s unnerving of larger programs, and though head coach Ruffin McNeill reiterated the idea of no moral victories, the Pirates kept their heads in front of 88,034 raucous, mostly blue and orange clad fans.

First, the Pirates came out of the gate and punched the Gators in the mouth with an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped off with Blake Kemp’s touchdown pass to Davon Grayson.

The Gators managed to stymie the Pirate offense for the remainder of the half and took a 10-7 lead into the locker room that felt more like a 20-7 lead thanks to some missed opportunities. Momentum largely favored the home squad but still, ECU competed.

Down by two touchdowns with just under seven minutes to go, ECU continued to fight and put a scare in the stadium that made those who stayed wonder if they were going to see their Gators fumble the game away. Of course, we all know Florida hung on to the win but there’s something to be said about the Pirates standing tall in perhaps the most hostile environment they’ve ever been in.

SECOND DOWN: FINAL PLAY DOESN’T DEFINE KEMP

Questions surrounding Blake Kemp, the junior quarterback, should officially be put on hold for now.

ECU fans got their first look at JUCO quarterback James Summers, and while his 3-of-4, 13-yard performance is too small to accurately judge, Kemp’s poise and performance should give him a tighter grip on the job and should perhaps boost the confidence of his coaches and teammates.

If Kemp could have completed the Pirates’ late march down the field and pulled the team from the jaws of the defeat, McNeill made it clear that a two-point conversion would be in store. If the offense would have scored, Kemp would go down in ECU lore.

All of those “would haves” are hypothetical of course, and will forever remain that way after the ball slipped out of his hands while he was winding up to throw. Four Gators surrounded the ball and scooped it up, cementing the win, while Kemp laid on the ground with the sound of the crowd washing over him and the taste of victory soured.

Don’t be fooled, however. The junior quarterback overcame his faults, fueled by a third-quarter pick-six, and finished with an impressive 34-of-54, 333-yard, three-touchdown performance.

Dirtied by the wet field, his white jersey covered in mud and grass stains, the signal caller shouldered the blame for the anti-climatic finish. It’s not entirely unwarranted but it shouldn’t overshadow his success.

THIRD DOWN: RUNNING GAME DEBILITATES OFFENSE

ECU proved that last week’s rushing explosion wasn’t entirely indicative of the team’s ability when it failed to finish with positive yardage against the Gators.

The Pirates had no trouble bullying Towson’s undersized front-seven last Saturday, but Florida’s size and speed proved to be too much for the ECU line. Though the offensive line, hindered with the absence of Tre Robertson and Dontae Levingston, protected Kemp valiantly and kept the quarterback upright for most of the game, they ultimately failed to get any push or open any holes for Chris Hairston and company.

Negative 13 yards was the final tally for the Pirates on the ground and the lack of success ultimately proved costly. First and tens turned into third and longs with the handoff of the ball and offensive coordinator Dave Nichol eventually decided to abandon the run all together in the waning moments.

If the Pirates are going to rebound from this loss, it’ll take a lot more than just the passing game to lead them to victory.

FOURTH DOWN: MOVING ON

ECU’s been here before — losing a well-fought battle to a Power 5 team. South Carolina last year was a prime example, and though the Pirates once again failed to knock off a SEC opponent, they will have to quickly refocus their vision.

Navy, Virginia Tech and BYU are all coming up and once again the Pirates will be underdogs. The encouraging performance should build offensive confidence moving forward but it would be far too tall of task to simply move on from almost defeating one of the most recognizable programs in one of the most polarizing stadiums.

“I thought we did a lot of positive things,” McNeill said. “We’re learning. I told the team the other night that we have a lot of season left, another away game next week, a conference game (against Navy).”

Moving on is never easy, but the Pirates have done it before and if McNeill’s track record holds true, they will likely do it again.


Inside ECU Sports Top Stories