FIRST DOWN: 3.8 YARDS AND A PILE OF MUD
East Carolina’s sputtering offense took another step back and found itself unable to overcome driving rain and a muddy field during Saturday’s 22-17 loss to South Florida.
The Pirates averaged just 3.8 yards per play against a middle of the pack Bulls defense, and were out-gained 442 to 220 during the rain-filled match.
While the players recognized that both teams had to compete in the exact same field conditions, ECU’s three-straight drops and first-play fumble on the opening drive of the game set the tone for what would be a sloppy affair fueled by offensive inefficiency.
ECU managed just 62 rushing yards, eight first downs and converted three third downs. It was an ugly showing that would have been markedly worse if not for a second-half improvement that façades as passable.
The trend of poor play on offense that started against Temple during a 24-14 loss three weeks ago once again halted the Pirates chances of getting back on track. In their last three games, the Pirates are averaging just 14.6 points per game.
It’s safe to say the offense is in a rut. Saturday’s scoreless first quarter marked the fourth straight in which ECU failed to find the end zone in the game’s opening quarter. The days of the high-flying offenses have become a thing of the past and ECU has once again found itself unable to grind out wins.
Who knows what will happen when the team gets back to full strength, but for now the adversity rides on the shoulders of a sputtering offense that might still be buried somewhere under the muddy Dowdy-Ficklen surface.
SECOND DOWN: STICKING WITH SUMMERS
Despite the offensive woes that hindered ECU Saturday, the Pirates made one thing markedly clear — they want to stick with James Summers.
McNeill nearly said as much after the game, acknowledging that the team had no plans to insert Blake Kemp despite gaining just 29 plays in the first half, rather he wanted Summers to get into the flow of the game and take competitive snaps when it mattered most.
“(Coach Nichol) and I felt with this offense you’ve got to let them see the looks and that’s the patient part,” said McNeill. “We talked about no hesitation all week long, and that’s what we told James. We’ve got to get him the reps and he’s got to see the experiences.”
Summers picked up his play in the second half and finished 14-of-22 with 235 yards of total offense and a rushing touchdown, improving as the game wore on. But his limitations at the position took to the forefront as he was constantly sacked and failed to get the ball into his receivers’ hands often enough.
The coaches clearly defer to Summers’ athletic ability over Kemp’s vision and they stuck with No. 11 for the entirety of the game for the first time. Don’t expect things to be too different moving forward.
THIRD DOWN: PERSONAL FOUL KILLS COMEBACK
With just over two minutes on the clock and USF trying to burn time, senior cornerback Josh Hawkins did the one thing he couldn’t possibly afford to do.
USF running back Marlon Mack was already four steps out of the bounds when Hawkins shoved the sophomore tailback, sending him to the ground and drawing a 15-yard personal foul penalty for the a late hit.
It was a gift, really. Mack did the one thing the coaching staff was sure to prohibit, as he headed for the sideline to stop the clock and save an ECU timeout. But one mistake outdid the other and Mack got a mulligan.
The Bulls used the automatic first down to burn even more clock and by the time the Pirates took over possession, they had just 51 seconds on the clock and no timeouts.
Hakwins didn’t effectively end the game with his penalty but it allowed at least another 45 seconds to burn off, which might as well be an eternity in the wild world of college football.
It was a bonehead move by a senior who walked with his head down and a blank stare into the locker room following the loss. When the coaches look back on film Sunday, they’ll likely point out the mistake.
Hawkins is one of a handful of seniors on the team that have perhaps grown accustomed to winning. The play surely doesn’t define him as a player, but the team will need better from its leaders if it’s going to climb out of this deep hole.
FOURTH DOWN: BACKS AGAINST THE WALL
In what has become a basic expectation in the Ruffin McNeill-led regime, East Carolina’s chances of making a bowl game now seem as minuscule as ever.
Losers of three straight and four of their last five, the Pirates are now 4-6 with two games remaining, both must-wins, and a bowl berth on the line.
If the Pirates miss out on a bowl game for the first time in four years, it will likely shake even the staunchest ECU fan to their core. It’s also really not a position the team should even be in.
The Pirates, even with all the injuries, aren’t bad enough to lose to Connecticut and USF in the same season. But yet, here they are, with two straight losses against those opponents, one of which was at home.
Now the post-season streak depends on victories over Central Florida and Cincinnati, both of which are winnable but only one of which seems feasible after the recent performances.
If their backs were against the wall against USF, which McNeill said was indeed the case, they surely must be bending the bricks on which they lean with just two games left.