After an important bye-week for East Carolina, the Pirates will face a must-win matchup with the Central Florida Knights Thursday, with their bowl hopes hanging in the balance.
A loss would obviously give the 4-6 Pirates their seventh loss of the season, and officially knock them out of bowl game contention. It would also mark the first victory of the season for the winless Knights — something that no player or coach wants to be a part of.
“We’ve been motivated,” senior linebacker Zeek Bigger said. “We want to perform and be the best team that we can be and get a win. We talk about (becoming bowl eligible) and that’s on us, the defense. When we’re on the field we’ve got to what we’ve got to do.”
There will likely be no shortage of motivation on the UCF side of things either. The Knights, of course, spoiled last season’s Senior Day on a miraculous Hail Mary as time ran out and have a chance yet again to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the Pirates players. Ironically enough, that Senior Day miracle was the last time UCF won a game.
In a day and age where coaches use anything to motivate their players, the Knights players will have a chance to play spoiler to the bowl-seeking Pirates.
“You can talk about what want to talk about and say what you want to say,” Bigger said. “But at the end of the day it happens on the field. We’re going to worry about us, play Pirate football and be the best team we can be.”
The Pirates and Knights share the commonality of having played 10-straight weeks and getting their bye a week ago. Both teams should be well rested going into the matchup and each side has had plenty of time to prepare for its opponent.
The Knights rank near the bottom of almost every offensive statistic, including dead last in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense. Exactly why UCF has been so bad this year is unknown. After all, former head coach George O’Leary was 21-5 in his last two seasons before this game.
O’Leary has since left the program and UCF has continued to wallow in the defeat. If a silver lining is to be found in any of it, the Knights put up a near season-high 30 points on Tulsa last week, perhaps a sign of some offensive momentum heading into their game with the Pirates.
ECU, on the other hand, is allowing 29 points in its last three games — all losses, some of which is fueled by an offensive ineptitude. The Pirates surely can’t take the Knights lightly and defensive coordinator Rick Smith knows his bunch needs a bounce back performance.
“We have not won the fourth quarter in the games that we’ve lost,” Smith said. “We’ve had the lead but we didn’t keep it. I don’t blame the offense for that. I blame the defense for that — myself for that.”
He continued, “Central Florida, they scored 30 last week on Tulsa. I told the defense, it’s hard to shut anyone out but that’s our goal, to shut them out. We need to control what we can control.”
Smith said that senior Josh Hawkins, who committed the late personal foul against USF to give it a crucial first down, has been moved to the third string, where he will back up DaShaun Amos. Rocco Scarfone is also back healthy and in the mix.
Even with all of the shifting happening in the defensive secondary, McNeill has been ho-hum on his intentions at quarterback. Summers and Kemp will likely both see time in the game this week but the head coach admitted that he hasn’t thought about keeping them both on the field at the same time.
Whatever route he and offensive coordinator Dave Nichol choose to go is going to be a gamble. For their sake, it better work out.
“Blake and James work well together,” McNeill said. “Getting healthy was the biggest thing we did, including being smart with our reps – not coaching scared, but being smart so we can have as strong of a unit as we can.”