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FOUR DOWNS: CINCINNATI

ECU (5-7) had its bowl hopes and Senior Day spoiled by Cincinnati (7-5) Saturday in the Pirates' season-final game. Here are my four downs from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium

FIRST DOWN: SENIOR DAY HEARTBREAK PART II

You’ll have to excuse East Carolina players and fans if thoughts of Central Florida’s Senior Day-spoiling Hail Mary flashed through their heads as Cincinnati kicker Andrew Gantz lined up to take a shot at a 42-yard, game-ending field goal.

Looking into the student section where only a handful of onlookers were seated, Gantz booted it with the wind at his back, and the ball split the uprights, once again sending ECU’s seniors off as losers, 19-16 as time expired.

This time, though, it wasn’t an all-time quarterback-receiver combo who had its finale ruined. Rather, it was two unheralded recruits who turned into all-conference linebackers. It was a Mackey Award list tight end and a defensive lineman that overcame a car wreck that nearly took his life to suit up for one last season. 

It was 17 players in total, and the result was the same.

“Us 17 seniors, we’ve been through ups and downs,” senior linebacker Zeek Bigger said after the game. “Sometimes we don’t agree on things...but we became brothers. We shed tears because we worked so hard all five years.”

Heartbreaking is a cliché, no doubt. Seniors all over the country, in all types of different sports, suffer losses during their final games. ECU’s was a microcosm of a harsh reality — but it sure it doesn’t make it easier on the players or coaches.

Bigger, the most emotional among the group, was one of the last off of the field. Dirtied from the game and teary-eyed, the senior made the somber walk one last time into the tunnel.

Everyone feels it, too. Even those that aren’t seniors understand the capacity of the outcome. Bigger was one of the most emotional players last season when Justin Hardy and Shane Carden fell on Senior Day. It was no different for the non-seniors this time around.

“I didn’t really play in the last game but I was on the sideline,” sophomore receiver Trevon Brown said of the UCF loss. “It hurt but the seniors this year really taught me. The seniors last year I had a bond with, but I was here with these seniors so this one hurt worse. It’s like there’s a piece of me leaving with them.”

As far as legacy goes, head coach Ruffin McNeill said he wasn’t quite sure where Bigger and his senior class will rank among the all-time greats. One thing’s for sure, though, they’re going to be a tough act to follow up.

SECOND DOWN: WASHINGTON TORCHES SECONDARY

Cincinnati receiver Shaq Washington already cemented himself as one of the American Athletic Conference’s best athletes before entering the game against the Pirates. 

His 15 receptions for 124 yards certainly didn’t hurt the pre-game notion. Washington’s performance was so fine, in fact, that it somehow outshined Isaiah Jones’s 12-receptions, 124-yard performance.

Both receivers were constant threats, but considering that Washington hauled in half of his team’s catches makes the feat that much more impressive.

A 5-foot-9 receiver seems likely to get lost in the defensive backfield sometimes. However, not all 5-foot-9 receivers are Washington, and ECU defensive coordinator Rick Smith knew that coming into the game. 

Yet time and again, Washington found soft spots in ECU’s zone defense and quarterback Gunner Kiel wasted no time getting the ball into his hands. From there, the speedy receiver had to pick up a block or two, gain an edge, and then gash the Pirates for big yards after the catch. 

Perhaps it was more about Bearcat head coach Tommy Tuberville’s game plan heading into the contest. But letting the opposing team’s best offensive player touch the ball 15 times isn’t a look that Smith wants to don.

THIRD DOWN: BEARCATS OUTWORK PIRATES ON THIRD DOWN

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the team that converted three times as many third downs as its opponent came out victorious Saturday.

The Bearcats did just that, picking up first downs on 15-of-22 attempts, compared to ECU’s 5-of-13 performance. That, in turn, allowed Cincinnati to outgain ECU 427-385, and to out-posses the Pirates 36:06-23:54. Third down conversions made all of that possible.

It also made the final drive possible. It took two third down conversions to help the Bearcats drive from their own 19 yard line to ECU’s 25 to set up Gantz’s kick. The first came on a Kiel run that got just enough to move the sticks, and the second came on a screen pass to Washington that picked up eight and moved Cincinnati deeper into the red zone.

Twice on the final drive of the game, and 22 times altogether, the Pirates had the Bearcats on the cusp of punting. And 15 times total ECU let its opponent off the hook.

FOURTH DOWN: SEASON DESERVES PERSPECTIVE

For the first time in four years ECU players and coaches will be enjoying the entirety of the holiday season at home with their loved ones.

It’s a bittersweet feeling nonetheless; as they will likely be watching their peers participate in bowl games through mid-December and into January. It’ll be a long winter, I’m sure, but all things considered, the team ended up right about where a lot of folks thought it would.

A 5-7 record wasn’t an entirely unrealistic scenario for a team that lost a lot of talent to graduation and the draft. Then throw in an injury to the would-be starting quarterback, and a new offensive coordinator, and you have a team that missed out on a bowl berth in the final four seconds of the season.

All said it wasn’t a bad year. It might be hard for players, coaches and fans to see right now, but once the dust settles they might find a team that was dealt a poor hand.

They might also find a team that played good teams like Florida and BYU close on the road — in contests that not many expected them to even compete in. They’ll definitely find a team that dominated Virginia Tech at home and a pair JUCO quarterbacks that did everything they could to keep the season together.  They won’t find a team bound for a bowl, but that’s necessarily what they should be looking for.

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There’s a silver lining in everything, and this season’s shouldn’t be that hard to find.


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