There are no simple answers as to why the Cougars lost this game. In short, it was a complete and total team effort. Breakdowns on offense, defense and special teams all contributed heavily in this loss, none being more responsible than the other. The East Carolina team looked more prepared to play, simply put. Defensively, the Cougars front four yet again placed so little pressure on an opposing quarterback that they made him look like Joe Montana, or in this case Steve Young as ECU's Shane Carden not only burned the Cougars defense with his arm but his feet as well. The Houston Episcopal graduate completed 31 of his 43 passes for 305 yards with 4 touchdowns along with one interception. The lone interception was one of the few bad throws made by the true sophomore as he lofted a high ill-advised pass towards the endzone from the Cougars 21 yard line midway through the second quarter. It was also one of the few times in the game in which the defense actually pressured Carden enough for him to hurry his throw. Strong side linebacker Phillip Steward came down with the pick in one of the few highlights for the over matched Cougars defense as they allowed not only the 305 yards passing but 274 yards rushing for a total of 579. Unfortunately this is nothing new for a Cougars defense that allowed 460 total yards entering play Saturday, ranking them 105th nationally. Of those 460 yards, 288 came through the air and 172 came via the ground game (115th nationally). The Pirates Vintavious Cooper gashed the Cougars for 145 yards on his own, many coming right up the middle on first down which gave the Pirates favorable second and third down situations. Facing so many third and shorts (or even third and longs), the Pirates were able to call everything in their creative playbook as they finished the game converting 12 of 20 third downs, which extended many of their drives. Because of all of the third down conversions, the Pirates possessed the ball for an astounding 44 minutes of game time on their 15 total possessions. Many third down plays were extended by the feet of Carden as he did a fantastic job of buying his receivers time to get open down field, even when he was flushed out of the pocket. Carden ‘spread the love' as well, with none of his receivers catching more than six passes for 46 yards (Danny Webster for 3 touch downs). In all, seven Pirate receivers caught at least two passes with all of them having between 30 and 46 yards. Their two running backs caught five passes for an additional 30 yards as well.
With as little pressure as there was on Carden, he was also able to run for 43 yards on just 6 carries (he officially lost 13 yards on 2 sacks so he had 30 for the game), as he was able to break free time and time again from the front seven on ‘broken plays.' Many of these runs were the result of poor lane integrity from the Cougars down linemen as a result of poor fundamentals. The front seven of ends Desmond Pulliam, Zeke Riser, Kelvin King, Eric Braswell, Lloyd Allen and William Moore along with tackles Joey Mbu, Radermon Scypion, Dominic Miller, Tomme Mark, Jeremiah Farley and Ameen Behbahani continue to not only NOT affect the QB, but also to opposing running backs as well. I've lumped them all together since it really doesn't matter who starts as they all rotate almost equally as defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant still has not found an effective combination along the line due to both lack of production and injuries. What little pressure is placed on opposing QBs continues to come from linebackers Steward and Derrick Mathews along the weak side. Unfortunately for Bryant, none of his blitzes seam to work, as opposing QBs just throw where the blitz is coming from, which is not an uncommon occurrence as this is basic offensive football, i.e. throw em' where they aint. These failed blitzes have left members of the Cougar secondary exposed in one-on-one coverage all too often this season, including this game. This wouldn't be too bad if not for the zone coverage played by the secondary. With the front four not being able to get to the QB added to the huge cushion given by Cougar defensive backs, you get a defense that has played as bad as the Cougars has this season despite the play of Steward, Mathews, freshman free safety Trevon Stewart (21 tackles on the game) and shut down corner D.J. Hayden. Mental breakdowns also continue to hurt the defense, with one example coming on ECU's second offensive possession. On a 3rd & 15, Carden was easily able to dump off a pass to Cooper for 30 yards to help set up their first score. On the play Braswell and Mathews both let Cooper run right by them as Mathews was coming on a blitz to the inside of Braswell. The redshirt sophomore defensive end bumped Cooper but did not pick him up, allowing him to run 30 yards untouched down the field after the short reception. On a side note, the handling of Braswell could also point to the ineptness of this staff and their player personnel evaluation. Braswell was a member of the Conference USA All Freshman team last season as he led all linemen with 47 tackles in his 11 starts. Over the off-season he was moved inside to tackle where he has barely seen the field, until the past few games where he was moved back to end.
Besides Hayden, the back end for the Cougars has also struggled, particularly corners Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates as both are continually picked on game after game as they fail to make plays on the ball. At this point Bryant may be better off allowing true freshman Adrian McDonald play opposite of Hayden as he has shown he has some ‘playmaker' in him just as the other true freshman in the lineup (Stewart). Both Kent Brooks and Colton Valencia haven't played horribly at strong safety, but they also haven't played great either this season as their tackling skills left much to be desired.
Offensively, after a few nice games in the middle of the season, offensive coordinator Travis Bush has shown little imagination as a play-caller overall. The wide receiver/running back motioning across the field have all but disappeared the past few games and Bush's resistance in establishing running back Charles Sims early in the game has put too much pressure on QB David Piland to carry the offense. Of course it's hard to establish a running game when you're always behind, but that's neither here nor there. Bush has also not had Piland roll out on bootlegs in order to get Piland out in space. The redshirt sophomore has shown he has the ability to throw on the run, but Bush instead has him throwing from inside the pocket too often for my taste. Also disappearing from the play calling has been any read-option type of plays that not only take advantage of Piland's running abilities, but the fact that opposing defenses have to account for plays like this. Combine all of that with receivers dropping too many passes and you have too many third and longs where opposing defenses can either bring the house on a blitz or rush only three and drop eight in coverage. Too many times this game (and season), opposing defenses have rushed only their front three while dropping eight, making Piland ‘dink and dunk' his way down field. This has been effective as Piland does not have the patience to go through his progressions. He's also not getting the time to throw as any time there is even the threat of pressure, the redshirt sophomore seams spooked leading him to throw passes off of his back foot which has led to many badly thrown balls. This happened too many times against the Pirates as Piland finished the game completing only 22 of his 51 passes for 356 yards (with many of those coming once the game was over). In three road games this season, Piland has completed under 50 percent of his passes while throwing only 4 TDs, to 8 interceptions, and it appears he lacks the confidence to lead the team to come from behind.
Sims rushed only five times for 33 yards before hurting his ankle or knee late in the first half. His status for next week remains in doubt as of this writing. Without the all-everything running back, the Cougars were cooked as the lack of a true running threat (along with a lopsided scoreboard) meant everyone knew Piland would be dropping back to pass on almost each play. If Sims is unable to go next week against a ferocious Tulsa defensive front, Bush will have to remain patient in trying to establish Kenneth Farrow, who can be a Bull of a back if Bush will allow him to be. The redshirt sophomore was wide open out of the back field most of the day and that's how he caught his lone touchdown of the season, on a dump off which he took 21 yards to the end zone (bulldozing over a Pirate DB with seconds left in the game).
If Piland is to have a winning effort next week versus Tulsa, his wide receivers also must do a better job than they did against the Pirates as they not only dropped a number of easily catchable balls, but they rarely made plays after the catch. On one 3rd & 3, an inside screen was called for Ronnie Williams. He was tackled after a two yard gain, one yard short of the first down. True play makers make a defensive player miss and get that first down; much like some of the receivers did last season. Larry McDuffy and Deontay Greenberry appear to be those types of players, but your offense is in trouble when it has to rely on true freshman to be the producers on offense. Isaiah Sweeney can also be a game changer as he has the ability to separate with his track speed (and showed it on his first reception of the season – a 51 yard TD on a deep post from Piland), but unfortunately he also hurt the same foot that caused him to miss so much time this season. He's also in doubt for next week's game at this point. Mark Roberts had his best game of the season (67 yards on 5 receptions with one TD) but has been too inconsistent this season. Slot receiver Shane Ros had 62 yards on 2 receptions but fumbled the ball into the endzone after 55 of those yards in yet another mental mistake made by the receivers. His effort cannot be faulted, just his fundamentals. Too many times a receiver would run a route at the wrong depth or Piland would throw to where he thought a receiver should be. Basically Piland doesn't appear to be on the same page with his receivers, which shouldn't be the case at this point in the season.
Special teams wise, the unit didn't play too bad of a game, but there were no game changing plays either. Fortunately there weren't any bad plays (well besides a 40 yard punt return by ECU's Justin Hardy). You know your special teams aren't playing well overall when you're glad that at least they didn't make any negative plays to cost your team a game. Punt and kickoff coverage were average yet again and on return teams, neither punt returners Damian Payne nor Marcus Williams (or McDuffy) made any positive plays. Richie Leone averaged 43 yards on 7 punts, pinning the Pirates inside their 20 twice. It's sad when your punter could be your team MVP.
While it appears that head coach Tony Levine (and his staff) doesn't appear to be able to properly coach or motivate this team, sometimes all it takes to win games is players making plays. The student-athletes have to take it upon themselves to "man up" but there appears not to be any true leaders on this team to take that roll. In order to win next week against Tulsa (for Homecoming), this team will have to play outside of itself in every phase of the game. Their best bet will be to gain an early lead as this is a good team when they have the lead as they are able to dictate when they are able to run on offense (and to the opposing offense). The Coogs will also have to be fundamentally sound as the Hurricane are a team that does not beat themselves often.