East Carolina is a mystery, but so what?

Navy's first American Athletic Conference game arrives this Saturday, as East Carolina -- a familiar foe -- pays a visit to Annapolis. Many will wonder how good the Pirates are after they nearly beat Florida in The Swamp. Navy can't allow itself to worry about that issue. Navy must focus on its own level of performance and allow its preparation to take care of the details this Saturday.


When East Carolina’s season began, Kurt Benkert was unable to lead the Pirates’ offense onto the field. The successor to Shane Carden – a brilliant three-year starter for the program – Benkert was supposed to give the Pirates their best chance to win in 2015. However, when he went down with an injury before the season began, it became possible that the Pirates would have to dramatically dial down their expectations.

After this past weekend, that could still be the case... but it’s a lot harder to make the argument that the Pirates are going to be severely outclassed when they stare down Navy this weekend, in the first American Athletic Conference game the Midshipmen will ever play.

East Carolina put a major scare into Florida in The Swamp last Saturday night. Sure, it’s true that Florida isn’t what it used to be, and that a first-year head coach (Jim McElwain) has a lot of building to do as he tries to put his stamp on a signature SEC program. Yet, Florida playing a night game represents an anything-but-simple task for almost any team in the country. Unless you’re a proven juggernaut in college football, night games in Gainesville can become very complicated. If you can play Florida on relatively even terms in a night game, you have some substance in your cupboard of talent.

This is the claim East Carolina can make after Saturday’s narrow 31-24 loss to the Gators.

The absence of Benkert probably did affect the Pirates’ chances of taking down Florida, but ECU has to be quite encouraged by its ability to play Florida close with backup signal caller Blake Kemp manning the controls under center. Yes, Kemp committed a classic Football Follies blunder in the final half-minute, costing his team at a tie (or, if it was so bold, a chance at a game-deciding 2-point conversion). However, Kemp kept ECU close enough that it was in position to make Florida sweat for all 60 minutes of Saturday’s contest.

It is undeniably true that Florida did not play very well at all. Two missed field goals represent unforced errors, as do multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Florida did many things on its own to keep that game close. However, ECU also worked to stay in contention until Kemp’s final fumble. The Pirates’ defense allowed the Gators to convert only four third downs. ECU snagged two takeaways from Florida’s offense. Remember that head coach Ruffin McNeill is a defense-first guy; he surely told his defense to bring more to the table with Benkert being unable to power this offense in 2015. The resilience of the Pirates is something Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo certainly has to admire in his study of game film from ECU-Florida.

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An assessment of East Carolina’s most recent game does not lead a football observer to an airtight conclusion about the 2015 Pirates. In fact, that’s precisely the point: ECU is very much a mystery coming out of the Florida game. One could make equally compelling cases on both sides of the argument. The Pirates might be a dangerous team with a sneaky-good defense, or they really might be a diminished team without Benkert, one which stayed close to Florida primarily because of what the Gators did wrong.

You might be asking yourself, “Hmmm, which way should I think about this?” You might also wonder, “Does this matter?” The first question is a natural and instinctive one, a perfectly reasonable response to this topic. The second question gets to the heart of things, and it’s the question worth emphasizing as Navy prepares for ECU.

In September, college football pundits are wondering who the heck is any good. More specifically, they’re wondering if good starts are a mirage or bad starts are the result of a tough schedule and other adjustments certain coaches have to make with promising but inexperienced teams. This is true of ECU, and frankly, it’s true of Navy as well. A blowout of Colgate does not a season make, and does not an identify confirm. We’ll learn a lot more about the Midshipmen as well as the Pirates this Saturday, but the theme to pound home with great clarity is this: Navy can’t worry how good ECU is, or might actually be. That’s something pundits do. Athletes have to expect an opponent’s best shot, and second, they have to take care of their own business first. That’s really what Navy has to focus on with East Carolina coming to Annapolis.

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It’s not as though it’s less important in October or November, but giving away no cheap points is particularly essential in September for one reason: Teams are trying to settle into the season and establish a winning identity. There is an unsettled dimension to early-season football. Navy and ECU will be different teams in early November compared to what they are now, but how those differences will manifest themselves is an unknown. East Carolina might be better or worse than the Florida game indicated, but Navy can reduce this game to a simple bottom line: If it doesn’t give away points, possessions or sets of downs, it should be in good shape.

You might step in and say, “Whoa! BOLD ANALYSIS THERE, SIR! Don’t make mistakes. Haven’t heard that one before. The next thing you’ll say is score more points.”

I realize this can be interpreted in such a way, but here’s the (finer) point to be made: Some games and situations lend themselves to the need to make an abundance of huge plays, to perhaps use a high-risk approach and play with a smaller margin for error. Other games require a more conservative approach based not as much on the creation of value-added developments as the elimination of value-negative events. Unless the opponent is clearly a lot more talented, September college football lends itself more to the need for mistake avoidance than big-play creation. So much more ground can be gained in September by not giving away freebies of any kind, since so many teams are trying to work out the kinks on both sides of the ball and are still polishing how they perform each Saturday.

In a context of “football theology,” Navy has to weed out the sins of commission (making mistakes) more than any sins of omission (failing to make big plays). It could be that this analysis will be wrong. It could be that Navy will commit three turnovers but uncork five plays of 50 or more yards in a wild 41-37 win. However, I’d be willing to say that the more likely path to victory on Saturday is one in which Navy clamps down on ECU’s offense; finishes with a plus-two turnover margin; doesn’t miss any field goals; and walks away with a 30-20 decision.

Is East Carolina any good? We’ll see on Saturday, but Navy just has to show that after a bye week, it can perform basic offensive and defensive actions with the crispness and clarity this moment requires. Giving nothing away is the best way to ensure that this game won’t away from the Midshipmen’s grasp.

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