ECU coach Ruffin McNeill needs to break trend of losing close games
GREENVILLE, N.C. — Following Saturday’s 19-16 loss to Cincinnati to end East Carolina’s hope of going to a bowl game this year, head coach Ruffin McNeill talked about the team’s difficulty winning close games.
“We left some plays out there that could have given us a little better opportunity, especially in the first half,” McNeill said after his team’s seventh loss of the season. “The kids fought hard, but unfortunately we fell short.
“Six of the seven (losses), I felt like we had plays right out there. Plays right there.”
Unfortunately for McNeill, that’s been a theme during his six-year tenure at his alma mater. It’s been especially disappointing the last two seasons.
ECU has a frustrating trend of losing games it had opportunities to win. The Pirates went 10-3 in 2013 for their first 10-win season since going 11-1 in 1991. But the Pirates let two games – a 15-10 home loss to Virginia Tech and a surprising 36-33 overtime loss at Tulane – get away from them. ECU also had a shot to play for a Conference USA championship in its final year in the league, but instead laid an egg in a 59-28 loss at Marshall.
The Pirates probably should have won at least 12 games in 2013, but they did close the season with a 37-20 win over Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., to give them optimism heading into the 2014 campaign.
The Pirates had the most prolific quarterback-wide receiver tandem in college football with seniors Shane Carden and Justin Hardy and were favorites to win the American Athletic Conference in their first season.
But disappointment began in Week 2 when ECU blew a halftime lead on South Carolina and lost despite outgaining the Gamecocks. The Pirates ripped off five straight wins following the loss to South Carolina, including wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina, to get them ranked 23rd in the first-ever College Football Playoff rankings. That’s when the wheels came off.
The Pirates outgained Temple by 200 yards, but five turnovers did them in during a downpour in Philadelphia and the Owls won 20-10. The next week, ECU lost a 54-46 shootout at Cincinnati and then suffered a crushing 32-30 defeat at home in the regular-season finale on a Hail Mary pass by Central Florida on the game’s final play.
While no conference championship was to be had, ECU had a chance to prove itself against an SEC team in the Birmingham Bowl. Despite dominating Florida for most of the game, outgaining the Gators by nearly 200 yards with 32 first downs to Florida’s 15, a pair of late turnovers cost the Pirates in a 28-20 loss. The Pirates were supposed to build off their 10-win season, but instead regressed to go 8-5 with all five losses being games they probably should have won.
With Carden, Hardy and the rest of the seniors moving on, most realized the 2015 season would be a rebuilding one. Still, a bowl game was expected with nearly two-thirds of FBS teams needed to fill all of the games. Despite another win over Virginia Tech – ECU’s fifth straight victory over an ACC opponent – the close losses continued.
A 31-24 loss at Florida, where quarterback Blake Kemp had the ball simply slip out of his hands in the red zone with an opportunity to tie the game in the final minute. A shootout loss at BYU with the Cougars scoring the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds remaining. Another 10-point loss to Temple in a game that ECU dominated throughout, but turnovers again cost them a victory. An inexplicable blowout loss at Connecticut when the team simply did not appear ready to play. A five-point home loss to South Florida in a game ECU had multiple chances to put away.
“It’s a bad feeling that the season ended prematurely,” McNeill said Saturday after stating that his last two senior classes have laid a solid foundation for the future of Pirate football.
In the three-point loss to Cincinnati on Saturday the ECU defense, which is McNeill’s background, couldn’t get the Bearcats off the field on third down.
“It starts with the sticks,” McNeill said after the loss to Cincinnati. “They’ve got size up front and mass up front. We’ve got to hold up. Eventually we’ll get there, our kids will get to that size and hold up there.”
Injuries did hurt the Pirates this year, certainly. But teams constantly preach, “No excuses.” Georgia fired coach Mark Richt following a 9-win season in which the Bulldogs saw star running back Nick Chubb go down with a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 10.
ECU had multiple offensive lineman get injured and sophomore quarterback Kurt Benkert, who was supposed to be Carden’s successor, went down with a torn ACL before the season.
“This has been one of the most adverse years, in terms of injuries, in my career,” McNeill said. “But the kids didn’t stop and the coaches didn’t stop. If we have a perfect lineup, those games might not even be close, but those close losses hurt. In our conference, the margin of error is very small.”
ECU chose to go with a two-quarterback system with Kemp as the passer and James Summers as the runner. It worked to a degree, but questionable decisions by the coaching staff about which quarterback to use – like Summers playing the entire game against USF – frustrated fans.
Kemp ended the season with 2,658 passing yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and will be in a quarterback competition with Benkert and possibly a freshman next summer.
Double-digit losses are usually placed on the players simply being outplayed, but a trend of losing close games falls on the coaching staff. Following the disappointment of the 2014 season with the group of record-setting seniors, the McNeill’s seat started to warm up. It got even warmer this year. While he’s safe for now, another disappointing season could cost him his job.
That said, those calling for McNeill’s head should be careful for what they’re asking.
“Coach Ruffin and this coaching staff, it’s an unbelievable coaching staff,” senior linebacker Zeek Bigger said Saturday. “They know what they’re talking about.”
When McNeill was hired in 2010, he called it his destination job. Any other coach would use ECU as a stepping stone to a bigger job. While McNeill may not be the right man to get the Pirates over the hump and to the level of Group of 5, formerly non-BCS, schools like Boise State and BYU – or TCU and Utah before they joined Power 5 conferences – McNeill is invested in East Carolina more than any other coach would be.
That isn’t to say McNeill shouldn’t be judged on wins and losses, especially when the team is consistently losing games it shouldn’t, but it’s a caution against firing a coach without knowing you can get somebody better. The 2016 season could be a make-or-break year for McNeill, who is 42-34 at ECU with a 1-3 bowl record.
“The offseason is important to get the right fit and continue to match the conference,” McNeill said Saturday. “Our skillset matches them, but the offensive and defensive lines need to get to the next level with size. I’m looking forward to getting into recruiting and building it brick by brick.”
Just be sure the walls don’t come crumbling down around you.