GREENVILLE, N.C. — East Carolina desperately needed a win.
The Pirates entered Saturday night’s home game against South Florida with a 4-5 record and in danger of not qualifying for a bowl game.
The Pirates are one step closer to missing out on a postseason berth following Saturday night’s 22-17 loss to the Bulls at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“Disappointing to say the least,” coach Ruffin McNeill said after the game. “Our defense played well all night long, special teams did a great job.
“We’ve got two games left to become bowl eligible and that’s where our focus is.”
Saturday’s game wasn’t pretty for either team as the rain fell, but it was downright ugly for the ECU offense.
“We’ve got to execute better,” quarterback James Summers said after the game. “There’s stuff we’ve got to clean up.
“We made a couple critical mistakes and you can’t do that if you want to win.”
When the Pirates went 10-3 in 2013, the 2014 season was supposed to be a special season with a group of record-setting seniors. Then the Pirates choked away four games they should have won, including the Birmingham Bowl against Florida, and finished 8-5. Sitting at 4-6 this season, the leash is becoming increasingly shorter for the likeable McNeill. One highly placed ECU official told me McNeill’s job is safe for now, but another disappointing season could cost him his job.
“I’ve never had a staff that has worked as hard as these guys,” McNeill said. “And, after two losses, our players came back and put in a great week.
“I take losing really hard. I am responsible for those guys. I want to win for them. I take it pretty personal.”
As bad as the offense was, with only 220 yards of total offense, the ECU defense did its best to keep the Pirates in the game. The Pirates did not have a first down during the first half on Saturday, but did get a touchdown on a 7-yard Summers run following a USF fumble inside its own 10.
The Summers run was the longest offensive play of the first half for ECU, which totaled just 29 yards of offense in the opening 30 minutes. It was the worst offensive performance by the Pirates in recent memory. ECU did not record a first down in a half for the first time in at least 12 years.
Despite all of its futility, the Pirates only trailed 12-7.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, their best player Saturday night may have been punter Worth Gregory. The junior from Fort Mill, S.C., punted nine times on a career night that included a 73-yard boot and a 44.6-yard average with six punts downed inside the 20.
The defense did its job. The offense could not. It was a putrid performance – one that usually places coaches on the hot seat.
“We practiced well to win the game this week,” McNeill said. “We had great preparation and we expect to win games.
“That’s not us. We’ve set all sorts of offensive records here. We’re used to scoring a lot of points and our defense depends on that.”
After three interceptions last week in the upset loss to Connecticut, Blake Kemp did not play against USF. Maybe he should have just to give the Bulls another look. Summers wasn’t getting it done. But McNeill preached patience with Summers and said there was “no hesitation” to stay with the junior from Greensboro.
The USF defense actually recorded the first score of the game on a safety after Summers was hit with intentional grounding while in the end zone.
The Pirates did not record a first down until Bryce Williams, who had three drops in the first half, caught a 2-yard pass on a third-and-2. The Pirates punted three plays later at the USF 43-yard line. Williams finished with six catches for 85 yards.
Again the Pirates defense clamped down to and three-and-out. ECU finally put together its first sustained drive of the game with an eight-play, 59-yard series capped by a 3-yard Summers run. McNeill chose to kick the extra point instead of going for two and the Pirates led 14-12 with 5:08 remaining in the third quarter.
The Bulls began the fourth quarter with a drive deep inside ECU territory and converted a fourth-and-1 before taking a 15-14 lead on a 39-yard Emilio Nadelman field goal.
The Pirates immediately answered with a field goal of their own, set up by a 39-yard pass from Summers to junior receiver Brandon Bishop. It was ECU’s longest play of the game to that point, but the drive stalled after ECU tried a couple of delayed runs – each of which was stopped for a loss.
The onus was placed back on the defense. The Pirates desperately needed a win in order to receive a bowl invitation. The win didn’t happen on Saturday and another loss will essentially end the season.
“We’re determined,” said senior linebacker Zeek Bigger, who had a game-high 12 tackles. “I just talked to them. I asked them if they were on board and they said, ‘Yeah.’
“As seniors, we’ve only got two more, so something’s got to happen.”
The defense held. The offense went back to work and Summers heaved a desperation throw up to the 6-foot-6 Williams. The senior tight end outjumped a pair of USF defenders to haul in the pass for a 56-yard gain. The Pirates punted, but they flipped the field as the Bulls took over at their own 15. The ECU defense was back on the field with the game, and potentially the season, hanging in the balance.
“You win some, you lose some, but it’s about fighting back,” Bigger said. “You’ve just to go get ready for the next game.
The defensive effort would not be sustained. A pair of ECU defensive backs bit on a pump fake by USF quarterback Quinton Flowers, leaving Rodney Adams uncovered as he streaked down the sideline. An easy toss from Flowers resulted in a 67-yard score to put the Bulls back on top 22-17.
The Pirates were unable to score, punting to give the Bulls the ball at their own 10 with 2:09 remaining. The ECU defense had to get the ball back. The season was on the line. The defense did, but the offense was unable to get the ball past midfield as Summers was sacked on the final play of the game.
“We came up short, but we’ve got two more,” Bigger said. “We come out and play hard each and every game any way we can. But we came up short.
“It’s kind of frustrating, but it’s over with. It’s a done deal, so we’ve got to move onto the next one.”
The next one is at Central Florida on Nov. 21 with a home game against Cincinnati in the season finale. The Pirates were already in a must-win situation, but now their backs are against the proverbial wall. The season is on the line. Desperation mode has set in.
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