Special teams miscues prove costly for Pirates

Published 7:37 pm Saturday, January 3, 2009

By Staff
Steve Franklin, Sports Writer
Most of Pirate Nation will look at Friday’s 25-19 Liberty Bowl loss to Kentucky and point their finger towards one huge miscue: Norman Whitley’s fumble with three minutes to play that was scooped up by Wildcats’ defensive lineman Ventrell Jenkins, who rumbled his 285-pound frame 56 yards into the end zone for the game-winning score.
While the play proved to be the difference in the 50th annual Liberty Bowl, the truth is, East Carolina should have never been in that situation.
Had the Pirates not had so many special teams blunders, they would’ve been the team hoisting the Liberty Bell at midfield when the game clock expired.
Save for a pair of blocked extra points by Linvall Joseph and a booming 68-yard punt by Matt Dodge, East Carolina’s special teams play was nothing short of disastrous.
The mistakes began late in the second quarter after Patrick Pinkney connected with Darryl Freeney on an 80-yard scoring strike to give ECU a 16-3 lead. But on the ensuing PAT, Ben Hartman’s kick was blocked. Mistake No. 1.
With the Pirates comfortably out front at the half, leading 16-3, the special teams gaffes took center stage on the second half kickoff.
Matt Dodge’s kickoff landed at the one-yard line and Kentucky’s David Jones darted forward, cut to the right, and raced down the right sideline untouched for a 99-yard score to make it 16-9 after the PAT was blocked. Mistake No. 2
After the two teams traded punts, Kentucky was able to down the ball at ECU’s four-yard line. But the Pirates were pushed further back into the shadow of their own end zone when Travis Simmons was called for an illegal block. Mistake No. 3
Starting from its own two-yard line, East Carolina’s offense had no room to work with and was forced to punt from its own end zone after just three plays.
Punter Matt Dodge did a good job to get the kick away, but the ball fluttered just 36 yards to the ECU 40. Kentucky returner Gene McCaskill hauled in the punt without a Pirate in sight and scampered down to the ECU 26. Mistake No. 4
Three plays later the Wildcats capitalized on ECU’s faux pas, as Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline connected with Kyrus Lanxter from 19 yards out for the game-tying touchdown pass.
After the Pirates went back in front 19-16 on a 43-yard field goal by Ben Hartman, East Carolina tried to kick the ball short to avoid a big return. But the move backfired as upman John Conner picked up the short kick and rumbled 17 yards to the Kentucky 46. Mistake No. 5.
The move would eventually allow the Wildcats to kick the game-tying field goal to make it 19-19.
After Whitley’s fumble and Jenkins’ subsequent fumble return allowed Kentucky to take its first lead of the game with 3:02 to play, the Pirates had one final chance to pull off the victory.
But once again, the special teams unit let them down.
The ensuing kickoff sailed down to the one-yard line and Pirates junior J.R. Rogers returned the ball out to near the 20. But officials reviewed the play and determined that Rogers’ knee was down at the 1-yard line when he caught the ball. Mistake No. 6.
Ninety-nine yards from the end zone, ECU’s offense couldn’t string together a drive, and eventually the Pirates had to punt from their own 12 with just over two minutes left. They’d never get the ball back again, and thus the Pirates’ failed in their bid to become the first team from Conference USA to beat an SEC team in the Liberty Bowl.
It was just a horrible outing for the Pirates’ special teams units
Kentucky’s average starting field position was its own 35-yard line, while ECU’s average staring position was its own 22. The Wildcats began five possessions past their own 40-yard line, while ECU started just one drive past its own 40.
You can’t win many games with that type of disparity.
All coaches talk about the importance of winning in all three phases of the game - offense, defense and special teams. The Pirates (9-5) found out why on Friday. ECU was the better team offensively and defensively, but they got walloped in special teams play. And that’s why their attempt to become the second squad in ECU history to win 10 games in a year came up short.
So before you decide to point the blame all towards Whitley, turn the other way and point that finger towards poor special teams play first.
Steve Franklin is a sports writer with the Washington Daily News. You may reach him at 940-4218, or by e-mail at sfranklin@wdnweb.com.