Pirates' bye week comes at perfect time

Published 5:33 pm Tuesday, September 21, 2010

By Staff
Commentary by BRIAN HAINES, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — After starting out the season right off the bat with two Conference USA games, and then having to play the first road game of year against an angry Virginia Tech team, East Carolina’s bye week could not have come at a better time.
Expectations for the two-time defending Conference USA champions were curbed at the start of the season as the Pirates (2-1, 2-0) went through too many changes in the offseason to gauge just how good they could be before they stepped on the field for their opener against Tulsa.
The departure of former head coach Skip Holtz allowed for East Carolina to bring in first-year head coach Ruffin McNeill, along with first-year coordinators Lincoln Riley and Brian Mitchell.
The changes on both sides of the ball were extreme. The Pirates would go from a conservative approach on offense to the exact opposite under the direction of Riley, a Mike Leach disciple. Defensively, the transition was just as drastic as the unit abandoned the zone schemes that made the ECU defense one of the best in the conference in favor of a more aggressive man defense.
Coming into the season with an entirely new coaching staff, whose philosophies were polar opposites of their predecessors, not to mention having to field a team with six new starters on offense and nine on defense, the 2010 season could have easily gotten off to an ugly start.
Instead, thanks to a Hail Mary pass against Tulsa and a quick start against Memphis, the Ruffin McNeill era has kicked off a 2-1 start, with both of those0 wins coming against conference opponents.
The Pirates suffered their first loss of the season on Saturday when it fell 49-27 to Virginia Tech, but it was a loss the team can take some pride in.
Three weeks ago the Hokies were ranked 10th in the nation and favored to win the ACC championship as well as make a run at a national title. Their roster features at least four players that will likely be selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft whenever they enter. With all that being said, the rebuilding Pirates held a 27-21 lead in the third quarter of that loss.
Losing they way the Pirates did has its advantages. Of course a win would have been better, but now the team can stew a little bit in the fact that they came close to beating a team that, despite not currently being ranked, is still one of the most talented in the country. It’s an encouraging defeat that should provide added motivation during the bye week. It also indicates that the potential for this team to be good this year is there, as opposed to if ECU would have gotten blown out for four quarters.
Having a bye week now is perfect, it gives the players a chance to heal and the coaches a chance to tweak some things before they head into the toughest three-game stretch in their schedule as the Pirates will face UNC on the road and then travel to Southern Miss before coming home to host N.C. State.
That slate will speak volumes about where this Pirates’ team really is and what it can be this year. If they can at least go 1-3 in that stretch, preferably with the one win being against C-USA East foe Southern Miss, while playing competitively against the ACC, in-state opponents, it will be a very positive sign.
If that scenario were to occur, East Carolina would be 3-3 overall with a perfect 3-0 Conference USA record midway through the season; which just about any fan would have signed up for at the start of the year.
In the second half of their schedule, the Pirates host Marshall, play at UCF, host Navy, play at UAB and at Rice, before ending the regular season at home against SMU.
Of those games Conference USA games, ECU would likely be favored in all with the exception of the UCF game and possibly the SMU contest. If the Pirates could win at last one of those games, it would be reasonable to expect the team could go 2-1 against the trio of Marshall, UAB and Rice, which would leave the Pirates with a 6-2 Conference USA record and in the mix to play in their third straight C-USA championship game.