The good, the bad and the ugly of the 2010 Pirates

Published 4:13 pm Friday, December 31, 2010

By By BRIAN HAINES,, Sports Writer
GREENVILLE — So is the glass half empty or half full? Was East Carolina’s 6-7 season under first-year coach Ruffin McNeill a big success because the Pirates overshot expectations and reached a bowl game, or did they simply catch a few breaks early in the year that helped propel them to bowl eligibility?
After East Carolina’s season ended Wednesday with a lopsided 51-20 loss to Maryland in the Military Bowl you can’t blame Pirates’ fans for scratching their heads a little and wondering just what exactly happened this year.
It’s hard to remember a season that could be interpreted in so many different ways. With a new coach and new schemes on both sides of the ball, ECU jumped out of the gate to a 5-2 start, but stumbled down the stretch as it finished the season losing five of its last six games.
While there are not many that would debate that this year has by and large been a pretty good one for McNeill and his crew, just how good of a year it was is absolutely up for discussion.
With that being said, here is a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the 2010 East Carolina football team.
McNeill came from Texas Tech and was faced with unenviable task of having to fill some pretty big shoes left behind by former Pirates’ coach Skip Holtz. Plus, he had to replenish a roster that was depleted after several key players from the back-to-back Conference USA championship team had graduated. McNeill was able to do both and get this school to an unprecedented fifth bowl game, something that not many outside of the ECU locker room thought was possible.
There is a lot to like about McNeill, he is extremely charismatic and sincere, and seems to truly care about his players. While most coaches pay lip service to team chemistry, McNeill places a heavy emphasis on it and it has paid dividends on the field as the Pirates showed a knack for sticking together and pulling out late wins.
One of those down-to-the-wire victories was a thrilling 33-27 win over N.C. State, which is hands down the signature victory for ECU this year and ranks right up there with some of the best regular season victories the school has had in recent memory.
Another positive from this season was watching just how fast the Pirates’ offense adapted to the new Air Raid scheme put in place by 27-year old first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley.
The fact that this team was 12th in the nation in scoring (38.2 points per game) in the first year of a new system is truly remarkable. Whether or not that style of play can win a Conference USA championship is yet to be determined, especially being that last three teams to win it were defense-first teams that placed a value on ball control, however, that is a debate for another day.
The bottom line is Riley was brought to Greenville to direct an offense that is capable of putting massive amounts of points on the board and his unit did just.
Though the reports of just how low the preseason expectations for this team have been a little exaggerated in the last month, it’s fair to say that most of the media, along with the average fan, had this team pegged for about four or five wins. The Pirates hit six, with three of those wins being decided by a combined nine points.
ECU beat Tulsa 51-49 in the season opener on a last-second Hail Marry pass to Justin Jones, then four games later edged out Southern Miss 44-43 before coming home and topping N.C. State 33-27 in overtime.
If a break goes the other way in anyone of those three games then the Pirates would have hit the predicted mark of under six wins.
All things being considered most fans are more than happy with this season’s 6-7 mark and the bowl would not signed up for that in a second this summer, it’s just how the team got to be 6-7 that raises an eyebrow or two.
Starting out 5-2 is great, winning only one game the rest of the way is a bit hard to swallow. With such a distinct split in the year it begs the question which team are really the Pirates: Are they the come-from-behind warriors of the first half or the team that ran out answers in the second?
When talking about the 2010 Pirates there weren’t many things that were uglier than their defense. Heading into the season the cards were stacked against new defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell as he not only had to help his team with the transition from zone to man defense, but had to field a unit that lost nine out of its 11 starters from the two-time C-USA winning team. Of those nine players, many saw limited or no action leading up to this season, while the others were freshmen.
The most affected area was the defensive line. Last season the D-line was the backbone of the team as it featured a fast and powerful front four that consisted of C.J. Wilson, Jay Ross, Linval Joseph and Scotty Robinson. Of those four, three currently have ties to the NFL as Joseph was a second round pick by the Giants, Wilson was drafted in the seventh round by the Packers and Jay Ross is on Green Bay’s practice squad.
This year, after injuries to promising young linemen Justin Dixon (freshman DE), Michael Brooks (sophomore DT) and Marke Powell (sophomore DE), the Pirates ended this season starting a young and undersized front four of freshman Derrell Johnson (6-1, 250), freshman Matt Milner (6-4, 235), sophomore Robert Jones (6-3, 260) and senior Josh Smith (6-1, 274).
The ineffectiveness of that unit was epitomized when it got manhandled by a lowly Rice team that ran 60 times for 410 yards and six touchdowns to top the Pirates 62-38.
The Pirates finished the season ranked 120 out of the 120 FBS teams in total defense (478 ypg), 116th against the run (220 ypg), 108th against the pass (258 ypg) and 118th in scoring (43.4 ppg).
Surrendering 400 rushing yards to Rice one week after allowing Navy to run 62 times for 521 yards and eight TDs in the Medshipmen’s 76-35 romp the week before had fans calling for Mitchell’s head.
Though those back-to-back losses were disgusting, wanting Mitchell to get fired is not fair. Even the best X and O guy would have trouble with this defense because it was so small and inexperienced. However, fielding what might be the worst defense in all of the country will not fly next season and if Mitchell wants to quiet his detractors his unit must learn from the lumps it took this season and take a step up next year.