A year of what ifs

Published 10:49 pm Tuesday, November 29, 2011

East Carolina running back Reggie Bullock (center) in action during the Pirates’ season-opening loss to South Carolina. (AP Photo)

Watching the 2011 East Carolina football team was a lot like viewing a Quentin Tarantino movie: It was bizarre yet thrilling, at times hard to watch and two-and-a-half-hours later you’re left walking out of the theater wondering if what you just saw was good, great or awful.

While some of Tarantino’s films are undeniable classics, some just have to be looked at more closely before you appreciate them. For the Pirates, who finished 5-7, (4-4) and saw their streak of five straight bowl games come to an end, this year was by no means a Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, but more along the lines of a Grindhouse.

With a his humorous, off-the-cuff style, ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill provided the interesting dialogue that has become the staple of Tarantino movies, while his team provided the “I can’t believe I just saw that” moments. Some of those include beating UAB 28-23 despite turning the ball over seven times, along with squandering a 24-17 halftime lead over then-ranked No. 12 South Carolina by committing three straight turnovers to start the second half.

The year also featured unforgettable moments like Torrance’s Hunt’s 56-yard game-winning touchdown run against Central Florida, which was sealed by a late interception by Damon Magazu as the Knights approached the ECU end zone. East Carolina also held on to win a 38-35 nail-biter against Navy that wasn’t decided until the Midshipmen’s late field goal attempt bounced off the up-rights.

The Pirates also had some games that were unforgettable for the wrong reasons. East Carolina’s 56-3 loss to Houston is the first that comes to mind, and is quickly followed by the team’s 48-28 loss to Southern Miss in which it allowed four non-offensive touchdowns.

When looking back at the year the two things that immediately stand out are the mass amount of injuries and the extra-large turnover tally. One can only wonder what this season would have been like with out a large dose of one or the other or both, and if this season were a Tarantino movie it would it would likely be a dubbed “What if?”

Here’s a look at some of the plot lines:

What if Lance Lewis and Justin Jones played an entire season together?

The Pirates’ played the last three games of the year without 6-3, 200-pound senior wide receiver Lance Lewis. Despite missing that time, Lewis, who is an NFL caliber wideout, led the team in receptions (60), receiving yards (600) and touchdowns (8).

Justin Jones is a promising 6-8 sophomore wide receiver who played a handful of snaps all year due to a knee and wrist injury. Jones entered the season finale against Marshall having played sparingly in five games as he recorded two receptions and one touchdown. Pirates’ fans got a good glimpse of what he could do in the team’s season finale when, feeling a little healthier, he caught four passes, three of which were touchdowns in ECU’s  loss to the Thundering Herd.

What if offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley could line up Lewis on one side of the field and Jones on the other for 10 or more contests? It’s hard to imagine that ECU would not have won one more game.


What if Reggie Bullock stayed healthy?

Every team deals with injuries, it’s just a part of the game, but losing Jones for most of the year along with starting running back Reggie Bullock really took some of the bite out of the offense. As it is, the Pirates’ Air Raid scheme is fairly one-dimensional, but without it’s best runner opposing teams had no worries about stopping the ground attack. Bullock was a JUCO transfer who led the NJCAA in rushing with 1,813 yards and 20 TDs, and to borrow a phrase from Riley, he was a starter for a reason.

What if the offense had continuity?

The loss of Jones, Lewis and Bullock, along with injuries to offensive linemen Doug Polochak, Grant Harner and Adhem Elsawi made for constant shuffling on the offensive side of the ball. With an FBS-leading 35 lost turnovers you can’t by any means give this team a free pass because of all the injuries, but you have to at least take into account the lack of rhythm between players. In 2010 quarterback Dominique Davis threw for a school-record 3,967 yards, 37 touchdowns and was intercepted 16 times. This year, the senior passed for 3,225 yards 25 touchdowns and was picked 19 times. It’s just more logical to think the lack of familiarity with the players around him dragged down his play than it is to assume he regressed as a quarterback.


What if Ben Ryan punted in the Southern Miss game?

In his second year at the helm, McNeill did a good job of working with the talent he had each week but perhaps one call that he would like to have back was starting punter Phil McNaughton over Ben Ryan against Southern Miss. Heading into the game both teams were fighting for the C-USA East Division lead with matching 3-1 conference records, and though Ryan and the punting unit had been struggling, that might not have been the best time to give McNaughton his first start of his career. McNaughton hung what was supposed to be a rugby-style punt on his first attempt and paid for it as Tracey Lampely returned it for a touchdown, while his second punt of the game was blocked and returned for a score. To be fair, who’s at fault for the punt block is disputable. What’s not disputable is that McNaughton did not punt again for the rest of the season after that loss to the Golden Eagles.


What if the young players never get a chance to shine?

Aside from snappy dialogue, Tarantino movies also feature plenty of ironic twists, and this Pirates’ season is no different. Those same injuries that plagued ECU all year just might pave the way for a bright future. Had Lewis and Jones not been hurt, would we have ever known that sophomore WR Reese Wiggins’ has game-breaking potential. If Reggie Bullock didn’t suffer a thigh injury we may not have ever seen Hunt’s playmaking ability, while the injury to Polochak allowed junior Josh Clark to shine in his absence. There were several young players that stepped up when called upon on both sides of the ball this year, which leaves us with ultimate question: What if all the suffering of this season makes for a better 2012?