STEPPING UP — My Take: Unfortunate ending overshadows exceeded expectations

Published 9:17 pm Monday, September 14, 2015

As East Carolina football head coach Ruffin McNeill stood before the media after Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss to Florida, his message was clear. He has no interest in moral victories.

Though players and coaches alike have expressed that there is no moral victory in the hard-fought loss, from the outside perspective it is hard not to see it as just that.

The Pirates were counted out by most everyone before the game even started. They could have folded when they fell behind by 14 with under seven minutes left in the game, but Blake Kemp, the offensive line and the defense refused to quit.

Yes, Florida left opportunities on the table in the first half — more than 10 points were squandered with two missed field goals and unimpressive drives off golden field position — but ECU stepped up where and when it had to. The defense gave the offense a chance to tie the game after a big stop on Florida’s final drive. Kemp moved the ball down the field, but in the end a physical error ended the Pirates’ chance.

The 2015 campaign was looking like a season in which ECU may not be bowl eligible for the first time since 2011. However, a game like Saturday’s could give the Pirates enough swagger and confidence to believe in themselves a little more in big-game situations.

The Pirate offensive line was completely over matched by the Gators’ rush defense (-13 yards on 22 attempts), but fared well against the pass rush. The Florida front seven was certainly the toughest the line will face all season and the serviceable performance is more than encouraging for the rest of the season.

Kemp showed a gamer-mentality during the third and fourth quarter. He continued to step up in the pocket and make passes under pressure from the Florida defense. The Gators forced nine quarterback hurries, but Kemp handled it with the composure of a veteran college quarterback, not a player dressing in his second career Division I game.

His poise showed especially bright in the second half where he went 25-for-40 with 228 yards and a touchdown. Overlooking the pick-six halfway through the third quarter, he played a near flawless second half. However, it may not be enough to keep him in the starter’s role for long.

James Summers’ Pirate debut was an overlooked part of Saturday’s game because of the finish to the game and Kemp’s effectiveness. Summers showed his athleticism but not much more in only four pass attempts.

Summers has only been in the system for about three weeks and going forward, the junior college transfer will likely find himself more involved in the Pirates’ game plan despite Kemp’s performance against the Gators.

Overall, the Pirates will be better for the loss and the reaction of the team will define the rest of the season next week against Navy, though McNeill his optimistic for his bunch.

“I’m really proud of the kids — a very resilient bunch. They were hurt,” McNeill said Monday. “The 24-hour rule was in effect through my meeting with them. We have to get ready for a Navy team who had a bye week.”