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No moral victories for this ECU team

East Carolina great Justin Hardy scored his first National Football League career touchdown in Atlanta’s game on Sunday. A day prior, Hardy had his single-game receptions record broken by Pirate receiver Zay Jones.

Jones hauled in 22 passes from Philip Nelson for 190 yards at South Carolina on Saturday. He spearheaded a 400-yard passing effort, and ECU’s offense outgained its Gamecock counterparts 519-312.

Other Pirates continued to emerge as playmakers. Junior linebacker Jordan Williams led the team with six tackles — two of which were for a loss. Senior Dayon Pratt made crucial plays like he did a week before against N.C. State.

Sophomore running back Devin Anderson caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Nelson with 2:29 left in the game, too.

But that was the only touchdown the Pirates would score in Columbia, S.C. They drove deep into Gamecock territory on multiple occasions. A pair of end-zone interceptions thrown by Nelson, the Pirates’ journeyman signal caller, and a goal-line fumble by Anthony Scott left at least nine and as many as 21 points on the table.

ECU’s football program set a precedent in December when it fired then-coach Ruffin McNeill. There are no moral victories for this team. McNeill had wins over Atlantic Coast Conference foes UNC, N.C. State and Virginia Tech on his résumé, but failed to carry the Pirates to a conference championship during his tenure.

Just like the athletic department didn’t take solace in his victories against ACC opponents, ECU can’t take much pride in a handful of mistakes separating it from its first win over a Southeastern Conference foe since 1999.

There are plenty of arguments that ECU was the better team in Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday. However, the final score is all that will stand the test of time.

These four non-conference games to open the season, while important, don’t directly impact the ultimate goal of a league title. Even though ECU arguably lost the game instead of South Carolina winning it, the 2-1 Pirates still have bowl eligibility well within reach, too.

While these are two different kinds of moral victories, the same precedent applies. There’s a lot left for this ECU team to aim for. Montgomery has yet to try his hand at working toward the league title that eluded McNeill.

He and the Pirates still have one more game between them and their American opener at home against Central Florida. They travel to Virginia Tech on Saturday to wrap up their non-conference slate.

Montgomery knows there’s no moral victory to coming close at South Carolina, and his players do, too. The loss was surely frustrating, but they readily dove into addressing mistakes the day after.

“The demeanor was great,” Montgomery said of Sunday’s practice at his Monday press conference. “Our team is hungry and they understand how hard you have to work to get a chance to win. Those film sessions are the best thing for our team. From day one, we talked about their tape being their walking, talking, breathing résumé.”

The Pirate faithful will learn a lot about this year’s team from the way it bounces back Saturday in Blacksburg, Va. Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m.