Pirates embarrassed by James Madison, 34-14
Published 12:28 am Sunday, September 3, 2017
GREENVILLE — James Madison came into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and handed East Carolina its first loss to an FCS opponent since 1990 in a 34-14 on Saturday. Cardon Johnson ran the ball 17 times for 265 yards and two touchdowns, torching a lackluster Pirate defense.
It was an embarrassment that ECU’s program has rarely, if ever, experienced in the 13 years since John Thompson was the head coach. For context, the Pirates won three games against Tulane and Army in that two-year span.
“I’m very, very disappointed. As disappointed as I’ve been since I’ve been here, but the first thing I’ve got to do is look in the mirror,” Montgomery said. “There’s going to be some changes that are coming.”
ECU’s offense struggled out of the gate. It ran just seven plays on its first three drives — two three-and-outs followed by an interception thrown by starting quarterback Gardner Minshew.
With so much new in the program — from the coaching staff to tenured players taking on more responsibility to the addition of a dozen graduate and junior-college transfers — it was understandable for the Pirates to start slow.
However, the offense continued to sputter. Junior Garrett McGhin, who was named a captain and expected to anchor the offensive line, couldn’t effectively snap the ball. The line couldn’t block. ECU scraped up 80 rushing yards on 30 tries, leaving it to the quarterbacks to move the ball.
Montgomery and his staff put their confidence in Minshew after his showing in the preseason. He started the game, but it was Duke transfer Thomas Sirk that took the field in the second half. It was the first time in two years he had done so, so he was understandably energetic. He gave the entire stadium a shot in the arm when he took a stiff hit, popped right back up, and turned to pump up the crowd.
“I was excited. I knew I had a job to accomplish,” Sirk said. “I go out there and try to spark something. I was thankful to be back on the field, but not happy with the outcome.”
Like so many drives in the game, and in the season before, it stalled out in the red zone. Sirk was intercepted as he looked for Jimmy Williams in the right corner of the end zone. In what was a three-score game, the Pirates went on to turn the ball over on downs twice in the red zone in the second half.
Here are a few takeaways from the loss:
ECU has a lot to figure out in the trenches:
McGhin’s inability to snap the ball led to him being replaced at center by fellow junior Brandon Pena, who was later on helped off the field with a right-leg injury. Shortcomings across the offensive line prevented ECU from establishing a run game. Defensively, the front struggled, especially in the first half, to contain JMU’s ground assault as it went on to rush for 422 yards.
“My biggest issue tonight is we didn’t play well on the offensive front at all,” Montgomery said in the opening of his post-game press conference. “It kind of started at the get go. We put more balls on the ground snapping than I’ve been a part of.”
Pirates need consistency at the quarterback position:
Of course, those problems up front led right into ECU’s struggles moving the ball through the air. Minshew and Sirk overthrew receiver after receiver. Both felt plenty of pressure and took hard hits. Minshew was 7-of-18 with an interception in the first half. When ECU leaned heavily on Sirk’s arm in the second, he amassed 210 yards on 21-of-35 passing, but failed on his numerous shots at the end zone.
“We’ll have to go back and assess the film to see what they did up front, but I don’t think that we should have had as much pressure as we did,” Sirk said. “… We have to do a better job of giving our receivers a better chance to make plays. That’s all on the quarterback.”
Time to re-evaluate the scheme:
ECU’s program is far from the state Thompson left it in 13 years ago. It’s not ideal that the recruits in attendance witnessed that performance. However, after a three-win showing in 2016 and the product the Pirates put on the field Saturday, it’s time to worry about what is being presented — especially to the recruits in attendance.
“I thought we found our groove in the second quarter,” Montgomery said of the defense. “We had some more adjustments going into halftime. We didn’t play well at the weak-side linebacker position in this game. … It’s not necessarily one person or two people. It’s the entire scheme, the entire defense.”