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ECU’s defense kept bad game from getting worse

GREENVILLE — When the final seconds ticked off the clock of East Carolina’s 34-14 season-opening loss to James Madison, not only was it a terrible loss, but it would have been worse if not for the Pirates’ defense.

ECU didn’t get what it needed to from its quarterback or offensive line. It deflated a ground game that had high expectations, restricted the play book and put too much pressure on the defense.

“My issue tonight is we didn’t play well in the offensive front at all,” head coach Scottie Montgomery said after the game Saturday. “We didn’t do the things that we were supposed to do with the football in a lot of situations. We rolled the opposite of the route, we flushed out of the pocket, a lot of times we got into some long situations that our receivers bailed us out a few times with their talent. But all and all, we didn’t do what we needed to do.”

Many of James Madison’s offensive starters from 2016 returned. Offensively, quarterback Bryan Schor and running back Cardon Johnson contributed over 7,000 yards for the Dukes in 2016. As expected, they were two of the biggest threats on Saturday.

Schor and Johnson quickly dominated the field as they picked up a lot of yardage, but the ECU defense managed to keep scoring to a minimum. JMU only found the end zone once in the first half.

“I thought our offense didn’t give our defense any energy in the first half,” Montgomery said. “Our defense, I feel like wore a little bit at the end once they continued to run out there with no points on the board, and when you play like that together you end up losing a football game the way that we lost.”

Part of the success in keeping the Dukes from driving up the score came from the Pirates’ Austin Barnes, who managed to punt the ball well and kept half of the punts inside JMU’s 20-yard-line. But a defense can only do so much in a game. For the first time since 2007, the Pirates had failed to make their way onto the scoreboard in the first half in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“You look down at the call sheet and you look down at the score sheet and you see time of possession the same. You see you run more plays than the other team,” Montgomery said. “That lets you know, you aren’t doing anything with the ball when you had the ball, and that’s what happened tonight.”

In the third quarter, Thomas Sirk led ECU down the field, but Rashad Robinson picked off what seemed to be a touchdown pass from JMU’s 15-yard-line. ECU’s defense was quick to respond as the very next play defensive back Bobby Fulp picked off Schor’s pass at the JMU 22-yard-line.

A couple plays later, Sirk handed off the ball to freshman running back Darius Pinnix for the Pirates’ first points of the game. On JMU’s following drive, Schor completed a pass to Nick Carlton, which was ripped away by ECU’s Devon Sutton to give the ball back to the Pirates.

ECU was unable to capitalize on the chance at another possession, and turned the ball over on downs with under five minutes to play in the third quarter. The Dukes took that opportunity to increase the lead to 21-7.

Although the ECU defense struggled covering the run game, the offense had several opportunities to score. JMU racked up a total of 14 penalties for 172 yards, most of which were pass interference calls that helped ECU move the ball down the field.

If the Pirates are going to be successful the rest of this season, it will only come when the offense begins generating more points and taking advantage of opportunities they have.

Defensive end Kiante Anderson said that he tries to keep the defense focused and continue to help the offense. The two units didn’t play a cooperative game to open the season, which was a determining factor in the loss.

“Just stay focused. The grind does not stop at all. You keep playing until the clock is 0:00,” Anderson said. “I just try to keep the mentality of that, and keep the young guys with that same mentality.”

ECU now sets its sights toward Saturday’s trip to Morgantown, West Virginia. The Mountaineers are coming off Sunday’s close loss to rival Virginia Tech.