Stepping Up: Pirates call it a season after one last embarrassment

Published 5:16 pm Monday, November 27, 2017

I had a different column in mind going into East Carolina’s season finale at Memphis. I planned on arguing how ECU’s three-win campaign this year can still be viewed as a step forward after also going 3-9 in 2016.

That argument can still be made. Four of ECU’s nine losses this season came against teams that were ranked at the time. Three of them were American Athletic Conference opponents in South Florida (61-31 loss), undefeated Central Florida (63-21 loss) and, most recently, Memphis (70-13 loss).

Then the Tigers went out and shredded the Pirates to pieces. ECU’s season ended in an embarrassing way as its defense gave up the most points it has since conceding 76 to Navy in 2010.

There’s little reason to argue how this program has made strides in the last calendar year. Sports, especially when it comes to a team’s fan base, is a “what have you done for me lately” business.

And what have the Pirates done lately? They picked up their third win — a feel-good, senior-day victory — in a 48-20 annihilation of Cincinnati last week. That was nice, but the lasting memory of this season is going to be a blowout loss at Memphis.

Fans are going to remember a third-quarter sequence that saw Gardner Minshew throw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Williams. The point-after kick was blocked. Tony Pollard, despite about a half dozen Pirates being in position to make a tackle, knocked through ECU’s defense as he took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for another Tiger touchdown.

That made it 63-6, by the way. It leaves a bitter taste in fans’ mouths.

It seemed like every issue ECU’s defense had throughout the season came up in the finale. The Tigers ran the ball 34 times for 333 yards and five touchdowns (9.8 yards per carry), capitalizing on the Pirates’ porous rush defense.

Anthony Miller caught a screen pass and took it 89 yards for a touchdown on Memphis’ first play. That marked the 10th time this year ECU has given up a play of 70 yards or more. All have been touchdowns.

Most troubling all season — especially on Saturday — has been the Pirates’ inability to compete. The closest loss was a 31-24 overtime shortcoming at home against Tulane. The other eight losses were by at least 20 points. That includes a 34-14 home loss to FCS frontrunner James Madison in the season opener.

ECU gave up over 50 points in six of those other losses, including the finale. Many losses came against teams ECU had been competitive with in recent memory. ECU was hardly in conference games against South Florida, Central Florida or Temple. What seemed like a sure-fire win at Connecticut came down to a missed chip-shot field goal. ECU had opened up a 27-7 lead with less than six minutes left in the first half, but the Huskies scored 17 unanswered to nearly force overtime.

That’s the same UConn team ECU obliterated, 41-3, for its only AAC win in 2016.

It’s hard for fans to be optimistic about this program now. It’s hard for them to think about barely beating UConn, handling a down BYU team, or railroading Cincinnati when so much of the season consisted of the Pirates not even competing.

And it seems like fan apathy and frustration will only continue to grow. The basketball team is off to a 2-4 start that has seen the Pirates lose to Radford, Central Connecticut State and North Carolina A&T at home.

At least now the offseason renovations slated to take place in Dowdy-Ficklen will make the stadium appear as broken as the team that calls it home.