I have to admit…watching Marshall take our team to the woodshed on Friday shook me up and I was having a hard time putting this year’s team into perspective. Are we real good? Do we suck? Is it a talent thing? Is it a desire thing?
But, a weekend without college football sometimes is just what the doctor ordered to gain true perspective…at least for me on this one.
Look…Marshall took it to our kids in every phase of the game and clearly was the better team on Friday, deserved to win the game and hence, the division. I will pull for the Herd to win out the season. Could I produce a laundry list of items to point to how two teams so seemingly even in every facet of the game could end up with a result so lopsided? Yeppers…got a lot of reasons, but I will roll them all up into two predominant ones: 1) bad game plan; 2) lower quantity of “want” power. Back to those two items momentarily.
First, like most of you…I had an emotional crash after the game. I read the BB and some of the other sources of venting around the good ol’ net and saw that I was not alone in feeling the pain of this defeat. But, things are never – as they say – as bad as they may seem. To those of you who are still feeling the pain…it will pass and things will not seem as bad as they feel. Because…they are not bad in reality. For those of you whose optimism burns eternal…God bless you! That is the way I hope to become someday, but know that that optimism shouldn’t come without a high bar of expectations. I hope to maintain that balance some day as well.
Second, there is still a ton to play for. Sure, would love to have had the CUSA Title game at home…but that dream exit has been erased from possibility. However, 10 win seasons are rare in college football, particularly for the non-BCS guys out there and we have a chance to achieve that. Moreover…our recent bowl history is not one to brag about…so the goal of winning the last game of the season is important. We need to go into the AAC next season rolling…not tailing out. The extra practice that a bowl game affords is especially beneficial this season as we transition into the AAC…particularly for our younger OLs and DBs…where we must sure up between now and next August.
This team has won 9 games this season, including two absolutely dominating wins over UNC-CH and N.C. State which this staff should be able to parlay into some great recruiting coups (if I were this staff, I would have the media group cut-up these two games into a high-class, glitzy film for recruits to watch). This team has the aforementioned goals left this season. And, this team has a ton of talent coming back to open up its first season in the AAC…starting with the offense and a guy who really should be on the early Heisman watch list in QB Shane Carden – he deserves that on merit. The offense returns a guy who should be a pre-season All-America WR in Justin Hardy who will lead a slew of talented WRs (e.g., rising super sophs Davon Grayson and Isaiah Jones, mismatch TE Bryce Williams, the prodigal son Jabril Solomon, physical Cam Worthy, up and coming DaQuan Barnes and Jimmy Williams and others in the wings), a rising senior running back who has logged some reps and shown some promise in Breon Allen and three OLs who are experienced now at center and the tackles positions – there is much to build on.
Likewise on the defensive side of the ball, we return a ton of talent in an already tough, nationally rated front seven with one starting DE returning and two starter quality NTs back, three starters back at linebacker (I am counting Montese Overton as a starter quality OLB) and depth there too. We do lose 3 of 4 starters in the secondary, but fortunately, it is Coach Rick Smith’s forte and I think he will have better talent in the back when it is all said and done (e.g., I expect DaShawn Benton to be a stud next season).
Our biggest loss (maybe other than Derrell Johnson) is probably punter/holder Trent Tignor…who I think is NFL caliber and hope he gets a chance…we are going to miss him a ton (between booming field flipping kicks and probably the best I-20 kicker we have had in a long, long time here.).
I believe this staff has assembled enough talent to hit the ground running in the AAC and I think that we are – despite losing the East Division – in a unique position to recruit this season with the wins over our in-state ACC rivals, with another winning season, with BOTH an Offense and Defense with gaudy national rankings and finally, with a culture that is at least putting away the teams we should beat. We rolled through these teams in a fashion I have not seen ECU do…ever. Sure, who wouldn’t want Tulane and Virginia Tech back…two games we could have won…easily…but, let’s not forget that they are both bowl bound, pretty darn good teams.
Which brings us back to Marshall…the only team on our schedule who walked the dog on us from start to finish…no doubt about the outcome of that game after the opening whistle blew. Did the kids play tight? Looked that way to me. Did Marshall look bigger, stronger, and faster? On Friday they did. But, what I saw was not necessarily a team that wasn’t prepared or focused, what I saw, IMO, was a team that prepared wrongly. This is important, IMO, because it has been a long time since we had an ECU team with as much talent and ability as any team on its schedule. But, we lost because we had the wrong game plan in place. Our kids – minus some bad bounces – executed the game plan against Marshall. Unfortunately, Marshall’s game plan was better and they executed their’s as well.
Look, in the run up to the Marshall game, everyone I know (see my pre-game post), expected Marshall to walk up and press up on our WRs. It just makes sense…beat up our receivers on the line of scrimmage and force our offense to go to mid-range and deep-passes as the first choice rather than our dink and dunk method. Marshall bet that their DLs could get enough pressure to allow their DBs to focus on the coverage for the first few strides of the route. Well…that is what they did and it worked, like many folks who talked about it before the game. Further, where Marshall took advantage of the slot combination of Gator Hoskins and Tommy Shuler, we seldom did the same by putting Bryce Williams and Justin Hardy on the field together working out of the slot and putting their safeties and LBs in a big bind.
We stuck to trying to run first and our short passing game and we lost on that bet. Defensively, we insisted on giving Marshall’s WRs a huge cushion and Rakeem Cato killed us on it…like everyone they have faced this season who has done that. Why we didn’t do the same thing they did is a mystery to me considering we play against our own offense in practice and know that is necessary to stop us. Our game plan didn’t address this.
Were there an amazing amount of holding by their DBs and OLs? I have to admit that I have never seen a game with as much holding as that one on Friday…however, the officials established that they were not going to call that early and would have allowed our kids to do the same…but we didn’t. Again game plan.
Why all the game plan bashing? Not to run down our staff…actually, quite the opposite. I am thrilled that a game plan could make such a difference. For so many years, I have watched ECU’s kids fail to execute anything resembling a game plan. It was nice to see that the talent level at ECU is such that our game plans could make a difference in how our team actually fares in a game. Coaches thought we had the right plan in place. Aside from special teams coverage units, our kids pretty much executed the game plan (ugly as it was). Hindsight says…wrong game plans.
Was the execution perfect? No, but our kids ran into a Marshall team that wanted it more than us. I think our kids fought hard, but those Marshall kids played like their entire future relied on this game’s outcome. They deserve it. Our kids, on the other hand, hopefully learned something that will benefit them in the bowl game and beyond into the AAC…the game you are playing is ALWAYS the most important game of the season.
In all, it is hard to say that this program is trending any way but up. I expect our kids to bring it for the bowl game and to play it like it is a super bowl…our super bowl this year. I expect the coaches will be putting in the hardest month of coaching that they have in their time in Greenville. I expect that the kids on this team are still smarting from Friday and will be all the way up to the bowl game and will be an angry team when the kick off whistle blows. And, we need this bowl game more than we even needed another CUSA Title.
Everyone needs a good ass-kicking once or twice in their lives…I’m betting ours was in Huntington last Friday and that it will ensure our kids are dishing out more than they are taking next time out on the field.