Last week, when I assessed the SMU game, I was focused on the need for ECU to win with style (read: blowout win showcasing complete dominance over an 0-4 and offensively-challenged competitor). The premise was that with the name-brand portion of the schedule behind us and a Top-25 ranking, the judgment of our Pirates will become more and more scrutinized. As a non-autonomous 5 team, the voters and playoff committee are not looking to see how good we are, but rather, on what basis they can exclude the Pirates from the rankings and from the major bowls. In other words, we should be prepared for hearing the term “bad win.”
On Saturday, out of context, it would appear that ECU had a “bad win.” A struggling SMU team, using its 4th string walk-on QB behind an offensive line with two-young players making their college debuts, comes into the 22nd ranked team’s house and rolls up almost 400 yards of offense and scores twice as many points on us as they have their entire schedule to-date. The Pirates, 44 point favorites, finish with a 21 point win (that was 11 points in the fourth quarter). This is fodder for a conversation that will point out that we have not beaten a quality opponent yet and struggled with one of the worst (at least statistically) teams in the nation.
However, this was my view BEFORE witnessing a college football weekend that could have been called “Survivor Week” in the Top 25. Eleven ranked teams took it on the chin this weekend, shaking up everyone’s notion of which are the best teams out there.
TODAY, I see Saturday’s victory in a completely different context.
The Pirates did what 11 other ranked teams could NOT do this past weekend: Survivor.
Survival – if you want to call a 21-point win in a game where the Pirates never trailed surviving – was priority No. 1 for the weekend in to that point, ECU did so with room to spare. Priority No. 2, IMO, was to show the pundits that the offense continues to truck along without hesitation and with great confidence regardless of the competition or the scenario. Check on this one, as well.
A few “contextual” tidbits:
1. As bad as SMU has been this season and as beat up as their line was for the game on Saturday, it is worth noting that their 0-4 mark has come against one of the most brutal schedules in college football. Including the Pirates, SMU has tangled with four Top-25 teams so far, losing by huge margins to Baylor, Texas A&M, and TCU…all currently in the mix for playoff contention.
2. There is no way around the fact that ECU’s OOC schedule took a toll on our team, more emotionally, probably, then physically. We do not know if SMU was a let-down (the dreaded potential WTF game), but we do know that the kids probably needed the bye week to refuel emotionally, but tactically may not have been as sharp as they have been through the first 4 games.
3. I also suspect – could be very wrong here – that preparation while mainly focused on SMU, may have suffered as thoughts drifted toward a road game at USF, which no doubt would be seen as a greater candidate for the annual WTF game. And, clearly, it looked as if defensively, we did prepare for the other SMU QB…the transfer from Texas A&M who is a significantly better running threat.
4. Finally, after playing in the intense environments at USC, Virginia Tech and at home for UNC-CH…there had to be a bit of a letdown playing in a less amped up setting on Saturday.
Whatever the reason, we got less “style” points, defensively, but also survived to move to 4-1 and 1-0 in the AAC. More importantly, we were again rewarded in the AP poll moving up 4 spots. So, the path is clear…win and you move up. Win big, and you move up faster.
As for the game itself this past Saturday, there should be some concern about the defense. It seemed like we geared up to stop the run – and obviously did so effectively – but also appeared to play to protect the lead…giving them long drives and TOP rather than tightening up on their trips receivers and forcing the walk-on QB to have to think an extra second before unloading the ball. They were triple-teaming Terry Williams, so you have to think that just an additional second of holding the ball would have allowed us to really pound that QB. Instead, we gave him the quick passes and he carved us up AND ate up the clock in doing so. Otherwise, the way the offense was running, we were heading toward 50+ points if we could just have had a couple of more possessions.
Maybe it was by design. Get the win. Move on. No need for style points at all. But, it is concerning at least to me that an SMU offense that had been anemic to-date AND starting a walk-on QB AND with two newbie O linemen could put up almost 400 yards of offense and 24 points on our defense.
Now, in fairness to the D, it cannot go without being written here, that had the secondary come up with even 1 or 2 more INTs out of the dozen real opportunities that they created, the score may have been in line with expectations. For whatever reason, our kids couldn’t seem to hold on to the ball and if not that, couldn’t get out of the way for their teammates to come up with the ball.
The question, I guess, now is this: Was this SMU game the potential WTF game and our kids just trumped it? Or, does the annual kick in the gut come elsewhere? In South Florida? At Temple? At Tulsa? Remains to be seen, though I do feel like there is a special quality to these kids. Hopefully, the D is irritated by this game and ready to prove that they are not a middle-of-the-road D. With the speed and athleticism on this unit, I am guessing that they will be bringing it down in South Florida this week. The South Florida offense is not good. They are pretty bad (95th rushing, 117th passing, 113th scoring) but the guess is that they are more comfortable trying to run the football, though, given SMU’s success I wouldn’t be surprised if Coach Willie Taggart isn’t installing a ton of passing packages this week.
If they go the pass first route, then our D will have the chance at redemption – or will set us up for a tougher game than it should be. If they try to run at us, it should set up nicely for the D to do what it does best – stuff the run. Let’s hope for the latter.
The rest comes down to ECU’s ability to play as the favorite. This is the first test on the road as a ranked team against a team who will treat this like its proverbial Super Bowl (I know…hate the term too), playing with nothing to lose. Our team will have to be able to carry that 19th ranking into a hostile area, take the opponents best shot, and be able to come out as if it was a business trip, nothing more and nothing less if we hope to keep on schedule and build on the media love for the team.
Expect trick plays, fourth down attempts, and plenty of defensive gambling on the Bulls part. The O will need to be sharp and not fall into lulls (ala Virginia Tech) in order to come out with a solid win. The Bulls play better pass defense then run defense so the matchup is better for them, but overall, the ECU O should be able to do what it does this defense. The formula, IMO, is the typical ECU MO: Score fast and early. If the Pirates get up – as they have in several games – by two scores early, it will very hard for USF to win. But, if we let USF match us or gaff our way into a trailing position early, it can give rise to an upset minded set of good athletes…and no one wants that.