A year ago, ECU opened the season hosting a highly regarded and defending FCS champion James Madison University (JMU) team and were completely demolished by the visitors. JMU rolled up more than 400 yards rushing and 600 yards of total offense in a 34-14 win that wasn’t even as close as the score.
The Pirates not only couldn’t stop JMU, but the offense turned the ball over 4 times. It was bad and set the tone for a miserable season.
FCS ranked #14 N.C. A&T (1-0) comes into this first-ever clash between A&T and ECU having stolen a win over FCS-ranked #6 Jacksonville State (0-1) in a game where JSU shutdown the Aggies run game and rolled up 403 total yards to just 148 yards of total O for A&T yet, thanks to a special teams score and 4 JSU turnovers, the last coming with 17 seconds left in the game and JMU in the red zone.
See the vid: A&T ekes out the win against JSU:
The similarities to James Madison in 2017 may end for A&T at being FCS-ranked. Otherwise, A&T did not look like the better team in their win, but this is a team that at least at the FCS level is considered a contender for the national championship so expectations should be tempered for the Pirates. A&T will clean up there issues while the Pirates will be under immense pressure to show that they have improved. And…A&T will not have one ounce of fear of the Pirates.
The Pirates are in a predicament in regards to this game inasmuch as anything short of a dominant win over the Aggies not only may leave the fan base dissatisfied, but may also portend to some serious worries going forward.
For a team desperate to just win a game to start the season, that level of pressure may be unfair, but IMO, if ECU cannot overwhelm A&T, then we all need to reconsider whether or not there will be any kind of turnaround this season.
The good news is that defensively, the Pirates have an opportunity to show how much new DC David Blackwell’s schemes may work going forward. The Aggies struggled immensely to run the ball against a good JSU team and really also struggled to pass the ball. In short the Aggies offense was not very good. If our defense struggles to contain the Aggies, forget about the UNC game or some sort of upset against the Hokies. Forget being competitive in the AAC.
The Pirates need a dominant showing. Period.
If Coach Montgomery is to carry any credibility going forward, his team has to back up his commentary at pressers and in interviews that the team has improved, that there is more talent across the board. That they are mentally and physically tougher. If the coaching staff is wiser, then there is no reason at all that ECU shouldn’t roll on Saturday.
For two seasons, Coach Mo has indicated bewilderment that the team he sees weekly in practice simply doesn’t show up on weekends. To Coach Mo’s credit, he alluded to this in his presser this week calling it the last box to check for this team in terms of readiness to step up to another level. Coach is owning this which is a good sign. The difference this season is that these players are largely his. This system is definitely his. And he has indicated that this has been a focus for eight months.
WILL THIS WEEKEND BE ANY DIFFERENT?
I have harped on this one point offensively…in Reid Herring (and in the other two QBs) we have an ECU program-grown quarterback for the first time since Shane Carden graduated. No transfer will be manning the wheel. This is a huge factor for ECU and historically has proven to be the only way to fly for the Pirates.
Herring couldn’t ask for a better game to open his career. He has the ability…he does. You can see it. Over time, it won’t matter much if the opponent is A&T or Alabama. He will make the passes and take what the defense gives the Pirates. For him, IMO, it will come down to confidence and game-speed adjustment so a game like this one, where he should see open receivers, should provide a boost to him. He can feel good about what he does well and take it up a notch in the following week. I expect him to produce in the passing game akin to what we see in the past home-grown QBs…big yardage, a few TDs, and an offense that can score quickly and in bunches.
I like the decision to go with the senior at running back. Anthony Scott has big play skills and should carry into this game a combination of thankfulness that he was able to get back to the program and ascend the depth chart and he should be carrying a colossal chip on his shoulder. The results could be staggering for a back like him who is equally dangerous in both the run and pass game. I know…I can literally hear Pirate Nation in unison saying, “if…” Yes, he needs to protect the football. If he again cannot do that…it will be the end of his opportunity. I like his chances to deliver.
Trevon Brown and crew should have a field day on Saturday…they really should. They will likely not see as much open space the rest of the season as they will this weekend.
It comes down to the Offensive Line. Coach Mo underscored the play of A&T’s all-MEAC defensive end Darryl Johnson. He is a legit pass rusher and will give our tackles a real workout. But, if he runs roughshod over our tackles…again, we are in bigger trouble then we all already worry about heading into the season. I trust Coach Mo when he indicated that the Aggies can play D, but from the JSU game…they were a virtual sieve.
Flipping to the Aggies O, Coach Mo indicated that he is very worried about their veteran quarterback Lamar Raynard, who is a 5th year senior and a big athlete. He did throw for a pair of TDs against JSU, but the whole Aggies O struggled to move the ball against a stout, David Blackwell-built JMU defense. Still, Raynard can do considerable damage to the Pirates if given time and he has a true rapport with senior WR Marquell Cartwright. Raynard and Cartwright have been a pitch-and-catch tandem since growing up and playing together in Little League football in Highpoint, NC. Cartwright is where the ball will be going more times than not.
See the video: Raynard looks impressive in his junior season highlights: Click Here.
However, his performance against JSU revealed that he can be contained. The bigger question is, is JSU’s defense simply better than ours. If we have better athletes and more depth, then our defense should be able to control A&T. But that is a big question. Our defense was dead last a year ago and would probably have been middle of the pack if we were an FCS team, so we may see a much better version of the Aggies O this weekend.
WHAT MIGHT SATURDAY LOOK LIKE FOR THE PIRATES?
OK. Here is the deal with this predictive section of this post. We were so awful last season, I am really having a hard time trying to be positive and realistic at the same time. I am not convinced that ECU’s players have made a monumental turnaround, particularly on defense. I DO have immense faith in our new DC and his defensive coaching, but we were soooo bad. Still, going to approach game 1 here as if everything we have heard out of the program for the past eight months is true and accurate. So, here goes.
I don’t think we will see a JMU-like game this weekend. We will make mistakes. I expect to see a share of offensive line flags some of which can really kill momentum. I expect to see some mistakes in alignment and assignment early in the game. But, I also expect to see more discipline in terms of execution on both sides of the ball.
I think Herring and crew will be very good on the scripted part of the opening drive(s) and that the passing game will look pretty good throughout the day. I do not expect the running game to be anything special, but serviceable will be a good start. Not for lack of skill at the running back position, but rather, because the offensive line is going to be a work in progress – I fear – all season, so for a first game, if the passing phase is clean and consistent, then it will be a good day for the Pirates. Running game teeing off? That would be a HUGE start for the team, offensively.
Defensively, I think we look more fundamentally sound. However, confidence will likely be fragile early on and if A&T drives on its first possession or gets a quick score, we are at risk for defensive collapse. Hopefully, the defense has truly transformed, but when you were that bad a year ago, very little is needed to chink up the armor. I look for the defense to focus on fundamentals all day. If we see a turnover or two generated, then the overall day will be a good one for the Pirates. Also expect to see adjustments being made throughout. If we don’t see adjustments, then we are either dominating or we are in for another long season defensively.
The Pirates should win this game solidly if not spectacularly. The offense will need to put up big numbers though as the defense may be a bit of a roller coaster in this one.
Love to hear your thoughts on this game.