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Summers: High standards weigh on rebuilding Pirates

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Ke'Mon Freeman runs past a host of ECU defenders during the second half at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C. on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016.

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Monday, November 14, 2016

Just like that, everything was going the wrong way, and there was no catching it.

Early in East Carolina's opening game of the college football season, quarterback Philip Nelson threw a pass to running back Anthony Scott near the front end zone pylon, a quick 5-yard screen against Western Carolina for a touchdown in the second quarter.

On that summer night in an eventual 52-7 ECU win, Nelson and the Pirates got away with the throw that was almost too casual for comfort with a defender breaking on the ball a shade too late.

By Saturday afternoon, with the air inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium far closer to winter in its bite despite bright sunny skies, there was no more getting away with it.

With the Pirates driving inside SMU territory and needing a score, trailing 24-17 in the second quarter in a game they had to win in order to keep their bowl hopes afloat, Nelson tossed a similar-looking ball toward Quay Johnson on the right flank.

SMU cornerback Horace Richardson was all over it. As the ball neared Johnson, Richardson took flight, grabbing the ball and speeding off the other way for a 70-yard touchdown and a 31-17 SMU lead that eventually became a 55-31 Mustangs win. He took the Pirates' bowl hopes and their football season with him to the west end zone.

Such throws were not the only undoing this season for ECU, which has only pride, a few remarkable seniors and next season for which to compete with two games remaining. Beyond that, East Carolina football is left to play out the string in one of its worst seasons of the 2000s.

Ten games gone, fan apathy is deepening, attendance is thinning with just one home date left, and Saturday's pair of game-changing pick-6s were just the most recent gaffes in a long season.

There also were a few seasons' worth of fumbles — the Pirates lost the handle four times and gave away possession twice on them against the Mustangs alone — to go along with a slew of penalties and inconsistent special teams and red zone play, though the latter two phases have shown rapid improvement.

There also were errors in the defensive secondary that were compounded by ECU's lack of quarterback pressure up front.

But oh, those turnovers.

From South Carolina to Cincinnati and back home again, they have been an almost-constant undertone, following the Pirates everywhere they have gone and tripping them up along the way.

But amid the at-times colossal errors on the field and the piling losses, first-year coach Scottie Montgomery has not fumbled. His Pirates now have seven setbacks and just three wins with American Athletic Conference juggernaut Navy coming to town this weekend and a difficult trip to Philadelphia to play Temple in the Pirates' now-certain season finale.

The coach's steadfast approach included saying on Saturday evening that although big changes could be in store for the team's final games, he will not turn his back on his seniors in the interests of the future. He said he would not cheat players like receiver Zay Jones, who will almost certainly become the NCAA's all-time leading pass-catcher this Saturday, out of two more chances to win.

As his first graduating class now settles in for its two-game farewell, it has become clear another year of recruits, at least, will be needed to measure Montgomery's true worth as a head coach as he faces a difficult turnaround.

Brought on board under the premise of a win-or-else approach by Director of Athletics Jeff Compher, however, Montgomery might not get more time than that to turn losses into wins.

That can only be presumed, as it can, that all 14 ECU head coaches across 20 sports will be held to the same difficult standard after the firing of former ECU football coach Ruffin McNeill. He was shown the door after five wins last season, eight in 2014 and 10 in 2013 were deemed not enough progress.

This season, four football wins will be a tough enough task, let alone living up to the standard of winning immediately and consistently. The turnover-troubled Pirates were picked to finish near the bottom of the American this season, and that is where they have landed.

The clock is ticking to find a way out.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 or follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.

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