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Special teams woes costly again

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ECU coach Scottie Montgomery disputes a call with an official during the first half at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C. on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.

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By Ronnie Woodward
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Special teams played a big part in another East Carolina football game, this time a 47-29 home loss Saturday to Central Florida in the American Athletic Conference opener for both teams led by first-year head coaches.

It was UCF’s first AAC win since a last-second Hail Mary at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium shocked the Pirates to end the 2014 regular season.

This time, some early special teams blunders by ECU led to a more decisive win by UCF (3-2, 1-0), and continued a theme of special teams being worrisome for the 2-3 Pirates.

East Carolina missed its lone field goal attempt — a 31-yarder that curved wide left by freshman Jake Verity, who was starting over struggling senior Davis Plowman — and the Knights got a momentum boost with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown directly after an ECU TD early in the second quarter. Plays in the punt game also favored the visitors, and they executed squib kickoffs better than ECU.

UCF, a three-point underdog, led 16-7 at halftime despite punts on six of its nine drives. The Knights also had a turnover on downs with the game scoreless.

“We had some chances to make plays, but turnovers once again and special teams was just the undoing of our football team,” ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said. “We really work on (special teams) and a lot of people know that, but the kickoff return after being able to score and get a good feel for what they were doing on defense, that was really hard for our football team.”

The Pirates held a 265-121 advantage in yards gained in the first half, but the big play was UCF’s 100-yard kickoff return, which was the first time East Carolina allowed a kickoff return TD since 2012 against the Knights.

Verity made all three of his extra points, but his field goal miss made ECU 2-of-5 in its last five attempts.

There was also a key sequence late in the second quarter that played out in a painfully similar way to last week’s struggles for the Pirates at Virginia Tech when blocked punts and kicks helped the Hokies to a blowout win.

UCF’s first lead was set up in part by a 70-yard, rugby-style punt by Caleb Houston to pin the Pirates at their own 2-yard line with the game tied 7-7. Running back Devin Anderson was stuffed in the end zone on the next play for a safety, making it 9-7 Knights with 4:18 until halftime.

Things got worse for East Carolina when the free kick punt by Worth Gregory went out of bounds, giving UCF the ball at the 50. Three plays later, a 35-yard touchdown run pushed the Knights’ edge to 16-7 and they never looked back.

“We just have to continue going, but what is happening is we’re pulling on those defensive starters and some of our defensive players and offensive players (to play special teams), and you are starting to see us come off the field slowly on defense,” Montgomery said. “There’s guys laying on the ground and some bangs here and bangs there. Our young guys and our starters together, collectively we have to fix that problem.”

ECU led 7-0 after a Philip Nelson touchdown pass to Deondre Farrier early in the second period, but the Knights took the ensuing kickoff to the end zone to even the score for the final time. Running back Adrian Killins caught the ball three yards into his own end zone and darted upfield, running through a big seam as ECU starting linebackers Terrell Richardson and Cam White were trying to converge on the hole but were effectively blocked.

Killins then got inside a blocked DeShawn Benton with ease, leaving kicker Caleb Pratt as the only player to beat, and Killins bolted by him for a touchdown to quickly squash the home team’s momentum.

“Special teams can (produce) a play that can turn a whole game,” said linebacker Dayon Pratt, one of the starters who also plays on special teams. “So that kind of set us back, but then we had to come back harder. We just have to start out faster, and just execute and make tackles.”

Saturday’s game marked the first time UCF scored a touchdown on offense, defense and special teams since the 2010 season.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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