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SUMMERS: Slow start could have ECU in critical condition

East Carolina West Virginia Football-2

West Virginia offensive lineman Colton McKivitz (53) and wide receiver Marcus Simms (8) celebrate with running back Justin Crawford (25) after he ran the ball for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Monday, September 11, 2017

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The West Virginia University medical center complex stands immediately behind Milan Puskar Stadium, and the East Carolina football team probably should have been taken across the parking lot and admitted to have its vital signs checked on Saturday evening.

The Pirates got plastered by WVU, 56-20, in a manner that could prove fatal if not treated immediately, though head coach Scottie Montgomery made one sizable change as soon as the Pirates landed back in Greenville on Sunday. Time will quickly tell if it was enough, but it only addresses one side of the ball.

A game that required ECU's full attention to detail and probably some unexpected athletic heroics on top of that instead ended with the Pirates reeling again.

A heavy underdog since ECU lost its opener to James Madison last week, the visitors were on the receiving end of another offensive onslaught, trailing by an all-time high 49-3 at halftime before waking up, sort of, in the second half.

That bit of unpleasant history cost defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson his job on Sunday, as Montgomery opted to replace him with defensive line coach Robert Prunty, who now adopts the same set of problems his predecessor could not solve.

Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier was surgical on Saturday, slicing the ECU defense for five touchdown passes, including precision scoring strikes of 52 and 75 yards against Pirate pass coverage that was over and out in the first two quarters.

WVU scored the first of its staggering seven touchdowns in the opening half a little more than two minutes into the game and put on a clinic until the intermission. The Pirates offered a promising opening drive behind quarterback Thomas Sirk, tailback Tyshon Dye and lead receiver Jimmy Williams, but they disappeared after that, and when they came to life again, the game was only still a game because the clock said so.

Their strong second-half sequences included the longest pass play in school history on Trevon Brown's 95-yard catch and dash to the end zone from backup QB Gardner Minshew, a glimpse into what maybe still could be but which has already suffered considerable damage.

Slow starts have been a big part of the problem but not all of it.

This game was over so fast that a good deal of the crowd for the home opener in Morgantown – not exactly a metropolis – was seeking more entertaining ways to spend a Saturday following halftime.

ECU's win-loss record will be front and center for the rest of the season, and with games coming against No. 16 Virginia Tech this week and South Florida next on the unforgiving docket, it's becoming tougher to imagine who this team can beat.

The Pirates have been outscored 90-34 in two games. The bigger factor is them getting trounced 56-3 in the combined first halves of those games.

It is not impossible that a rebound can occur if the real problems are identified, and maybe the process began in earnest with Sunday's change. Even with considerable lineup adjustments in Morgantown, however, the slow start and poor execution were identical to opening night against JMU.

One danger in this forgettable beginning comes in the inevitable search for a silver lining. Although ECU most certainly could benefit from finding some useful positives, scoring two touchdowns in the second half of a massacre like this is not one of them.

Anyone paying attention was aware that plenty of WVU's starters had long since been lounging on the bench by the late minutes of the fourth quarter, and the ones still on the field had every reason to assume this win was in the books because it very clearly was.

Being down 46 points in a sporting event is generally inconceivable and in this case, it had the already sizable pregame point spread nearly doubled.

There is no shame in not quitting, and ECU certainly did not. The Pirates will have to keep that notion in mind these next several weeks. Second-half success, however, did little to lessen the relentless blows they took to get to that point.

To keep playing is admirable. To start playing at the opening kickoff and not stop for 60 minutes is required.

If that doesn't happen soon, ECU football is in critical condition.

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

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