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SUMMERS: Loss sheds ugly light on ECU

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Virginia Tech wide receiver Cam Phillips makes a catch past the coverage of East Carolina defensive back Corey Seargent on Saturday in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

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By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Monday, September 18, 2017

There was a buzz in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium early Saturday evening.

A few thousand people, maybe, were straggled across the concrete-and metal-colored grandstands in the football home of East Carolina – or is it only ECU now, or maybe #ECU?

The stadium's bells and whistles (and promotions) were still in game day mode, the video screen still asking for noise on third downs for the visiting team. Music still pumped and thumped through the speakers during each break in the lingering action.

The few people still in attendance, however, the ones who still could see a scoreboard that said Virginia Tech 64, ECU 17, were as disinterested as the players on the field by then.

The home team that quietly exited after getting smashed for 675 yards and which did not register a point after the 2:34 mark of the first quarter walked through an uncomfortable ghost town on its way to a locker room undoubtedly awash in frustration and confusion.

The real danger now is apathy, both inside that locker room and out.

Not since 1957 had the Pirates sat in their team room amid the fallout of a more substantial home defeat. They are 0-3 for the first time in 13 years, and the snapshot of Pirate football with about 5 minutes to play in the fourth quarter Saturday was ugly.

The buzz in the stadium? It was the lights that must have blinked on around sundown, about the same time ECU had given up 57 unanswered points to the No. 16 Hokies.

One fan shouted “Good job, Pirates!” repeatedly from nearby seats as the team limped off the field – now having surrendered 154 points and nearly 2,000 yards in three games – and it was difficult to determine if it was a show of support or sarcasm. Maybe the fan didn't know which it was either.

Second-year head coach Scottie Montgomery took the most obvious course of action after being bludgeoned by West Virginia two games ago. He dropped the ax on defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson and put line coach Robert Prunty in charge.

Not surprisingly, a week later the exact same defense was giving up yards in chunks, either when ECU defensive backs routinely gave gulfs of space to Tech receiver Cam Phillips or when they never even saw the football on plays until it was already over their heads and in the hands of a Hokie.

On offense, ECU had their house rocking in the first quarter when Gardner Minshew sent a javelin toss to Trevon Brown, who speared through two defenders and rocketed to the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown and an ill-fated 17-7 lead.

ECU didn't make a peep the rest of the night, bottled quickly and permanently by veteran VT coordinator Bud Foster.

The big moments and big cheers have been few and far between, and they are far from enough to hide the empty seats and the growing disinterest in the product being advertised. If that sudden blasé feeling about ECU football reaches the prized recruits who are also watching and also are reading the continued bad national press for the Pirates this season, the problem and the solution become the long-term variety.

Behind all the high-energy scoreboard advertising and dollar-collecting drives apparent in and around ECU athletics is a developing losing problem, and there is no strategy to fix that problem other than a better on-field strategy.

This buzz is different than the one depicted by the little computer-generated people in the school's scoreboard video showing what Dowdy-Ficklen will look like after its proposed $55 million-plus facelift. Too bad there is no way to fill all the empty seats now with excited CG fans, or maybe pipe in crowd noise the way the team does in practice before road games in louder, fuller stadiums.

This problem can't be hidden no matter how much other buzz can be created about peripheral things or about investing in the future. When football teams lose, universities lose.

For a third straight week, the ECU football team that has made it a business strategy to pull out all the stops in order to sell itself to the big stage of college sports was left scurrying for the shadows when the lights turned on.

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

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