The rows and rows of empty seats in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on a Saturday afternoon in October, a time when fans typically flock by the tens of thousands to Greenville, paints a dismal picture of just how far ECU’s football program has fallen.
Midway through Scottie Montgomery’s second year as head coach, anger and frustration among the most faithful Pirate fans have turned to apathy — perhaps the worst enemy of any program. Montgomery arrived last year after the firing of Ruffin McNeill, a move by Director of Athletics Jeff Compher that was divisive and unpopular among some in the fan base. The former Duke wide receiver and assistant coach introduced himself with confidence and bravado, leading his new team on the field for his first two home games — victories over Western Carolina and rival NC State. Since then, he has won just two of 16 games with both wins coming against UConn.
Saturday seemingly presented a prime chance for a victory against a Temple team that ranked last in the American Athletic Conference in nearly every offensive category, including points per game at just 16.2. But an ECU defense that also ranks last in the league in points allowed (50.6) and total yards allowed (614.8) was just what the Owls needed to take flight.
Temple racked up season highs in points (34), rushing yards (179), passing yards (344) and total yards (523) in demoralizing the Pirates 34-10. Only the clock prevented the margin from being more — the Owls ended the game at the ECU 4.
“I think it could have been a bigger score, but out of respect we just ran out the clock,” Temple first-year head coach Geoff Collins.
Only a smattering of ECU fans remained at that point. Only a few showed up at the start for that matter.
Saturday’s AAC game shaped up as the perfect storm for a light turnout — a noon start, students on fall break, two struggling teams with no natural rivalry and a morning rain shower. Multiple sections throughout the stadium were completely bare except for aluminum bleachers. Others had just a few loyal fans.
The promoted “black out” became a hold-out by Pirate fans. The announced attendance of 31,326 represented tickets sold. The actual turnout may have been about half that number.
The “Boneyard” that encloses one end zone was empty except for the ECU band and dance team.
During the fourth quarter, T-shirts tossed in the stands found few awaiting hands. There was no fight for possession; just walk down or over a few rows and pick it up. The only thing sadder would have been if fans would have left the shirts there — or picked them up and threw them back.
They could not have been blamed after ECU’s performance. The Pirates faltered in nearly every area it takes to win games.
After posting its first first-quarter shutout this year and leading 3-0, the Pirates gave up 24 points in the second quarter — they have now been outscored 85-20 in the second quarter this season. They once again could not generate a running game, netting 34 yards on 22 carries. Quarterback Thomas Sirk, effective as a runner last week against South Florida, was sacked four times and hurried nine more times, losing 14 yards on nine carries.
Temple recorded eight tackles for loss; the Pirates had just one and rarely pressured quarterback Logan Marchi.
For the second straight game, third down doomed the Pirates’ defense. South Florida converted 10 of 17 third downs. Temple converted 14 of 20 third downs and was 1-of-1 on fourth down. ECU converted just three of 14 third downs.
The Pirates also drew eight penalties for the fourth time this season, including three dead-ball penalties that tacked on yardage and aided Temple drives.
Montgomery pointed to discipline as the culprit. “This is probably the most heartbreaking one we have had because our penalty discipline,” he said. “Something that I have tried to bring to this program is discipline, and today we had zero penalty discipline.”
The Pirates have six more chances this year to change that — half of them in Dowdy-Ficklen. Without an abrupt change they will be playing before more empty seats.