For the first time in quite a while, ECU football and fun came together on the same day in Greenville.
Winning has a way of doing that, transforming those glum faces and grumblings into smiles and optimism. But perhaps more than Saturday’s 33-17 victory was everything that went into producing a 12th consecutive homecoming victory.
Forget that the victim was a BYU team that brought in a 1-6 record, one of the nation’s most feeble offenses and not enough team speed to compete with most FBS teams. Any victory at this point in Scottie Montgomery’s second year as head coach is to be celebrated.
Montgomery is now 5-15 with the Pirates. Before Saturday, his only two wins in a 17-game stretch came over UConn.
Blowout losses — margins of 20, 24, 30, 36 42 and 47 this year — and a defense that ranks last in the nation among 129 teams in total defense — have resulted in call-in show air time filled with disgruntled fans and attendance in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium plummeting to levels not seen since the miserable 3-20 John Thompson era in 2003-04.
With each loss, debate has escalated about giving Montgomery the boot, as well as the man who hired him, Director of Athletics Jeff Compher. A banner ready “Fire Jeff Compher, Go Pirates!” flying over the stadium on game days has only fueled the discussion, and a fan base that is part angry, part apathetic does not make a recipe for success.
All that changed for at least one Saturday. The banner traded out its plea to fire Compher for the “We Believe, Go Pirates!” motto from the Pirates’ magical 11-1 season in 1991. A 7 p.m.kickoff and ideal weather gave tailgaters plenty of time to enjoy pregame festivities, and the Elmhurst lot and 14th Street were filled with tents and the sounds and smells that make college football special.
On the field is where Saturday became the real prize. The Pirates showed emotion, fed off the energy of a respectable turnout (38,835) given the direction of the season, and played with confidence as they began to sense a victory.
Several individual performances were vital. With receivers Jimmy William and Deondre Farrier out, senior Davon Grayson and junior Trevon Brown became the primary targets. Grayson had 10 receptions for 164 yards for his third 100-yard receiving game of the year and also had one carry for 12 yards. Brown finished with three catches for 74 yards, including a 26-yarder from Garner Minshew in the fourth quarter to put ECU in control at 26-10.
Devin Anderson, who missed the first six games with a hamstring injury, had 45 yards on 12 carries, showing a burst of speed and determined running out of the backfield.
Minshew came on late in the third quarter after Thomas Sirk injured his right elbow and provided an immediate spark. His first pass covered 36 yards to Grayson, and he went on to finish 6 of 9 for 121 yards and two touchdowns.
Kicker Jake Verity also responded, booting four fields goals to tie a single-game school record.
But defense was the difference, albeit against a BYU team that ranked 128th out of 129 teams in total offense with 242.4 yards and 12 points per game. The Pirates came in giving up an average of 600.0 yards and limited the Cougars to just 215 through three quarters. In desperation mode to rally in the fourth quarter, Taylor Mangum completed 16 of 25 passes for 121 yards, and BYU finished with a total of 421.
Aaron Ramseur had a career-high 12 tackles, Devon Sutton tied a career high with 10, and Cannon Gibbs came up with a fourth-quarter interception that led to an ECU touchdown.
Critical as well was a season-low two penalties for 15 yards — the previous low was six, and the Pirates have been flagged at least eight in five games.
Those are many positives on which to build, and an open date gives players and fans alike two weeks to savor the long-lost feeling of a victory. After a Nov. 4 trip to Houston, there are a couple of realistic opportunities to pick up wins at home against Tulane (3-4) on Nov. 11 and Cincinnati (2-6) on Nov. 18.
And that would keep football and fun together as they should be.