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Pirates’ defensive transformation becoming apparent

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Not even the most optimistic ECU football fan could have envisioned this defensive turnaround.

After possessing the worst defense in program history a season ago — a unit that gave up 45 points and 541 yards per game — the Pirates have been dominant at times under the direction of new defensive coordinator David Blackwell in the early stages of the team’s season. ECU currently sits with a pedestrian 1-2 record, but its defense has kept the team in a pair of close losses to North Carolina A&T and South Florida. The Pirates outgained their foes in each game, but a lack of offensive execution in crunch time left the team yearning for more.

Nonetheless, the numbers Blackwell’s defensive unit has put up speak for themselves. After ranking dead last in scoring and total defense nationally last season, the Pirates have limited opponents to 320 yards per game in 2018, good for a ranking of 24th nationally in yards allowed. ECU also hasn’t given up 30 points in any of its three games this year (the Pirates allowed 30-plus in 10 games last season, including their first seven).

Much of the personnel is the same, though the introduction of Blackwell’s attacking scheme, and his belief in the players and program as an ECU alum has made all the difference.

“You could just sense it since the day Coach Blackwell came in,” senior linebacker and defensive captain Cannon Gibbs said. “It was easy to see he knew what he was talking about and why he’d had so much success before. It didn’t take us long at all to believe in him and his message.”

Even after ECU shut out North Carolina in the second half and limited the Tar Heels to 14 rushing yards on 11 attempts after halftime in the 41-19 victory on Sept. 8 inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, many still thought USF would have its way with the Pirates’ defense. After all, the Bulls won 61-31 a season ago and possessed one of the nation’s most balanced and prolific defensive attacks.

Instead, ECU got after one of the AAC’s top offenses, limiting the undefeated Bulls to a season-low 296 yards of total offense and sacking the quarterback six times in the process. The Pirates forced eight three-and-outs in this past Saturday’s 20-13 loss.

“Our coordinators, our defensive kids are not going to say it because they’re such good people, but our offensive guys will praise them,” head coach Scottie Montgomery said after the game. “That was one of the best defensive performances I’ve been a part of. Not just here. Period.”

Even with the success, Blackwell and his staff are far from satisfied. South Florida was bottled up for much of the game, but hit backbreaking scoring plays of 66 and 80 to accumulate much of their yardage and turn the tide of the game.

“As a coach, you always tend to focus on the negative. If you look at us defensively, there were four plays in that game that kept us from pitching a shutout, and they were all us,” said Blackwell, who came over this past offseason from Jacksonville State. “Am I pleased with the progress? I think you have to be. We’re definitely playing hard. That’s easy to see and we’re definitely playing with confidence. There’s a lot of really positive things. But we talk all the time about 2-0 or 50-49, a win is what’s most important.”

HERRING NURSING ANKLE INJURY

The Pirates have been using true freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers in specialized packages to take advantage of his unique skill-set in recent weeks, and there’s a chance another young quarterback could see the field this weekend versus Old Dominion.

Ahlers and redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi split the first-team reps on Tuesday when starting quarterback Reid Herring missed practice due to an ankle injury. Herring went down with the injury at the end of the first half against USF and even though he was able to fight through pain in the second half, he never looked quite like himself. The sophomore finished the game 21 of 48 for 253 yards with no touchdowns and one pick.

Despite Ahlers having more playing time, Ifedi is listed as the team’s primary backup. Montgomery has said he’s comfortable with all three quarterbacks playing, but the Pirates seem to trust Ifedi in a full game management role more over Ahlers due to his youth, for now.

“We’re trying to bring Holton along as fast as we can,” Montgomery said. “We feel like Kingsley is in a good spot. They did a good job (Tuesday). I was really, really happy with the way they went through the day, especially with it being the first day of install.”

Herring did return to practice as expected on Wednesday, but he had his ankle heavily iced as he exited the field. If healthy, Herring will get the start Saturday against Old Dominion, but Montgomery guaranteed at least one other quarterback would see the field, too.

“(Reid) looked great today. I don’t know if he’s 100 percent because we didn’t run him on many quarterback runs today,” Montgomery said. “We did move the pocket, he did a lot of things well. I still would expect to see another quarterback in the game at certain times.”

MONARCHS COMING OFF HISTORIC WIN

The narrative of a potential easy win for East Carolina’s football team against Old Dominion from a few weeks ago changed dramatically this past weekend when the 0-3 Monarchs shocked No. 13 Virginia Tech.

Hosting the Hokies in their home on-campus stadium for the first time in program history, ODU put up a historical performance as former walk-on and backup quarterback Blake LaRussa came off the bench to throw for a school FBS record 495 yards and four touchdowns in the upset victory.

Old Dominion was a four-touchdown underdog heading into the game after losing to Liberty, Florida International and Charlotte to open the season. But Montgomery knows the Pirates definitely won’t be taking the Monarchs lightly after what just transpired.

“We’re hungry, we’re not in a position right now to look at names on shirts and all of that,” Montgomery said. “We know that challenge is ahead of us. We’re really, really excited about this game. But it’s about us right now. We’ve got to go practice hard, which we’ve always done. We’ve got to play better.”

Kickoff on Saturday is set for 3:30 p.m. The game will be shown online on ESPN3.

Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.

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