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It wasn’t the prettiest win by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a victory that was needed in a major way.
The Pirates’ 41-38 triumph over UConn snapped a couple of lengthy streaks and took some pressure off the team’s shoulders. Not only did it end the possibility of a winless season — something that was being speculated about locally after the team was out-scored 154-51 over its first three losses — but it also snapped a seven-game losing streak for the program dating back to last season and marked second-year head coach Scottie Montgomery’s first road win at ECU.
Most importantly, the Pirates are now 1-0 in the American Athletic Conference, and an upset-minded team could turn its season entirely around with a win over No. 18 South Florida this coming Saturday at 12 noon inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“I think it’s definitely something to build off of, and it definitely sparked energy,” said quarterback Thomas Sirk, who threw for a career-best 426 yards in the win. “It’s something that can definitely build our confidence moving forward, playing South Florida on Saturday. It’s definitely going to help us moving forward, getting that first conference win and being up in the standings.”
But before the Pirates can even pretend to think about a victory on Saturday, there are plenty of glaring issues that must be addressed, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.
ECU ranks dead last in the FBS in total defense, allowing an average of 624 yards per contest. In fact, the robust 596 yards given up by the Pirates in the win over UConn was actually a season-best. Every other opponent has accrued more than 600 yards of offense.
One bright spot in Montgomery’s eyes last time out was the team’s alignment and positioning. The second-year Pirate coach believes the defense is making progress under new defensive coordinator Robert Prunty, but they just need to work on finishing plays. Several missed tackles led to explosive gains by the Huskies this past weekend.
“There’s a couple of ways you get guys to tackle better,” Montgomery said. “You’ve got to get different people tackling or you have just got to continue to stress what we always stress: wrap and roll. The one thing that I saw, not just tackling, but also it’s fatigue tackles. In the midst of a long drive we’ve got to get better at that.
“What I am impressed about is before, you saw a missed tackle and the guy scored (easily). What you saw in this game was a lot more people to the ball. We just didn’t tackle the football.”
SIRK DOMINANT IN 2ND START
In his second start as a Pirate, Sirk had one of the best games of his career.
The Duke graduate transfer, who led the Blue Devils to a bowl victory in a big season in 2015, completed 30-of-39 passes for 426 yards and three touchdowns to no picks in the win at UConn. Sirk, who missed the Virginia Tech game as he recovered from a concussion, appears to be ECU’s quarterback going forward in conference play ahead of Gardner Minshew.
“I think it’s a game you can continue to build on,” Sirk said. “I think there’s good things that we did on Sunday, but I also think there are things we need to continue to improve on. We have to take that energy and confidence into South Florida this week.”
Playing without top wide receiver Jimmy Williams due to flu-like symptoms, Sirk hit fellow senior Davon Grayson 11 times for three scores and more than 220 yards receiving. Wilmington native Trevon Brown also had nine catches for 92 yards.
Montgomery said Williams should be back for the upcoming game against South Florida, giving ECU its full stable of wide outs.
“I think it says how great our guys prepare during the week, to come out on a Sunday game and have adversity strike, and a lot of the game plan surrounded (Williams) for Sunday,” Sirk said. “And a lot of guys around him stepped up. I think it shows a lot of character about our receiver group and how hard they work out at practice.”
USF PRESENTS BIG CHALLENGE
ECU will continue its daunting early-portion schedule when it welcomes AAC favorite South Florida to town on Saturday. The Bulls are the fourth ranked team ECU has faced in five games to open the season if you include reigning national champion and current No. 1-ranked James Madison from the FCS level.
USF, which has won every game by double digits against a fairly easy state to open the year, is led by Heisman Trophy candidate and three-year starter Quinton Flowers. The Miami native had more than 1,500 yards rushing last season from the quarterback position. He set USF records in total offense (4,342), rushing yards (1,530) and touchdowns (42) last season for the Bulls.
“Once he breaks the ball out onto the perimeter, a lot of people sometimes expect him to slide and he’s running over people in the open field,” Montgomery said. “Then he makes them miss. He’s a special talent.”
New Bulls head coach Charlie Strong, who took over the head coaching duties for Willie Taggart, who bolted for Oregon this past offseason, has also elevated the USF’s defense.
South Florida ranks in the top 10 in the nation in rushing defense and leads the country in interceptions (12) and turnovers forced (14) through four games. The Bulls have a senior all-conference defender at each level of their defensive in defensive tackle Deadrin Senat, linebacker Auggie Sanchez and defensive back Deatrick Nichols.