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The optimism of last week has turned into frustration and anger.
Following ECU’s unexpected 34-14 loss to FCS foe James Madison in the team’s season opener over the weekend, dropping the Pirates to 1-10 in their last 11 games in the Scottie Montgomery era, the negativity surrounding the program from fans is seemingly at an all-time high, especially considering the circumstances of the previous dismissal of former head coach Ruffin McNeill still linger in some aspects.
As Montgomery met with the media following Tuesday’s practice, his usually-calm and relaxed demeanor had changed into more of a serious tone.
The answers to questions weren’t as drawn out as previous times, and for good reason. The Pirates, ahead of their matchup against a preseason Top 25 foe in West Virginia on Saturday, have plenty of work to do.
“It’s not about what we say now,” Montgomery said. “It’s how we play.”
Most expected the Pirates to be much more competitive in Year 2 under Montgomery, especially following the additions of five graduate transfers and six junior college players. But, while it is very early in the season, ECU didn’t show much improvement in Game 1 of the new campaign.
And with three tall tasks ahead of the Pirates in the coming weeks in West Virginia, Virginia Tech and South Florida, ECU fans are already thinking about the worst-case scenario of an 0-4 start.
“I don’t doubt that there is some panic,” Montgomery said during Monday’s press conference. “I will just tell everybody, don’t blink. And I told the team, everyone on our coaching staff and the people that work on the field; don’t blink. If I catch anybody blinking I told them I was going to cut their eyelids off.
“If anybody knows how important it is for us to come out and be prepared and play it’s me, because I felt like we worked extremely hard to get to that first game. In every situation and put those guys in every situation that they were going to be in at games and we saw exactly what we were going to see and we failed. But we failed one day, and now we have a whole season in front of us and our guys will be prepared.”
Sirk gets call for WVU game
ECU will turn to a different starting quarterback in hopes of kickstarting a turnaround this week.
After the Pirates’ offense sputtered and simply couldn’t find a rhythm in the opener, ECU will start Duke graduate transfer Thomas Sirk on Saturday at West Virginia.
Sirk started and played the entire second half against James Madison after the Pirates were shut out in the first half of a home game for the first time since 2007. The former Duke signal-caller’s play in the second half was up-and-down. He completed 21-of-35 passes for 210 yards and two interceptions.
But Montgomery noted the fire and determination that Sirk displayed, particularly after he got up off the ground following a personal foul on JMU, is the type of drive and emotion ECU needs from its quarterback position.
“Competitive nature right there in that game, I thought he gave our team a big boost when he got up off the ground,” Montgomery said. “He could have laid down. Right then, I felt that was the spirit of the leader. That moment, when he got up off the ground, changed everything for me. I saw a guy, no matter what the situation, that’s going to get up and go compete for us.”
Gardner Minshew, named the starter and voted a team captain just prior to the start of the season, went 7-for-18 for 82 yards and one interception in the loss.
“It had been a close battle going through camp but it was also clear leaving camp that Gardner was ahead, just by everything that we put together,” Montgomery said. “The way the team voted for captains. It all aligned for Gardner to be the (starter). But you’ve got to make decisions in this business, or the decisions will be made for you. So I made the decision to put Thomas Sirk in there and he will be our guy.”
For all the talk of the poor quarterback play, the primary problems stemmed from ECU’s center position, where junior Garrett McGhin started the game with several bad snaps over the first and second quarter.
The haywire deliveries from McGhin to Minshew threw the offense out of whack, both from a timing and execution perspective. McGhin, a team captain, was benched in favor of junior Branden Pena, who snapped the ball in rhythm, but then suffered a serious injury.
The Pirates ended the game with true freshman John Spellacy delivering the snaps to Sirk.
“As a center and upperclassmen on this offensive line, I take full responsibility,” McGhin said. “I had a penalty that killed a drive. My snaps were all over the place. That’s just unacceptable. I take full responsibility. Nobody else to put blame on but myself. If I fix those snaps and don’t have that penalty, we probably go down and score two more times. I take full responsibility and am working every day to get better at it.”
McGhin, who started every game at left guard last season, made the transition to center this spring. He snapped the ball well consistently in practice, but lost the feel for it under the lights.
“Normally when I have a bad snap I can feel it and can tell that it’s happening, but that one, I couldn’t really tell that I messed it up,” McGhin said. “After that, it’s kind of one of those things where you start thinking about it and it just kind of goes to your head and it becomes a problem and a snowball effect.”
McGhin and Spellacy have split reps at center this week, with McGhin also working back at his previous home of left guard.
West Virginia scouting report
The Pirates will face an angry Mountaineers team this Saturday at 12 noon in Morgantown.
West Virginia lost a heartbreaking 31-24 contest to Virginia Tech in a Top 25 showdown on Sunday in Washington, D.C., but the Mountaineers showcased plenty of firepower in the last-second loss.
Florida quarterback transfer Will Grier, whose father played at ECU, threw for 371 yards, three touchdowns and one interceptions in the loss in his first start at WVU. Running back Justin Crawford tallied 106 yards rushing on 13 carries.
ECU is 0-13 all-time in Morgantown.