ECU's James Summers takes the handoff from quarterback Philip Nelson (9) during last week's game against Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla. The Pirates lost 45-24. Stephen Igoe | 247Sports
East Carolina's Zay Jones, with ball, outruns Tulsa's Jordan Mitchell to the end zone during the first quarter of last week's game in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Pirates lost 45-24, dropping them to 3-6. ECU must win its remaining three games to qualify for a bowl. Stephen Igoe | 247Sports
By Stephen Igoe
Special to the Times
East Carolina will have to defy plenty of odds to extend its campaign into the college football bowl season.
With its 45-24 setback at Tulsa this past Saturday, ECU dropped to 3-6, meaning it has to win out just to become bowl eligible.
While the Pirates have a winnable game this weekend at home against SMU, which is also fighting for a bowl berth at 4-5 overall, they must close this season with a tough Senior Day matchup against Navy on Nov. 19 and what’s likely to be a very cold regular season finale in Philadelphia at Temple on Nov. 26.
Both the Midshipmen and Owls are currently leading their respective divisions in the American Athletic Conference race and will likely have to top ECU to make it to championship Saturday.
Nonetheless, the Pirates aren’t counting themselves out yet. They’re hoping to recapture the magic they’ve shown at times this season, such as the 33-30 victory over N.C. State and the recent 41-3 demolition of UConn.
“I feel like that’s how Pirates are, our backs are always against the wall,” senior center J.T. Boyd said. “At least that’s how outsiders view us. We’ve just got to finish this out, win one game at a time and get to where we want to be, which is a bowl game. That’s how all us seniors want to go out. We just have to take the leadership role and get us there.”
Pirate players and coaches haven’t tried to hide the fact that becoming bowl eligible is one of the team’s primary goals, especially under a first-year coaching staff.
But with three games to play and no time for slip-ups, the Pirates have no margin for error.
“We talk about it, that was one of the first things our coach stressed to us today,” wide receiver Jimmy Williams said. “We’re in the playoffs now. Either we’re going to a bowl game or we’re not, so we have to win all these three games. That just makes us want to win even more.”
At this point, ECU would have to win its remaining regular season contests and a potential bowl game for head coach Scottie Montgomery to become the initial first-year Pirate coach to have a winning record in Year 1 since Pat Dye in the 1970s.
QB SITUATION IN FLUX
The Pirates will have to overcome some questions behind center if it hopes to make a run towards that bowl berth.
Starting quarterback Philip Nelson was benched late in the second quarter in the loss to Tulsa. Despite completing 9-of-13 passes for 100 yards and throwing a touchdown, Nelson didn’t look comfortable enough for Montgomery, who replaced his senior with sophomore Gardner Minshew.
Montgomery said following the game Nelson was dealing with a shoulder injury for much of last week. His only day of practice came on Friday, a day before the game, leading to his rustiness.
Nelson, who’s also dealt with a concussion this season but has managed to open all nine games at quarterback, practiced fully on Tuesday and hopes to manage the pain going forward by limiting his number of throws throughout the week.
“It’s just built up over time, I think,” Nelson said of the shoulder soreness. “Just a lot of throwing for however many months, even before the season started. I think we just have to kind of manage my ball-count a little bit and that’s what we’ve been doing.
“At this point in the season, I don’t think anyone’s really 100 percent. Part of being a football player is you have to deal with your bumps and bruises.”
Both Montgomery and Petersen indicated after Tuesday’s practice that Nelson will be the team’s starting quarterback going forward, as long as he’s healthy enough to practice and be effective.
“Practice is important, I hate sitting out at practice,” Nelson said. “I’m a guy that I love to get out there and actually do it. I feel better about it. That’s what I want to do this week in preparation for Saturday.”
JONES RECORD UPDATE
Despite the loss in Tulsa, senior wide receiver Zay Jones continued the march for multiple NCAA receiving records with one of the best games of his career.
Jones reeled in 13 catches for a career-best 203 receiving yards, including a 51-yard touchdown from Nelson for ECU’s first score.
The performance put Jones 20 catches away from breaking the all-time NCAA career receptions mark of 387 held by former teammate Justin Hardy, who broke it in 2014.
Jones has 127 catches through nine games, leaving him 29 shy of breaking the single-season receptions mark (155) held by Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes.
PIRATES LAND BIG RECRUIT
East Carolina’s season may not be going how Montgomery envisioned, but the first-year head coach landed a huge building block for the future earlier this week.
Jones County (Miss.) Junior College outside linebacker Marques Ford gave his verbal commitment to the Pirate coaching staff on Tuesday, becoming the 20th member of the 2017 recruiting class.
Ford, who officially visited ECU on Oct. 28, committed to the Pirates over finalists Louisville and West Virginia. He also had offers from Cal, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and others.
“There’s a lot of things that led to my decision,” Ford said. “Really, it’s just a good all-around school in every aspect. I saw no negative sides to it. Really, I could see myself being there and developing the fastest on the field and off the field.”
Ford, a former four-star recruit who signed with Rutgers out of high school, is expected to enroll in January and will have three years of eligibility remaining.
His junior college teammate – linebacker Cannon Gibbs – committed to East Carolina last week.
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.