Five things to watch: ECU playing for something greater than itself

As badly as ECU needs the victory at 2-4 overall (0-2 AAC), Cincinnati (3-3, 0-3) is just as desperate. Here are five things to watch as both teams attempt to kickstart their season

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
East Carolina Pirates quarterback Philip Nelson (9) throws a pass in the fourth quarter of the college football game against North Carolina State at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville

The East Carolina football team will return to the field for the first time since Hurricane Matthew when it takes to the road to play at American Athletic Conference rival Cincinnati on Saturday.

The matchup follows an unscheduled bye week as the Greenville area recovers from the devastation caused by the killer storm. Tragic circumstances aside, the break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Pirates, who are reeling after four straight losses and an 0-2 start to their conference schedule.

Not only has it given coach Scottie Montgomery and his team a chance to hit the reset button and an extra week to improve and adjust, but history is also on ECU’s side. The Pirates have won 10 of their last 13 games following a week off since 2006. As badly as ECU needs the victory at 2-4 overall (0-2 AAC), Cincinnati (3-3, 0-3) is just as desperate.

Here are five things to watch as both teams attempt to kickstart their season:

Emotional rescue — The Pirates will be looking to get back on the winning track and turn their season around as they begin the second half of their schedule on Saturday. But they’ll also be playing for something bigger than themselves.

As Montgomery mentioned during his regular weekly press conference on Monday, he and his players would love nothing more than to help raise the spirits of those adversely affected by Hurricane Matthew by giving them a win to celebrate.

“It’s very important for us to get back and correct the win column versus worrying about what we’ve done in the past in the loss column,” the first-year coach said. “I think it will be a big-time boost to our community. They need us as much as we need them and we’re really happy to have a chance to help our community.”

ECU has a history of providing an emotional rescue for its fans in the face of natural disaster. In 1999, with power still out and flood waters still high in and around Greenville in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd, the Pirates moved their game against Miami to N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium and pulled off an inspired 27-23 victory against the nation’s ninth-ranked team.

As motivational as that victory was, not all teams handle the added burden of playing for a cause so well. And the Pirates won’t be the only ones with extra incentive to play well and win. It’s Cincinnati’s homecoming and the Bearcats need a win as badly as ECU.

“It’ll be extremely loud, but a great atmosphere in a city setting, which is different for us and the places we’ve gone to play. We look forward to it,” Montgomery said. “We think our guys need a game where the energy level is extreme and is high. That’s the kind of atmosphere we need to turn it around and get going in the direction that we want it to go.”

Full Nelson — Although backup quarterback Gardner Minshew has been serviceable during the two games in which he’s been called upon — completing 33 of 60 passes for 412 yards and two touchdowns, with three interceptions — there is no question that ECU is a much better team with senior Philip Nelson under center. That hasn’t happened since Sept. 24 at Virginia Tech. The senior transfer was knocked out of the Central Florida game by an illegal high hit during the third quarter, then after trying to return a week later against South Florida, had to leave again before halftime.

Montgomery said that Nelson probably wouldn’t have been able to answer the bell had last Thursday’s game against Navy been played as scheduled. All indications are that Nelson is now ready to return as the Pirates’ quarterback.

“What really got me fired up about him was the way that he practiced,” Montgomery said. “Then I came up and looked out the window and I was upset at Philip because he was out there running routes like he was a receiver and Gardner was throwing it to him when we had eight other receivers out there late. They’re having fun again playing football. Seeing Philip out there let us know that we can count on him.”

Nelson has completed 68.7 percent of his passes this season for 1,841 yards, 11 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He is averaging 306.8 yards per game through the air while also ranking fourth on the team in rushing.

In addition to Nelson, ECU is also expected to get senior nose tackle Demetri McGill back after missing the past two games with an injury. His presence on the line can’t help but improve a pass rush that has recorded only one sack all season — the Pirates’ fewest in a six-game span since 2010.Too many happy returns In addition to allowing injured player