Self-inflicted mistakes halt ECU in 20-15 loss at South Carolina

Coach Scottie Montgomerys team was never able to overcome a comedy of errors that included two interceptions, a lost fumble and a missed chip shot field — all from inside the Gamecocks 10 — while suffering a 20-15 loss in a game it could easily have w

Jim Dedmon—X02835
Sep 17

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The area inside the 20-yard line on a football field is commonly referred to as the Red Zone. For East Carolina on Saturday, it was more like the red light zone. That’s because its offense usually came to a screeching halt whenever it got there. Four straight times against South Carolina, the Pirates drove the ball within hailing distance of the goal line only to get turned away without a single point because of a series of self-inflicted mistakes. Coach Scottie Montgomery’s team was never able to overcome a comedy of errors that included two interceptions, a lost fumble and a missed chip shot field — all from inside the Gamecocks’ 10 — while suffering a 20-15 loss in a game it could easily have won at Williams-Brice Stadium. “It’s always disappointing when you go out and have a day the way that we did today in some of those situations,” said Montgomery, who suffered his first defeat as a head coach after starting his career with two straight victories. “At the end of the day, Pirates can’t beat Pirates and that happened out there today.” The problems started right from the opening kickoff when USC’s A.J. Turner broke through the Pirates’ coverage and jetted 80 yards down the near sideline. The long return was compounded by a horse collar penalty that set the Gamecocks at the ECU 9. It took just one run by quarterback Brandon McIlwain to get the home team on the scoreboard. And that was only the beginning. By the time the Pirates knew what hit them, they were staring at a 17-0 deficit after a long pass from McIlwain to Bryan Edwards and a fumble by ECU quarterback Philip Nelson put USC in position for two more quick scores while knocking the Pirates back on their heels just seven minutes into the game. “We got punched in the mouth,” said linebacker Terrell Richardson. “But I like the way we stayed together and kept fighting.” After withstanding the Gamecocks’ opening haymaker, ECU’s defense allowed only three more points the rest of the game. That came on a 39-yard field goal with 6:24 remaining. The Pirates limited USC to 208 yards over the final three periods and allowed the opposition to convert only two of its final 11 third down chances, quieting the sellout crowd of 80,384 and keeping the game within striking distance. “Once (the defense) saw 17 on the board it was almost like ‘that’s it, you get no more,'” Montgomery said. “They were in a bad situation. Ten of those points were (possessions) not conducive to good defense. But our defense did a great job. I just wanted our offense to keep chopping away at the tree, because I knew the tree would eventually fall. The biggest deal is we ran out of opportunities.” It wasn’t for a lack of them. With Nelson teaming up with favorite receiver Zay Jones for a school-record 22 catches through the air and James Summers fueling a ground attack from both the Wildcat and running back positions, ECU outgained USC 519-312 and rolled up a 17-minute advantage in time of possession. But as efficiently as the Pirates were able to move the ball in the middle of the field, they couldn’t seem to get out of their own way once they got into scoring position. Their first two forays deep into Gamecock territory resulted in Davis Plowman field goals of 32 and 43 yards. Then the mistakes began to pile up. “Obviously, the big thing is finishing,” said Nelson, who went 44 of 58 for 400 yards and a too-little, too-late touchdown to Devin Anderson in the final 2½ minutes. “We didn’t finish at all and that starts with me as a quarterback.” Nelson’s first big mistake came on a third-and-goal play from the USC 1 late in the first half when he floated a pass intended for Jimmy Williams in the far corner of the end zone that stayed in the air long enough for the Gamecocks’ Jamarcus King to intercept it. His second came on the opening position of the second half when another pass to Williams was picked off at the 1 by Chris Lammons. “The first one was a run-pass option. He was just late with the ball and didn’t throw it very well,” Montgomery said. “We were five yards behind the defender. That should have been a walk-in touchdown. The second one, he went through his progressions and tried to get it all the way back to the back side. Down in the Red Zone that’s hard to do.” After coming away empty on those first two trips inside the 10, Montgomery decided to play it safe the next time got back into scoring position early in the fourth quarter. But ECU came away empty again when Plowman’s short field goal attempt was blocked. One series later, Anthony Scott fumbled the ball as he struggled to get into the end zone on what would have been a 10-yard touchdown run. That turned out to be the last best chance for the Pirates, who despite finally getting into the end zone late in the game were unable to rally from their early deficit. “I feel like we did a poor job of executing down there,” Nelson said of his team’s Red Zone difficulties. “The plays were left out there for us to make. I’m just at a loss for words for how well we could move the ball and not be able to finish.”