Recurring problems haunt ECU during three-game losing streak

The most pressing issues are turnovers and special teams breakdowns, both of which reared their ugly head again in last weeks 47-29 loss to Central Florida.

James Guillory—USA TODAY Sports
East Carolina Pirates quarterback Philip Nelson (9) fumbles the ball after being hit by Central Florida Knights linebacker Shaquem Griffin (18) during the third quarter at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium Greenville

Once is an accident. Twice a pattern. But when a team continues to hurt itself by making the same mistakes three games in a row, the problem becomes an epidemic That’s what East Carolina football coach Scottie Montgomery is dealing with as he and his staff search for a cure to the ailments that have plagued their team through its current three-game losing streak. The most pressing issues are turnovers and special teams breakdowns, both of which reared their ugly head again in last week’s 47-29 loss to Central Florida. The Pirates turned the ball over five times in the game and gave up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, negating a 521-373 advantage in offensive yardage. It was the third straight game in which ECU allowed a return of more than 80 yards and the second time in its three losses that outgained its opponent by 148 yards or more. “When you give up 300 yards in a game against a tempo team and a great coordinator and the talent that (UCF has), that should be enough to win a football game,” Montgomery said. “We understand our issue and our problem.” Fixing that problem won’t be as easy as identifying it. The Pirates (2-3, 0-1 AAC) rank 127th in the nation, next-to-last among FBS programs, with a turnover margin of minus-9. They have coughed the ball up 13 times in five games, compared to only four takeaways. On special teams, they rank 119th in kickoff return defense. Montgomery and special teams coach Shannon Moore have already made a major personnel shakeup in an attempt to improve their coverage unit, without immediate success. All they can do now is continue to emphasize the discipline in practice. And speaking of discipline, the rookie coach would like to see his players — especially those with the least experience — exercise more of it when it comes to ball security, The two most costly turnovers Saturday were a fumble by redshirt freshman Deondre Farrier inside the UCF 5-yard line late in the first half and a dagger of a pick six thrown by backup quarterback Gardner Minshew early in the fourth quarter. “The people that have turned it over are young players or players that are (playing for) the first time at their position,” Montgomery said. “We knew that we would have some growing pains, but we didn’t think the growing pains would last this long or that there would be this many.” ECU’s task won’t get any easier this week on the road against South Florida, the defending AAC East champion. The Bulls are 4-1 (1-0) with their only loss coming against Florida State. According to Montgomery, the leadership of veterans such as wide receivers Zay Jones, Jimmy Williams and hybrid quarterback/running back James Summers is the key to holding his suddenly fragile young team together until he can find a cure for its current epidemic of recurring, self-inflicted mistakes. Compounding an already difficult situation is the fact that starting quarterback Philip Nelson is still recovering from an undisclosed upper body injury suffered during the third quarter of Saturday’s loss. If he’s unable to go, JUCO transfer Minshew will be called upon to make his first ECU start. “We’re going to have to lean on our leadership to have a great relationship with some of our younger players and our players in their first-time positions that have turned the ball over,” he said. “We can’t beat those guys up emotionally by telling them how much they turn the football over. We just have to bring them in and make sure they understand the importance of what we’re doing. There are small details in taking care of the football that we can do better as coaches as well. Together is the way that we have to fix this problem that we have. “I think that, overall, what we have to understand is that we have a good football team. I have the utmost faith and trust in our coaches and our players and we are moving forward.”