Five things to watch: ECU looking to finish with a flourish

Although its still mathematically possible for the Pirates to gain bowl eligibility in Scottie Montgomerys first season as coach, its more important to finish on a positive note and create some momentum heading into season No. 2

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
East Carolina Pirates head coach Scottie Montgomery talks into his headset in the fourth quarter of the college football game against North Carolina State at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville

At 3-6 (1-4 American Athletic Conference), East Carolina has officially shifted into salvage mode for the 2016 season. Although it’s still mathematically possible for the Pirates to gain bowl eligibility in Scottie Montgomery’s first season as coach, it’s more important to finish on a positive note and create some momentum heading into season No. 2. That process can start Saturday against an SMU team that has a signature win against AAC powerhouse Houston, but is still on the South side of .500 at 4-5 overall. The Mustangs are coached by former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, which means they’ll feature a high-powered, fast-paced offense. Here are five things to watch as ECU tries to run with the Mustangs and show off a little firepower of their own n Military Appreciation Day:Quarterback shuffle Montgomery has yet to formally announce his starting quarterback for Saturday’s game. But considering that senior Philip Nelson has been a regular participant at practice this week, it appears as though his shoulder is healthy enough for him to be under center against the Mustangs. Nelson was pulled in the first half last week after misfiring on some passes and taking two intentional grounding penalties. But even if Nelson is able to go at full strength, don’t be surprised if Montgomery gets backup Gardner Minshew into the game for at least a few series’ based on his strong performance in a relief role at Tulsa. Minshew completed 29 of 49 passes for 336 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in just over a half. Start fast, finish strong If there’s one common thread to ECU’s six losses this season, it’s that they’ve fallen behind early and been forced to spend the rest of the game trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to play catchup. That trend has been especially damaging to the Pirates’ chances in AAC games, in which they’ve been outscored 71-23 in the first half of their four defeats. They trailed 24-7 at halftime last week at Tulsa. Contrast that to ECU’s one conference win, a 41-3 victory against UConn in which they scored late in the half to go up 14-3 and cruised the rest of the way home. The Pirates have been the consummate second half team — especially in the third quarter, where they’ve outscored their opponents by a 100-50. But by the time they finally get their act together, it’s usually too late to make a difference in the outcome.Running man challenge SMU comes into the game ranked next-to-last in the ACC in pass defense, allowing an average of 255 yards per game through the air, so whoever plays quarterback for the Pirates on Saturday, they figure to have a big day. Even so, it will help either Nelson or Minshew (or both) considerably if ECU can generate even a hint of a ground game. It wasn’t able to do that last week while rushing for only 38 net yards in a road loss at Tulsa. Granted, that total is a little deceiving since the Pirates surrendered seven sacks in the game. But between James Summers and Devin Anderson, ECU running backs attempted only seven runs the entire game. At the same time, the Pirates’ defense needs to do a better job at stopping the run to have a shot at beating SMU. Tulsa rushed for 342 yards and had two backs break the 100-yard mark. The key on both sides of the line starts up front.”We’ve got to do the best job we can to give our guys the best opportunity,” Montgomery said. “We need to be able to run the football and we’ve got to be able to stop the run. We’ve spent a lot of time in our fronts and putting our fronts against each other as well as putting our receivers and DBs against each other. The main emphasis this week has been trying to get our front up to par.” Zay’s countdown History could repeat itself at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday as senior receiver Zay Jones continues his impressive pursuit of former teammate Justin Hardy’s FBS record for most career receptions. Jones, who leads the nation with 127 catches, is just 20 receptions shy of surpassing Hardy’s FBS mark of 387. That might sound like a lot, but consider that the Biletnikoff Award candidate already has one game with 22 catches this season and another with 19 (a victory against UConn that was so lopsided, he didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter). To put the kind of season Jones is having into perspective, consider this stat from ECU sports information director Tom McClellan. There are 17 teams in the FBS, including 10 Power 5 and AAC schools, that don’t have as many completions as Jones this season. The most amazing