GREENVILLE — Scottie Montgomery is a college coach, not a college professor. But it doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to figure out what his East Carolina football team needs to do in order to reach his publicly stated goal of six wins and bowl eligibility.
After Saturday’s 59-41 loss to American Athletic Conference rival Memphis, the Pirates must win all four of their remaining games to clear the high bar set by their coach at the end of last season.
That won’t be easy with only one home game remaining and two more dates to play against opponents currently ranked in The Associated Press Top 25.
Despite the long odds, Montgomery isn’t ready to start backing down from his bold prediction until the numbers say he has to.
“All my chips are on the football team,” the third-year coach said after his team fell to 2-6 overall (0-5 AAC) with its fourth straight loss. Those young men that are in the locker room, I love them.
“We’ve got to go play well, but the one thing you have to realize is that things change slowly and then suddenly.”
Translated into non-coachspeak, that means Montgomery is confident that his team is on the verge of a breakthrough, even though the improvements it has made over the past year have yet to translate into results in the win-loss columns.
There have been several visible signs of progress.
Despite last week’s regression, a Pirates’ defense that ranked dead last among the nation’s 130 FBS programs in 2017 has moved up to the middle of the pack at No. 67 under new coordinator David Blackwell. Their kicking game is much more reliable with Jake Verity converting 15 of his 17 field goal tries, including a career-long 52-yarder against Memphis.
Offensively, prized freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers has injected some energy into ECU’s attack with both his running ability — he leads the team in rushing with 374 yards — and a cannon arm that produced 400-plus yards in both of his career starts.
The Pirates also showed an uncharacteristic grit Saturday by battling back from a two-touchdown deficit to tie the game in the third quarter before running out of gas late against an opponent that beat them 70-13 a year ago.
It’s one of many signs, Ahlers said, that point to his team being close to getting over the hump.
“The coaches have put in a system we believe in a lot, and we’re going to keep working and staying in the film room,” he said. “We’re going to be all right. … We’re eventually all going to click. It’s coming soon.”
They better not wait too long.
Because after two straight 3-9 seasons, with a new athletic director expected to be hired soon, Montgomery might not be around long enough to reap the benefits of his team’s work if it doesn’t finish strong. Especially if his job security ends up being tied to his ambitious six-win prediction.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a group of college players. But according to Ahlers, the Pirates remain solidly behind their coach and his staff.
“Anytime you’re not winning there’s going to be pressure,” he said. “We believe in him. There’s not another coach I’d rather have coaching me right now. We believe in him and he believes in us. That’s a big deal. We want to win for him because he deserves it.”
Like Ahlers, offensive guard Garrett McGhin said he hopes Montgomery is able to stay on beyond the current season.
At the same time, though, he inadvertently suggested that a change might be needed while answering a question on what it will take for the Pirates to finally start getting over the hump and winning games.
“One of the biggest things people don’t realize is that the little details is what makes you great,” the senior captain said. “Take UCF, for example. A new coach comes in, they fix the little details. They didn’t get a whole new set of personnel. It only took them two years to start winning games.”
Now closing in on the end of Year 3, McGhin is anxious to get a similar turnaround started at ECU, though not necessarily for Montgomery’s sake.
“You think we just play the game to just save somebody else’s job? No, this is attached to my name,” the senior captain said. “When I leave East Carolina, they’re going to see Garrett McGhin. They’re going to see how many wins I had, and it’s single digits right now. It’s personal.
“I’m not worried about Coach Mo. Coach Mo is a grown man. He has money. He’s going to be able to take care of his family regardless. I’m trying to build this place, East Carolina, this university and get them back to playing Pirate football.”