A bad week came to a predictable end for the East Carolina football team at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.
Playing just two days after coach Scottie Montgomery was fired, on a dreary afternoon in a game that meant nothing more than a payday against a highly motivated opponent — with starting quarterback Holton Ahlers sidelined with an injury, no less — the Pirates barely put up a fight in a 58-3 drubbing at the hands of NC State.
If there was any kind of silver lining to an otherwise dark day, beside defensive end Nate Harvey tying the American Athletic Association record for sacks in a season, it’s that ECU can now finally put a forgettable era of its football history behind it and begin the process of rebuilding under new leadership.
“There were challenges there from a mental standpoint, being locked and loaded and not letting our emotions getting the best of us,” senior linebacker Cannon Gibbs said after the Pirates officially put the wraps on their third straight 3-9 season.
“Mentally these young men have been through a lot,” interim coach David Blackwell added. “I am proud of the character, the fight we showed early, not knowing how they would respond. It’s not an easy week, especially on the timing of the thing. It was rough.”
Montgomery was fired on Thursday afternoon while the team was on the practice field preparing for a game that was scheduled as a replacement for a Sept. 15 date against Virginia Tech that was cancelled because of Hurricane Florence.
That left Blackwell, the team’s defensive coordinator, and the remaining staff less than 48 hours to regroup, refocus and get the Pirates ready to play.
As much of a distraction as that was, senior offensive guard Garrett McGhin — who has been the team’s unofficial spokesman for most of the season — refused to use the 11th hour upheaval as an excuse for Saturday’s performance.
“I was hurt, but at the end of the day you’ve got to roll with the punches and give it your best shot because this game was going to get played either way. You could either lay down and let them walk all over you or go and try to take a punch.”
The Pirates took plenty of punches from a Wolfpack team intent on avenging two straight losses to its in-state rival, as well as keeping alive its hopes for a rare 10-win season.
State (9-3) piled up 32 first downs on the way to 655 yards of total offense. It had six different players score touchdowns, including offensive center Garrett Bradbury, whose 1-yard run in the fourth quarter was punctuated by a celebratory punt of the ball into the stands.
ECU’s cause wasn’t helped by injuries to several key players to injury. Among them was quarterback Reid Herring, who was playing only because Ahlers was unable to go because of an injured right hand and sprained right knee.
That left redshirt freshman Kingsley Ifedi, who hadn’t traveled with the team since mid-October, and fourth string walkon Caiden Norman to play most of the second half.
And things got ugly in a hurry.
The Pirates managed only three first downs and gained only 104 total yards. Until Anthony Scott’s 53-yard run on the game’s final possession, their rushing total for the game stood at negative-18 yards.
Only a 46-yard field goal by Jake Verity as time expired saved them from getting shut out for the first time in 21 years, a span of 266 games.
“They’re a good group of young men,” Blackwell said of his team. “They fight their tails off. We just ran out of weapons today. We got so thin on the offensive line, but they kept fighting. Sometimes, it just isn’t good enough.”
Now that the season is mercifully over and changes are about to be made, the Pirates can start looking ahead to their next chapter.
Blackwell, an ECU graduate, said he would like to remain with the program but admitted that the decision is out of his hands.
One thing that is certain is that the returning players won’t have to wait long to get a shot at making amends for Saturday’s lopsided loss with the Pirates scheduled to play State in a rematch in the opening game next season.
“What better thing,” Gibbs said. “We’ve got another opportunity, the young guys, to come back up and change that. This was awful. It’s tough. It’s not standard here at ECU. I’ll definitely be excited about seeing those guys go out and compete fresh, with no injuries, to hopefully compete and get some revenge.”