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There’s no doubting ECU’s defense hasn’t been where the Pirates initially envisioned it thus far this season, but the unit took a major step forward this past Saturday during the 33-17 win over BYU.
Entering the game allowing 50 points and 600 yards per contest, ECU (2-6) took advantage of a struggling BYU offense and played with plenty of confidence and some swagger for an entire game for the initial time this season. BYU (1-7) finished with 421 yards thanks to some late garbage-time throws, but the Pirates limited the Cougars to 215 yards through the first three quarters, allowing the Pirate offense to take control of the game while the defense made stop after stop.
The most encouraging part of the game? ECU stopped a physical BYU rushing attack for the most part, limiting the Cougars to 102 rushing yards and 3.3 yards per carry, both season-best marks for the ECU defense.
It’s given the unit plenty of much-needed confidence in a bye week ahead of next weekend’s matchup at Houston.
“I feel like this game was a good experience with gap-filling,” said freshman linebacker Aaron Ramseur, who had a career-best 12 tackles in his third career start. “I feel like our expectations should be high as far as the run game. We should really put a stop to the running game. We’re also starting to get answers for our DBs, our cornerbacks and they’re starting to play their tails off, giving it their all. In the past, teams have been getting third-and-longs and getting the first downs, but now I feel like we should be stopping that. I feel like we know exactly what we’re doing. We should be executing the play and it shows.”
While BYU finished the night with 319 yards passing, a large majority of that came in the fourth quarter. There are certainly still some concerns going forward with the Pirates’ coverage on the back end, but ECU played its best game of the year when it came to contesting passes, breaking up seven throws for BYU pass-catchers. ECU linebacker Cannon Gibbs grabbed an interception in the fourth quarter that led to a short field and quick ECU touchdown to make it 33-10.
Gibbs’ pick was only the third interception of the season overall for ECU’s defense, but it marked the second in three games by an ECU linebacker after Ramseur intercepted a pass against Temple.
“We’re just celebrating about that,” Ramseur said of the big plays from the linebackers. “We’re happy. We’re talking about it on the sidelines. We told Jordan (Williams) and Bruce (Bivens) and the rest of the linebackers that their pick is coming. There’s a pick curse coming on and if we can keep doing that, we can keep motivating everybody else to see ball, get ball.”
The Pirates also limited BYU to just a 6-of-15 conversion rate on third down, an improvement over previous weeks. BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum was sacked twice and hurried another time, and several other pursuers forced Mangum to throw some passes on the move.
The two sacks upped ECU’s total for the season to 10 through eight games. That’s two more than the Pirates had all of last season.
“I thought we were a lot more aggressive at corner, which is something I wanted to see us do - see us make plays on the ball and see the ball a lot better,” head coach Scottie Montgomery said. “Our defensive front has done well for a while. They were really causing them some problems, moving (Mangum) off the spot. This was a pocket passer that needed to be on the spot. When they got him off the spot, some of the inaccurate throws were a lot of that. It gave us the opportunity to get off the field.”
Sirk avoids major injury
It appears ECU dodged a bullet with its starting quarterback.
Montgomery confirmed during Monday’s AAC teleconference that Thomas Sirk suffered only a bruise to his right throwing arm in the win over BYU on Saturday night. Sirk was playing well, but was forced to exit the game after taking a helmet to his arm on a 13-yard run in the third quarter.
Sirk remained in a few plays, but couldn’t throw the ball, so he checked out of pass plays to four consecutive runs before coming off the sidelines and letting the coaching staff know his arm was damaged.
“We did get an update. We found out he just has a bruise to his tricep, which made it impossible to raise his arm or do anything with his arm the night of (the game),” Montgomery said during the teleconference. “But he’s already got good range of motion. We’re going to give him some rest over the next couple of days. He thinks he will be able to go on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week. We’ll take a good look at it and make sure he’s back.
“But the good news is he’s OK.”
Gardner Minshew replaced Sirk and went 6 for 9 with 121 yards and two touchdowns.
The real thing to watch going forward is to see how Sirk’s arm heals. Luckily, ECU has an open date, giving Sirk ample time to recover before the team travels to Houston for a Nov. 4 matchup. But if the contusion lingers and impacts his throwing motion, that would obviously be of some concern for the Pirates going forward.
“Anytime it’s anything on the throwing arm, whether it be an elbow, a finger, whatever, there is some concern,” Montgomery said. “The thing we have to be careful about with Thomas is him trying to hide that he’s hurt worse than he really is because he’s such a competitor.”
Busy recruiting weekend
While ECU players will get Friday and Saturday off with this week being a bye week, Pirate coaches will be out on the road recruiting in an attempt to finish up the 2018 class on a high note.
Twenty players have already given their verbal commitments for this year’s cycle, but a few spots remain, including a running back slot that has yet to be filled.
ECU is recruiting a number of potential backs from the state of Florida, where a few Pirate coaches will be this week. ECU assistants, including defensive coordinator Robert Prunty, known as one of the top recruiters in the country, will be all over North Carolina and in various other states over the coming days, hoping to identify more talent.
“This is what I love,” said Prunty, who’s been named the Big 12 and AAC Recruiter of the Year in the past. “Now that we’ve been through so much of the season, we know what we need and we can go out and recruit to plug the holes that need filling. It’s an important few days, and I can’t wait to get out there and get after it.”
The Pirates will return to practice Sunday in preparation for next weekend’s road trip to Houston.