Chris Johnson (5) looks to avoid Southern Mississippi's Brandon Sumrall (6) and Caleb Hendrix, far left, after leaving Akeem Lockett on the field behind him during the first half Saturday. (AP Photo/Stan Gilliland)
Oct. 1, 2005
GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) -- East Carolina head coach Skip Holtz saw plenty of improvement in the Pirates' 33-7 loss to Southern Mississippi on Saturday, he said, but ECU slid backward in the area that matters most -- turnovers. And because the offense lost the ball five times, a night of frustration was inevitable, Holtz said.
"I don't care who you are -- I don't care if you're the Packers playing a high school team -- if you have five turnovers, you're not going to win," Holtz said. "If you hold the ball high and tight and secure it properly, it shouldn't come out. But it seemed like the thing was greased tonight."
It was a rude awakening for the Pirate squad that went into the game tied for second in Conference USA in turnover margin with fewer than two turnovers per game, said junior quarterback James Pinkney.
"Turnovers haven't been an issue until today," said Pinkney, who finished the day 20-of-28 with one interception for 202 passing yards. "We just hurt ourselves all day."
Lost balls took their toll on the Pirates right out of the chute, when fumble by quarterback James Pinkney two minutes into the game led to a quick Golden Eagles field goal and then the Pirates' next scoring drive, in which they gained 49 quick yards, ended with running back Chris Johnson losing a fumble on the 7-yard line. Then ECU recovered a USM fumble and started another drive that was also foiled by a lost fumble, this one by running back Brandon Fractious. On the ensuing drive, the Golden Eagles became the first team to hold onto the ball through the red zone when quarterback Dustin Almond hit Tavarres Williams for a 14-yard touchdown play.
"I think we got down, guys started pressing a little bit too much, guys tried to make two tackles or cover two gaps on one play and we gave some things up," Holtz said.
Any hopes the Pirates had of diminishing that margin in the third quarter were dampened quickly by 10 Golden Eagles points in the first eight minutes of the half. The touchdown that opened the half featured the longest play of the game -- a 74-yard touchdown pass from Almond to Antwon Courington. A 21-yard McCaleb field goal followed, and ECU quarterback James Pinkney was intercepted by USM rover Brandon Sumrall on the Pirates' next drive. McCaleb kicked one more field goal, for 32 yards, to make the score 33-7, where it remained for the rest of the game.
Despite the crucial errors, it wasn't a classic case of a team beating themselves, because the Golden Eagles showcased the talent that they field year in and year out, defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. With 493 yards of total offense and only one turnover, the Eagles showed that they are playing with focus despite the postponement of two C-USA games due to the two hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast.
"It was no surprise, the talent level they have on that team," Hudson said. "They played Alabama really well, and I watched that game over an over. But probably the most discouraging thing was that we had our hands on the ball on defense four times that should have been turnovers that led to 16 points. That's probably the thing that hurt us the most."
USM quarterback Dustin Almond established a strong presence early and finished the game 22-of-30 for 314 passing yards and two touchdowns. USM head coach Jeff Bower said that even though his team also showed room for improvement, he was pleased with the way the defense got the ball away and the offense capitalized on those opportunities.
"Overall, it was a good performance by our football team and a good first conference win," said Bower, who is in his 15th season as the USM head coach with an overall 98-68-1 record.
Meanwhile, the Pirates will start taking the film apart tomorrow to confirm their suspicions about the defeat -- that it was the night when nothing went their way.
"This game was crazy," said senior linebacker Richard Koonce. "It seems like we really didn't get started. I can't explain it."