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College Football: ECU headed for special season

By Caulton Tudor
Raleigh News & Observer
GREENVILLE ó The door to big-time opportunity opened Saturday for East Carolina’s football program and its thousands of screaming fans.
Well, that’s not exactly the most correct way to phrase it.
What actually happened before a full house ó a completely mad house ó in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was that the Pirates kicked down that door, stampeded en masse through it, smothered No. 8-ranked West Virginia in its tracks and recorded one of the most impressive victories in school history ó or at least since the previous weekend’s 27-22 win over No. 17 Virginia Tech in Charlotte.
The resounding 24-3 victory over West Virginia means, short term, that Skip Holtz’ fourth team has now burst into the rankings at No. 14 in the Associated Press poll.
But based on Saturday’s performance, it would be hard to find 13 better teams in the nation at this point. Against Heisman Trophy-candidate Pat White and a Mountaineers team favored to win the Big East Conference championship, the Pirates looked a heck of a lot better than No. 14.
And if things fall the right way, ECU could get a chance to prove it on paper and, more important, on turf.
There’s a lot of work ahead, but if you have to pick a long shot to qualify for a Bowl Championship Series cameo this season, the Pirates are where Hawaii was in 2007, Boise State in ’06 and Utah in ’04. Two of those “little guys” won ó Boise over Oklahoma and Utah over Pittsburgh, both in the Fiesta Bowl.
If history holds, the Pirates down the line will have a good deal more trouble defeating N.C. State (Sept. 20 in Raleigh), Marshall (Nov. 8 in Greenville) and, by all means, Southern Miss (Nov. 15 in Hattiesburg) than was the case against Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
Some of the very best teams in ECU history have knocked off big names with regularity only to get knocked down in return by their Conference USA counterparts.
But if the Bucs can work their way around the challenges ahead, this team is in an excellent position to upstage the 1991 team, which finished 11-1 and No. 9 in the final polls, as the most impressive in school history.
The way the stupid BCS process works, the Conference USA champion qualifies for a BCS bid basically if it finishes ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS standings. The fine print makes it all more complicated than a cereal box sweepstakes, but that’s the short version.
There is a proviso that could keep an undefeated ECU team out of the BCS mix, but that’s putting the plow in front of the mule. If there’s any real justice out there, the Pirates and, say, Utah would finish something like Nos. 4 and 5 in the final standings. Then, the lords of the BCS would have to come up with a solution that they couldn’t even explain.
For now, let it just suffice that East Carolina is better than any team around these parts. It doesn’t stop there, either. Until someone proves otherwise, the Pirates’ Patrick Pinkney is the best quarterback in the state and the rushing combo of Jon Williams and Brandon Simmons is at least the equal.
But the real surprise of Saturday’s win was an ECU defense that held White to a harmless 169 yards of offense.
The Pirates, last season, finished 8-5 with a 41-38 win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl primarily as the result of a potent offense. The defense played well at times, but not consistently well. Through two games in ’08, that defense has been better than the Pinkney-led offense.
That’s big time.

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