College Football: ECU prepares for meaningless game
GREENVILLE ó East Carolina has found itself scrapping for every late-season win in hopes of making it to the Conference USA championship game the past two years. Now, oddly enough, the Pirates have accomplished enough that they are preparing for a game that is meaningless in the standings.
Just don’t try to tell coach Skip Holtz that the regular-season finale for the division champion Pirates ó who will play in next week’s league title game regardless of what happens ó is a “throwaway” game.
“This is not a throwaway game to us,” he said Monday at his weekly news conference. “As I told them, ‘You don’t know what bowl you’re going to go to. You don’t know how things are going to happen, and all that is going to be determined by how we play from here out. This is as important game as any of them we’ve played.’ ”
Maybe to Holtz and his players, anyway. But the Pirates (7-4, 5-2 C-USA) have little to gain other than momentum with Friday’s home game against UTEP. Their 17-13 win at UAB this past weekend wrapped up the East Division championship that had narrowly gotten away the past two seasons. They’re already bowl eligible for the third straight season under Holtz.
The most desirable bowl scenario for the Pirates would be to capture the conference title and receive the Liberty Bowl bid. If they don’t win the title, even with a lost this week against UTEP, the Pirates appear locked in to one of the conference’s other five bowl tie-ins.
A game that doesn’t matter in late November ó it’s an unusual tribute to the progress of the East Carolina program that was in such disarray when Holtz arrived before the 2005 season. It certainly is a good way to close a regular season that began with upsets of Virginia Tech and West Virginia, wins that catapulted the Pirates into the national headlines in the opening weeks of the season.
The trick for Holtz is finding a way to keep his players motivated instead of taking a sigh of relief. Play for pride? Go for a potential 10-win season? Holtz considers it all on the table. That includes reminding the Pirates of the goals they’ve set each season, from reaching a bowl game then winning one ó they accomplished the former in 2006 and the latter last year ó to winning a division and conference title.
“This could be the beginning of our dream or the end of it,” Holtz said. “We can say, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived. We took another step. Let’s take a deep breath.’ We’ve put ourselves in that game. We can get excited about that challenge and being able to take two steps this year or we can turn and beat our chest and be satisfied with where we are.”
At the least, the Pirates can savor getting past a very large obstacle by finally winning their division, something that had been within reach in the past two years only to slip away in crushing fashion. Two years ago, East Carolina led Rice 17-9 only to give up a touchdown with 2:37 left, go three-and-out on the next possession and allow a 40-yard pass on fourth down to set up the winning field goal with 3 seconds to play in an 18-17 loss.
Last year, they lost 26-7 to a Marshall team that went 3-9. In either case, a win would have allowed the Pirates to host the league title game.
This time, they’ll go on the road to play the title game at the West Division winner on Dec. 6. Houston, Tulsa and Rice are all tied at 6-1 for the division lead heading into this weekend.
“I think anytime you have to work for something, you appreciate it more,” Holtz said. “I think that if it happened right out of the chute, yeah, they would have enjoyed and I would have loved for it to happen that way, too. But I think as hard as it has been to get here and as close as they’ve been two years in a row, I think there is a sense of relief and accomplishment for these seniors.
“We continually talked about the growth of the program. We started out wanting to go to a bowl game, then it was to win a bowl game and we want to win a conference championship. We need to keep taking steps and grow.”