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Scottie Montgomery needs a miracle to save his job at ECU, but hey, miracles happen, right?

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Can a new defensive coordinator and new blood in the passing game bail water from a sinking Pirate ship?

NCAA Football: South Florida at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

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Memphis’ first play of the game against ECU was an 89-yard touchdown pass. The Tigers’ next drive featured gains of 11, 14, 11, 16, and 14 yards before a four-yard score. In their next drive — which followed a pick six that had put them up 21-0 — they needed just three plays to move into ECU territory, then scored on a 46-yard pass.

Memphis was up 28-0 at the end of the first quarter, having gained 233 yards in just 16 plays. It didn’t get much better. In 33 plays over the final three quarters, the Tigers gained another 402 yards and scored another six touchdowns. ECU gained 466 yards and lost by 57 points.

It was that kind of year in Greenville.

Scottie Montgomery’s second season as ECU head coach saw solid offensive progress; the Pirates improved from 71st to 56th in Off. S&P+, mainly because they posted numbers similar to 2016 despite an increase in schedule strength.

The defense, however, was miserable. Feckless. Pathetic. Your adjective of choice. ECU ranked dead last in Def. S&P+; the Pirates’ adjusted scoring average (which is how S&P+ is presented) was 43.5 points per game allowed, a full eight points per game worse than the No. 120 defense. They were demonstrably worse than other demonstrably bad defenses.

Montgomery is a smart guy (he got into Duke, after all) and, by most accounts, a good coach. He was good enough that David Cutcliffe — one of college football’s most respected coaches — retained him from Ted Roof’s staff when taking over at Duke in 2008. He was good enough that, after he left in 2010 to become the Pittsburgh Steelers’ WRs coach in 2010, Cutcliffe welcomed him back in 2013. He became associate head coach, then offensive coordinator, and when he left for ECU, Cutcliffe said, “I’m excited, not only for Scottie. I’m excited for ECU.”

But here we are all the same. ECU made news when it fired Ruffin McNeill after a single bad season — he had gone 26-13 from 2012-14 but then 5-7 in 2015 — because it wanted to keep up with the Joneses in the increasingly tenuous AAC. But as is almost always the case in Glen Mason Territory* situations, when you fire a good coach in the hopes of getting a great one, you end up burning your house to the ground.

The Pirates’ ship was already getting rickety with McNeill as its captain. After peaking at 54th in S&P+ during the 10-3 run of 2013, ECU had slipped to 63rd and 73rd over the next two years. There’s nothing saying McNeil was going to engineer a rebound, especially after losing his offensive coordinator and right-hand man Lincoln Riley in 2015. But he didn’t get the chance. And now Montgomery is flailing.

ECU has gone 6-18 since Montgomery took over; the Pirates haven’t had two years this bad since going 3-20 under John Thompson in 2003-04, and while Montgomery has been granted a third season that Thompson did not get, the athletic director that hired him is getting pushed out.

Montgomery brought in a new defensive coordinator, and all of the freshmen and sophomores who got lit up last year are now sophomores and juniors, so it is conceivable that the defense will get a little better, if only because it can’t get worse. But now the offense has no quarterback experience, one of last year’s top four receiving targets, and half of last year’s OL starts.

Miracles do happen sometimes — the chemistry clicks, the new coach’s culture sets in, desperation leads to tactical experimentation that actually works, etc. — but you can’t plan on a miracle, and on paper, this ECU team doesn’t appear to have any answers that the last two didn’t.

* We have to create a Georgia Exception for Glen Mason Territory. If you’ve got all sorts of money, live in one of the most fertile recruiting areas, and boast Kirby Smart as an alum, you can possibly get away with firing a good coach.

Offense

Montgomery did make a pretty astute hire in bringing Tony Petersen with him. The three-decade coaching veteran — who, ironically enough, served as Glen Mason’s co-coordinator at Minnesota — managed to find occasional offense in 2016 despite instability at QB and OL, and he did so again last year.

Duke transfer Thomas Sirk and Gardner Minshew bounced in and out of the lineup, and after starting seven different guys on the line in 2016, 10 linemen started at least two games each in 2017. But the Pirates still improved to 56th, scoring 24 or more points six times in the final nine games of the year. That’s not great, but it’s not terrible.

Sirk graduated, however, and Minshew announced a graduate transfer, first to Alabama, then to Washington State. Petersen will now decide between sophomore Reid Herring, redshirt freshman Kinglsey Ifedi, and star signee Holton Ahlers, a high-three-star prospect who turned down a late offer from Florida.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Memphis
Trevon Brown
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The new QB will have at least one proven weapon. Trevon Brown has caught 115 passes for 1,829 yards in his career, which more than half of that coming as ECU’s No. 1 target last year.

Of the 54 FBS players targeted at least 100 times last year, Brown was one of only five to produce both a marginal efficiency of plus-13 percent or higher and a marginal explosiveness of at least plus-0.4 points per successful play. The others: Oklahoma State’s James Washington, Toledo’s Diontae Johnson, UCLA’s Jordan Lasley, and Texas Tech’s Keke Coutee. Pretty good company.

Brown erupted late in the year, catching 34 passes for 611 yards in the last four games. He’s going to probably need to pick up that pace at the beginning of 2018, too, because of the four wideouts to catch at last 25 passes in Petersen’s offense, he’s the only returnee.

Senior slot receiver Deondre Farrior has seen plenty of playing time through the years, and three-star sophomore X-receiver Tahj Deans saw some action last season. But after those three, the next most prolific wideout on the list is sophomore Mydreon Vines, who caught two passes in 2017.

NCAA Football: Western Carolina at East Carolina
Anthony Scott
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

A Petersen offense is a passing offense, but ECU might have a sturdier run game.

This running back corps has plenty of options, if nothing else. Junior Hussein Howe and sophomore Darius Pinnix led the way last year. Plus, Anthony Scott, 2016’s No. 2 RB, is back after missing 2017 because of academics, and redshirt freshman Trace Christian is a former mid-three-star recruit (for all of his problems, Montgomery has recruited pretty well) who performed well in spring ball.

None of the three actually did much damage — Howe and Pinnix averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last year, and Scott averaged 4.9 in 2016 — but they’re more experienced now, and they ... might have a stable line?

Petersen’s quick-passing system keeps pressure off of the quarterback, and ECU ranked 12th in Adj. Sack Rate last year despite the shuffling. But half of last year’s 10 starters are gone, including the only guy who started all 12 games, right tackle Brandon Smith. At the very least, this is going to be a big line. Of the five returnees with starting experience, four are listed at 316 pounds or higher. Guard Cortez Herrin and tackle D’Ante Smith, both juniors, are listed at 346 and 336, respectively. Line up Christian or the 225-pound Pinnix behind those behemoth, and you should be able to lean forward for a few yards, right?

Defense

I really like Montgomery’s defensive coordinator hire. I don’t know if it will work, but it was all sorts of sensible. Montgomery called on a guy who both graduated from ECU and was one of the best FCS defensive coordinators in the country.

David Blackwell played for Bill Lewis at ECU in the early-1990s, and after an injury ended his playing career, he coached for Lewis’ replacement, Steve Logan. He was co-coordinator for the 2009 USF defense, which ranked 35th in Def. S&P+, and he was full-on coordinator at both Fordham and Jacksonville State. He’s coached at both Pitt and Clemson.

In his last three years at JSU, the Gamecocks never allowed more than 20 points per game. Last year’s JSU defense was a damn masterpiece, allowing 15 points per game and 3.8 yards per play with a 21.2 percent havoc rate that would have ranked fourth at the FBS level.

ECU last year: 45 points per game, 7.7 yards per play, 9.9 percent havoc rate. Last in FBS on all three accounts. Getting Blackwell was a damn coup.

NCAA Football: Temple at East Carolina
Colby Gore
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been moderate turnover defensively, but at least ECU played a lot of guys last year. Thanks to a combination of injury and desperate shuffling, 10 linemen, six linebackers, and 12 defensive backs made at least five tackles each. From that group, six linemen, four linebackers, and seven DBs return.

The only thing ECU wasn’t horrible at last year was preventing big runs. The Pirates gave up 1.8 rushes per game of 20-plus yards, which wasn’t good (92nd in FBS), but we’re speaking relatively here. And with the experience in the backbone of this defense — tackles Jalen Price and Alex Turner, linebackers Aaron Ramseur and Cannon Gibbs, and a bunch of safeties (including Auburn transfer Tim Irvin, who like many DBs only played about half the season) — that shouldn’t get any worse.

Are there any play-makers, though? Blackwell will find out, but safety Devon Sutton is the only returnee who made more than three tackles for loss last year, and corner Colby Gore is the only returnee who defensed more than three passes. This is a blank slate.

The secondary was beset by injury and appears to bring back the most potential, but you have to squint to see it. Plus, most of the potential appears to be at safety. I’m really not sure who ends up starting at cornerback opposite Gore.

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Houston
Devon Sutton
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Just imagine if ECU’s special teams unit hadn’t been pretty good! The PIrates ranked 49th in Special Teams S&P+, thanks mostly to punter Austin Barnes (who’s gone), kicker Jake Verity (who returns after making seven of 14 FGs beyond 40 yards), and kick returner Trevon Brown (also back). They didn’t get anything from the punt return game, but opponents weren’t punting anyway.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep NC A&T NR 7.0 66%
8-Sep North Carolina 51 -16.4 17%
15-Sep at Virginia Tech 21 -29.1 5%
22-Sep at USF 56 -20.2 12%
29-Sep Old Dominion 114 -1.1 48%
6-Oct at Temple 81 -15.7 18%
13-Oct Houston 59 -14.7 20%
20-Oct UCF 17 -26.5 6%
3-Nov Memphis 42 -17.7 15%
10-Nov at Tulane 98 -11.0 26%
17-Nov Connecticut 124 2.1 55%
23-Nov at Cincinnati 88 -13.7 21%
Projected S&P+ Rk 125
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 61 / 130
Projected wins 3.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -3.3 (87)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 81 / 78
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -10 / -10.8
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 49% (43%, 55%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 2.5 (0.5)

Here’s the positive spin: a new QB will have a go-to receiver, improving run game, and a stable line. The defense cannot possibly get worse and could improve quite a bit with a strong new coordinator. And the fact that said coordinator was willing to hop aboard what appears to be a sinking ship suggests the ship could be worth saving, right?

ECU plays six teams projected 80th or worse and is only two years removed from ranking in the 70s. Take a couple of steps forward, and you can threaten bowl eligibility. Maybe that’s enough to save Montgomery’s job.

The negative spin is obvious: the defense can only improve so much after plummeting to incredible depths, and the pass-happy offense has a new QB and mostly new WRs. And it’s a long way from 123rd back to the 70s.

S&P+ projects the Pirates 125th and gives them a better than 26 percent chance of winning in just three games. If they fall to NC A&T in the season opener — the two were basically even in last year’s Sagarin ratings — Montgomery could be out of a job by the end of September. The negative spin feels more based in reality, but hey, miracles happen.

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