East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill made no excuses and accepted all blame, criticism and ridicule for his team’s crushing 56-3 loss to Houston on Saturday. Yet he remained confident in the Pirates' ability to compete with other football teams in Conference USA.
During Monday’s news conference, the second year coach said his team played its “worst” football game of the season and was outclassed by No. 25 Houston (6-0, 2-0 C-USA).
“We got beat by a better team,” McNeill said. “They played great on all three sides of the ball. Their offense, defense and special teams were magnificent. They played with great confidence and executed as well as any team we’ve played this year, including South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
“They executed with precision. Their kids played with a lot of confidence. I told [Houston head coach] Kevin [Sumlin] after the game good luck and I hope we meet again in the championship game.”
The Pirates (1-4, 1-1) now move into a contest against Memphis (1-5, 02) on Saturday and hope to turn their season around.
McNeill said the Pirates must remain a “tight team” and work themselves into a better position – and possibly into the conference championship game.
“When things are going well it’s easy to handle,” McNeill said. “It’s easy for everybody to handle when things are going well. Right now it’s a little tough for us. I look forward to handling adversity. I’ve been around adverse situations most of my life. I look forward to handling this one and fighting back out of it, contending for the division championship and playing in the championship game.
“That is unwavering with me, even after the tough game Saturday. The challenge of getting back is one I relish.”
The Pirates are tied with Marshall and Southern Miss behind East Division leaders Central Florida.
Still, the Pirates have a mighty tough road to navigate if they are to reach the conference title game. Nothing seemed to work at Robertson Stadium, where Houston outgained them in total yards 572-284.
ECU quarterback Dominique Davis, who has been the team’s most outstanding player since taking over the job last season, completed 13 of 23 passes for 169 yards and three interceptions.
Davis was replaced in the line-up by Rio Johnson, leading observers to question whether that was the start of a quarterback controversy. McNeill dismissed those concerns, saying Davis led the team as the No. 1 quarterback in practice and will start on Saturday.
“During the game, Dominique was the first one on the sideline cheering on Rio,” McNeill said. “I think that tells a lot about Dominique. We felt he was struggling, so we gave Rio a shot. Rio came in and did some good things, but Dominique is our quarterback. There is competition every week. We hope Dominique and everybody on the team understands that, but Dominique will start this week.”
ECU junior transfer Reggie Bullock injured himself on Saturday and may be available for this weekend’s game. If not, McNeill said Torrance Hunt and Michael Dobson can fill in for him.
“If Reggie can’t go on Wednesday, he won’t play,” McNeill said. “That’s the rule. If he can’t go three practices, I can’t put him in the game. That’s what I’ve gone by my whole life in coaching. If you can’t go on Wednesday, it’s pretty impossible to play in the game.”
With array of problems to fix, their defense allowing a conference-high 37.4 points per game 422.2 yards per game this season, the Pirates have seven regular-season games remaining on its schedule. The conference championship game is Dec. 3.
“I never look at it as all is lost,” McNeill said. “We have a chance to win our division. That’s where I hope everybody stays strong around our football team. I am and I’m leading this thing.
“We have a game at Memphis this week that we need to win. We have a chance to win our division. That’s still in our hands. That’s why I told Kevin I hope to see him in the championship game.”