UNC cornerback Tim Scott (7) grabs a loose ball for another turnover by the Pirates in the first half at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville. CHUCK LIDDY - firstname.lastname@example.org
GREENVILLE -- The analogy Lance Lewis used for East Carolina’s main problem Saturday night was cancer. That’s what Lewis said each turnover felt like for the Pirates in the first half against North Carolina.
The feeling felt familiar for the Pirates, for they went down a similar path that has marred their season so far.
ECU turned the ball over four times in the first half, and though the Tar Heels didn’t turn those mistakes into 28 points, they did enough damage to build a comfortable lead. The Pirates never threatened the Tar Heels in the 35-20 loss in front of a sellout crowd that set a new attendance record at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
To begin the game, the Pirates did move the ball. Running back Reggie Bullock raced to the outside but lost the ball fighting for extra yards. Tar Heel cornerback Tre Brown forced the fumble and recovered it.
Once that happened, Lewis said the following turnovers were caused my mental mistakes.
“It just tends to spread once a turnover happens,” Lewis said of how the first turnover became contagious. “We stressed ball security so much this week that we shouldn’t have turned the ball over that much.”
Last week, the Pirates survived the University of Alabama at Birmingham and seven turnovers, which tied a school record. That amount of miscues left coach Ruffin McNeill to focus his Pirates more on protecting the football.
But on ECU’s next possession, quarterback Dominique Davis stared down receiver Joe Womack before throwing his pass high. Womack did get his hands on the ball, but he tipped it up in the air, allowing UNC linebacker Tim Scott to grab his first-career interception.
“We’ve missed an opportunity against Virginia Tech, South Carolina and now these guys,” Bullock said. “It was all because of turnovers.”
Even after the rough start, the Pirates felt fortunate to be down just seven. ECU drove the ball deep into UNC’s territory, only this time Bullock didn’t handle Davis’ handoff cleanly. And with the ball on the ground, Tar Heel defensive lineman Kevin Reddick beat Bullock to recover the ball for ECU’s third turnover.
“This is not a crisis,” McNeill said his team’s 17 turnovers this season. “We have to keep working on it. I think maybe we had the ball away from our body.”
By the end of the first quarter, ECU had 120 yards of offense but now points on the scoreboard.
Sure, Davis did set a new school record with 417 yards, many of which came in the second half. And yes, the Pirates did go the entire second half without giving the ball away.
But in the end, UNC coach Everett Withers knew his Tar Heels defense executed his game plan well against the Pirates.
“You have to have those (turnovers) when you play this kind of offense,” Withers said. “The way to beat this team is take the ball away from them.”