08 Sep 2008
by Russell Levine
Tropical Storm Hanna was supposed to turn Saturday's West Virginia-East Carolina game into a quagmire. Instead, clear skies appeared over Greenville, N.C., but the Mountaineers got hit by Hurricane Holtz -- as in Skip Holtz, suddenly the coach of the hottest program in college football.
Holtz, the son of former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, is in his fourth season at East Carolina. With 16 starters back, the Pirates were expected to contend for the Conference USA title, but few expected them to vie for a Bowl Championship Series bid. Yet that's exactly where they find themselves after back-to-back wins over ranked BCS-conference teams to begin the 2008 season, the latest a leave-no-doubt, 24-3 whipping of No. 8 West Virginia.
Non-automatic qualifying leagues have sent teams to the BCS three times, including both seasons since a fifth game was added to the BCS in 2006. All three schools -- Utah in 2004, Boise State in 2006, and Hawaii last season -- fought their way up the polls all year, only getting into position to qualify for a BCS bid in the final weeks.
East Carolina might have no such worries. After beating Virginia Tech and West Virginia, the Pirates are already No. 14 in the AP poll. What's more, they have already played what will likely be the two best teams on their schedule, and with games remaining against Virginia and North Carolina State, they could go undefeated with a 4-0 mark against BCS-league schools. It would be an unprecedented achievement in the BCS era.
In fact, what the Pirates have already done this season has little precedent.
East Carolina might have "the best pair of opening wins in recent memory," says Matt Hinton, who blogs about college football as "Dr. Saturday" on Yahoo! Sports. "I can't find anyone else in the last five or six years that beat two top 20 teams in consecutive weeks to open the season."
Hinton is also a voter in the online BlogPoll, which was designed to counteract the typical problems with the writers' and coaches' polls -- namely, that teams are placed at one spot in the preseason, and are only moved up and down relative to that initial ranking.
Hinton prefers "resume ranking" his ballot, only giving teams credit for what they have done on the field to that point and setting aside all preseason assumptions. He had the Pirates No. 5 last week, when they did not appear in the AP top 25. This week, they will move up.
"ECU laid it on West Virginia by a pretty wide margin, so as of now, I expect them to be No. 1," said Hinton, who expects to drop ECU as BCS-conference teams start to build better resumes. "But as long as they're winning and unless Virginia Tech and West Virginia turn out to be flops, those wins will keep ECU near the top of the mix for most of the season. It's certainly more impressive than Hawaii, Boise State, and Utah in their BCS seasons, because none of those teams faced a ranked opponent from a 'Big Six' conference in the regular season, much less two."
Regardless of where ECU ends up this season, Holtz has already authored a remarkable turnaround for a program that appeared to have lost its way under John Thompson, who went just 3-20 in his two years in Greenville.
Holtz's teams have improved each season, from 5-6 in 2005, to 7-6 in 2006, and 8-5 last season, which was capped with an upset win over No. 22 Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl.
Against Virginia Tech, East Carolina rallied to win late by returning a blocked punt for the winning touchdown. There was nothing last-minute about the thrashing of West Virginia, which was a popular national title pick in part because of its perceived weak schedule.
A year ago, East Carolina's defense gave up a 599 yards and 48 points to West Virginia. On Saturday, the totals were 251 and 3, as West Virginia quarterback Patrick White was held completely in check.
ECU quarterback Patrick Pinkney meanwhile, continued his spectacular play. After two games, he has completed 41 of 51 throws for 447 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Holtz proved masterful at getting his team not to rest on its laurels after upsetting Virginia Tech. The challenge will be even greater this week, after the media darling Pirates have had another dose of press clippings. A trip to Tulane may seem like a foregone conclusion after the teams ECU has already beaten. With Holtz's club likely to be favored in nearly every game the rest of the way, it may be his task all season to get his team to play at the same level it did against Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
If the Pirates do that, they'll be in prime position to give Conference USA its first ever BCS bid.
This is not the first time the East Carolina program has been on the rise. Steve Logan led the Pirates to four straight non-losing seasons from 1998-2001, and memorably upset Miami in 1999. But he was fired after going 4-8 in 2002, and the program fell apart under Thompson.
This time, the ECU administration appears to be treating its coach with greater care. Holtz was given a six-year extension through 2013 before the season, but if ECU continues to play this well, it might be time to check the fine print on the buyout clause. While projecting an undefeated season in mid-September is obviously premature, it's a much safer assumption that a BCS conference school will come calling if Holtz even comes close.
ECU's win had to share co-billing with another story on Saturday, thanks to a controversy at the end of the BYU-Washington game.
Since I expect many of you have opinions on what transpired -- after rushing for a potential game-tying touchdown with two seconds left, Washington quarterback Jake Locker was flagged for excessive celebration for throwing the ball in the air, and the Huskies lost when the 35-yard extra-point try was blocked -- I'll offer my own.
It's a ridiculous way to end a good football game, but do not blame the officials. What Locker did, tossing the ball high into the air, absolutely rose to the level of excessive celebration as defined by the NCAA rulebook. He did not flip the ball over his head onto the ground as Mark May seemed to believe. He tossed it what looked like 15 to 20 feet in the air. The referee is simply doing his job by calling that penalty.
Blame the rulebook, not the referee. It's a stupid rule. I'm all for cleaning up the game of prolonged or premeditated celebrations and especially taunting. That is what the rules should target, not simple exuberance that shows up exactly nobody. But that's not the way the rules are written.
South Florida was comfortably ahead of Central Florida by 14 points and in full kill-the-clock mode in the final four minutes. The Bulls had run the ball on five consecutive snaps and seven out of the previous eight. About the only thing that could threaten USF at that point in the game was a turnover. Why throw the ball, particularly a pass that was high-risk, low-reward?
But on second-and-9 from his own 35, USF coach Jim Leavitt called for a quick out. Matt Grothe's pass, which would have gained at most a couple of yards, was intercepted. Four plays later, UCF was in the end zone. After a USF three-and-out, the Knights scored again to send the game to overtime, where USF prevailed.
Leavitt's club may be the Big East favorite after what we saw from West Virginia Saturday. But if he claims the Big East Trophy, he'll have to put it next to the JLS award on the mantle.
Rankings that may require further explanation: We're still in wild swing mode as the teams sort themselves out. Oklahoma moves way up because others struggled and they bombed a Cincinnati team that I feel is pretty good. Oregon shuffles up because their offense looks unstoppable, but we don't really know until they actually play somebody. I moved the top of the Big Ten -- Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin -- down to the middle of the poll in a block. Obviously, Ohio State will move WAY up if they beat USC this week. Still mostly guesswork for a few more weeks, so look for lots of movement in the next several polls.
Games I watched at least part of: South Carolina-Vanderbilt, Miami-Michigan, West Virginia-East Carolina, Ohio-Ohio State, Oregon State-Penn State, Ole Miss-Wake Forest, Cincinnati-Oklahoma, Miami-Florida, Stanford-Arizona State.
Portions of this article appeared in Tuesday's New York Sun.
65 comments, Last at 11 Sep 2008, 11:12am by Kevin11