Luke DeCock

East Carolina summons old magic before new reality inevitably intrudes

East Carolina’s Gardner Minshew (5) releases a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)
East Carolina’s Gardner Minshew (5) releases a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech in Greenville, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker) AP

The setting sun cast long shadows on the field and gave an autumnal tinge to East Carolina’s gold pants. The stands had long emptied out by then for the most part, die-hards scattered among the purple chairbacks and concrete, the students deserting the Boneyard for the next fun thing on another Saturday night in Greenville, or maybe a nap to recharge first.

It was a sad scene with the Pirates well on their way to 0-3, the early scare they put into Virginia Tech fading from memory, feeling at that point like nothing more than a fever dream, a hallucination born of the early afternoon heat. The third quarter came to an end. Everyone who was left went through the motions, hoisting the “No Quarter” flag, playing the music at easy-listening volume, duly indulging in all the ceremony and circumstance that makes a football game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium something unto itself but on this afternoon empty of any meaning or significance.

Virginia Tech was up by 40 at that point, on its way to scoring 57 unanswered points in a 64-17 win. “No quarter” would have been a preferred option to “fourth quarter” at that point. The fans who were left golf-clapped.

And yet: The Pirates led 17-7 after the first quarter, finding a way to carry the pregame festivities into the stadium and onto the field, as East Carolina has so often in the past. And before that, walking the streets of Greenville, there was no way to tell anything was wrong, no reason to suspect the football program was in such dire distress.

The campus, like every other square inch of green space surrounding Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, was as full of tailgaters as it ever is, a landscape of tents and SUVs buried under a haze of charcoal smoke, punctuated with the whack of cornhole bags, the playing fields of Elmhurst Elementary School, as always, pressed into the service of these most adult pastimes.

Interest in the football itself may wax and wane, but the environment never does. This atmosphere, both inside and outside the stadium, is buried so deep in East Carolina’s DNA that no amount of football frustration can put a significant dent in it, even if there were a few empty seats on Saturday, and will certainly be more when AAC opponents replace this ACC opponent.

Virginia Tech was the last ACC team to win in Dowdy-Ficklen, four years ago. In the three years since then, the Pirates embarrassed North Carolina, beat the Hokies and upset N.C. State, running their record to 7-4 against ACC teams at home since 2004, going into Saturday. That run extends across three coaching regimes, bigger than any one person or group of players, above and beyond the difficulties of any given season.

And so it seemed entirely normal when East Carolina dominated the first quarter against the No. 16-ranked team in the country and looked nothing like the team that got walked over by James Madison and West Virginia, defeats that led to the panic-scented reassignment of the team’s defensive coordinator on Sunday, never a sign of a functional operation.

For one quarter, after a warm afternoon of tailgating before an ideal 3:30 p.m. kickoff, the Pirates summoned all of the old magic, slicing through Virginia Tech’s defense like Bud Foster took the week off, getting stops, riling up the partisans.

It didn’t last, to no one’s surprise. The lead having morphed into a six-point deficit at the half, a healthy portion of both adults and students decided they’d rather remain outside than return for the likely inevitable. Which it was.

For a quarter, East Carolina recaptured what it once was, and perhaps could be again. And then it showed just how far away it is at this point.

“I don’t know,” quarterback Gardner Minshew said. “It all just stopped.”

Based on the evidence of that quarter, there may be a win ahead for East Carolina, and not far off: at Connecticut, next Sunday, does not seem like an impossible challenge. But the ACC portion of the schedule has come and gone, and while the atmosphere delivered, as it always does, the Pirates could not this time.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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