It’s tough to say East Central University’s football team has momentum heading into Thursday night’s Lone Star Conference North road showdown with old rival UCO.

The Tigers started the season 1-1 and appeared to be much improved over the 2005 squad that finished 3-7, but, like last year’s team, this group finished September on a three-game losing streak and facing more questions than answers. Still, the final nine minutes of Saturday’s 40-29 loss to Northeastern should at least give first-year coach Kurt Nichols, his staff and his players a reason to hope.

Although the 2006 Tigers are a more talented group on both sides of the ball than their predecessors, the offense has been in a constant state of flux over the past three weeks, and the defense is in disarray after a crippling string of injuries that has left it a shadow of the unit that began the season.

Offensively, Nichols hasn’t found anybody to replace graduated all-conference tailback King Bennett, but his receiving corps is deeper and more talented than last year’s, the rebuilt offensive line — although experiencing some growing pains — is starting to come around, and the Tigers are still better off at quarterback (despite the sudden departure last week of starter Robby Treadwell) this season than last (when Akeem Leviston was ECU’s only healthy signal-caller over the final five games).

Defensively, the Tigers had one of their worst nights in Todd Fugett’s 14 seasons as coordinator when they surrendered almost 600 yards in Week 4 to a Midwestern State offense that is easily the hottest in the conference through five games, and they struggled through a third quarter in Saturday’s 40-29 loss to Northeastern that was easily the worst of the season for the offense and defense combined. Riddled with injuries, the ECU defense has given up 103 points and over 1,000 total yards in the last two games — after surrendering 82 points (52 of those to Pittsburg State in the season opener) and less than 1,000 yards in the first three games of the season.

The Tigers led Northeastern 3-0 after one quarter Saturday and still trailed just 12-3 at halftime, despite an offense that struggled under Ryan McGuire (making his first start of the season in Treadwell’s absence) and had less than 100 yards at intermission. Things got even worse for ECU in the third quarter, when the offense generated just 23 total yards (and lost 15 on three costly procedure penalties) and the defense — playing without three injured starters — surrendered two long scoring plays in the first seven minutes to essentially put the game out of reach. Then, after an ill-advised attempt on fourth-and-20 from the Northeastern 45 resulted in a sack of Leviston (who replaced McGuire late in the first half), Northeastern marched 41 yards in just three plays to make it 33-3 early in the fourth.

In fact, the only silver lining to the nine-quarter dark cloud the Tigers had been playing under (they were also badly outplayed in the second half of a loss to Eastern New Mexico in Week 3) was that, at that point, things could only get better.

And, suddenly, they did.

Leviston, who earned honorable mentional all-conference honors last fall despite starting only the final five games of the season but struggled to pick up Nichols’ spread offense in the spring and lost his starting job to Treadwell, had thrown just six passes (all against Midwestern) this season when he replaced McGuire late in the second quarter Saturday. He looked rusty in the third quarter but, after the Redmen scored their fifth touchdown, Leviston suddenly started to look like the quarterback who helped make the ECU offense one of the best in the LSC over the second half of the 2005 campaign.

A 5-9 senior, Leviston hit five straight passes — three to Quinta Becks and one each to tight end August Peters and wideout Mike Smith — to move the Tigers to a first down at the Northeastern 20, before his sixth — a swing pass to the right — was picked out of the air by linebacker Chauncy Jones for the Redmen’s third interception of the game to kill the drive.

ECU’s beleaguered defense got a three-and-out on Northeastern’s next possession, however, to launch Leviston on the best nine minutes of his career. After a draw play by tailback Evans Gordon gained 15 yards on second-and-10, Leviston hit Mike Glover for 11 yards, and two plays later he found Marcus Pitts over the middle for 47 yards and a touchdown.

The Redmen recovered the ensuing on-side kick and drove 47 yards for a touchdown of their own to make it 40-11, then Leviston went back to work, throwing a 64-yard scoring pass to Glover (who has turned into a big-play receiver after a disappointing first season at ECU), and — after Chris Mims recovered an on-side kick — hitting Pitts for an eight-yard touchdown pass to cap a 52-yard march. Oddly enough, both scoring drives took exactly 36 seconds, and, although ECU wasn’t really in the game (trailing 40-23 with 3:48 to play), the crowd was finally into it — and so was the Tiger bench.

Northeastern recovered an on-side kick after Pitts’ touchdown, but on the next play ECU tackle Corey Roberts stormed in to hit tailback Marquise Dansby in the backfield, forcing a fumble that the Tigers’ other tackle, Kevin Roach, picked up and returned to the 9. That threat died when Leviston forced a pass into the end zone on third-and-goal from the six and had it picked off, but Mims intercepted a pass on the next play and returned it to the Northeastern 15, setting up a 14-yard Leviston-to-Kory Dowell touchdown pass on fourth-and-nine that pulled the Tigers to within 11.

Only 47 seconds remained when Dowell scored, however, and Northeastern recovered the ensuing on-side kick and ran out the clock.

In reality, the game was lost long before Leviston and his teammates mounted their frantic fourth-quarter rally, and the fact remains that ECU is 1-4 heading to Edmond this week to face a UCO team the Tigers beat in a thriller 42-39 last season at Norris Field. And, despite his late heroics, Leviston still hasn’t officially earned the starting quarterback job. Nichols said he will decide later this week whether Leviston or McGuire will start against UCO.

“Whoever performs best Monday through Thursday will start, but I’m going to play both of them,” Nichols said. “I might rotate them. Teams have been successful doing that.

“I think our passing game is really developing,” he added. “Our pass protection was good (the offensive line surrendered just one sack in 50 passing plays). Nobody has really stopped us offensively yet, but our inconsistency and our penalties have stopped us, and inconsistent quarterback play has hurt us.”

Although the ECU offense struggled in the second and third quarters Saturday, the ECU receiving corps is potentially one of the best in the conference. Six different receivers — Becks, Glover, Pitts, Dowell, Hodges and Peters — caught at least four passes Saturday, and Glover and Pitts are starting to show the big-play potential that was lacking in Nichols’ ball-control passing attack earlier in the season.

“Mike Glover is a playmaker,” Nichols said. “They just didn’t utilize him last year.

“Marcus Pitts has to show me more in practice and he’ll get more playing time,” Nichols added. “He’s got a lot of ability, but if he doesn’t practice well, it’s tough to put him into a game.”

Leviston — who made the most of his chance to start last season after waiting on the banch for two and a half seasons — didn’t complain when he lost the starting job to Treadwell, and he remained a positive force in practice and on the ECU sideline through the first four games of the season before he finally got another shot Saturday. McGuire has the stronger arm of the two, but Leviston is the more athletic and, as he proved again Saturday, he is a leader.

Defensively, though, things could get worse for Nichols, Fugett and Co. before they get better.

The Tiger secondary — hurt by a potential season-ending leg injury suffered by starting cornerback Jermaine West against Midwestern and a hand injury sustained by his replacement, Brandon Smith, in the same game — surrendered 13 completions in 18 attempts and 246 yards to Northeastern quarterbacks William Cole and Dustin Workman, and cornerback Tyrone Ealey was the victim of four big plays — three of them touchdowns and the other to set up a score.

Smith could be back this week, but, with depth almost non-existent in the secondary for the Tigers these days, freshman cornerback Jeremy Richards from Denton Ryan High School (who dressed for a game Saturday for the first time this season) will be part of the traveling squad for the UCO game.

“We’ve got to get healthy defensively, and we have to stop giving up big plays,” Nichols said. “We’ve been giving them up all year. Going three-and-out (on offense) isn’t a cardinal sin — the cardinal sin is letting the other team take the ball and drive for a touchdown.

“We’ve been proactive instead of reactive on defense,” he added. “We’ll work hard on man coverage this week.”

Nichols admitted he is still searching for the combination on both offense and defense to unlock some consistency for his struggling football team.

“We’re 1-4 ... if I had all the answers, we’d be 4-1,” he said.

But the fact remains that, as ugly as Saturday’s game was for three quarters, the Tigers gave themselves something to build on in the final nine minutes. Leviston looked like his old self in directing the offense, receivers were making plays and the defense — feeding off the energy provided by the offense — starting making plays as well.

ECU got beat, but the Tigers didn’t quit.

“We’ve gotta hang in there,” Glover said in the subdued ECU locker room after Saturday’s loss. “We can’t give up.”

“We have to play four quarters,” guard Wesley Richardson said. “We played the first and fourth quarters tonight, but in the second and third we didn’t show up.”

The bad news is ECU has only three days to heal up and prepare for UCO; the good news is the short week gives the Tigers less time to forget how good those final nine minutes felt and, ultimately, how bad it felt to lose. That feeling could take Nichols and his team a long way over the next five weeks.

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