If East Central head football coach Tim McCarty has learned anything this season, it is that history means almost nothing where the 2010 Tigers are concerned.
After losing all 11 games last fall, being picked dead last in the Lone Star Conference North in preseason and opening with three straight losses to extend a school-record losing streak to 16 games, ECU (4-5, 4-1) has won four of its last six and needs only a victory Saturday night at defending North champion (and preseason favorite) Texas A&M-Commerce to claim at least a share of the school’s first-ever division title in its final season as a member of the LSC.
McCarty has seen his young squad win three straight games for the first time in six seasons, and last Saturday’s 48-21 rout of Northeastern at Norris Field earned ECU a tie with the RiverHawks for the North lead. But like his players and the rest of his staff, McCarty realizes that a loss Saturday night in Commerce to the 3-6 Lions could wipe out a lot of the good work the Tigers have done over the past six weeks.
“We’ve still got plenty to do,” McCarty said. “We still haven’t played a good game as a team yet — not a whole game.
“Simply put, winning the North was goal No. 1 this year,” he said. “It was all we talked about as a program. We wanted to get better every week, and that’s still a goal. Nov. 6 is going to sort out a lot of things in this conference, both in the North and South.”
While a victory will guarantee ECU at least a tie for the North title, the Tigers would finish in a three-way tie for the top spot if they lose at Commerce and Eastern New Mexico beats Northeastern. An ECU victory and an NSU loss would give the Tigers the championship outright, while the reverse scenario would give the RiverHawks the crown.
“I can guarantee you we’re not counting on anybody but ourselves,” McCarty said. “It just matters how we grow and how we execute, and that’s what we’re concentrating on.”
McCarty’s squad was hitting on all cylinders in three of four quarters last week. The Tigers outgained NSU, 274-72, while building a 24-7 halftime lead, and after the visitors trimmed a 33-7 deficit to 33-21 with a flurry late in the third quarter, ECU dominated the final period.
“We’ve got some good players and we’re becoming a good team,” McCarty noted. “We haven’t found the key yet to unlocking great execution in every phase, and that’s what we’re looking for. We’re close, we’re getting better, but we haven’t played THAT game yet.”
The Tigers would like nothing better than for their first complete effort of the season to come Saturday against a Lion squad that wiped out a 28-14 fourth-quarter deficit and beat ECU, 31-28, at Norris Field last season.
“Last year, we had a 14-point lead with six minutes to go in the game, and we lost,” McCarty recalled. “We obviously remember that.”
Despite their preseason hype, the Lions have struggled this season, losing to three teams — Eastern New Mexico, Southwestern and Northeastern — ECU has beaten during its recent six-game turnaround, and they rank near the bottom of the LSC in most offensive categories. In addition. Commerce ranks last in the league in turnover margin at minus-11 and will be facing a surging Tiger defense that is No. 1 in the LSC with 26 takeaways through nine games.
Although his Saturday opponent’s weaknesses seem to play to his team’s strengths, McCarty said the Lions are still a dangerous rival.
“Commerce has very explosive skill players on offense,” he explained. “They have good speed, and they can cut and make you miss. Their offensive line has proven they can mix it up with anybody.
“Defensively, they’ve got a really good line and a lot of good athletes,” McCarty said. “Their secondary can run and their linebackers look pretty tough on film.”
After being victimized by costly mistakes last season, ECU ranks No. 3 in the LSC (and first in the North) in turnover margin at plus-6. But two huge miscues — a fumble in the second quarter a blocked punt in the third — gift-wrapped two of the RiverHawks’ three touchdowns. McCarty said the Tigers will need to eliminate those mistakes this week.
“Obviously we can’t go in there and turn the ball over offensively and not execute,” he said. “Defensively, we have to get the ball back to our offense as quicly as possible. We have to stop them from running the ball and we have get after their quarterback.
“We’ve got have a hunger out there, and we can’t take anything for granted,” McCarty added. “Commerce was picked to win the conference and we were picked to finish last. It’s just another one of those games that have gotten huge for this team. We create a bigger monster every week.”
The monster that really seems to grow every week is the ECU defense. After allowing more yards (over 1,500) than any team in the LSC through the first three weeks of the season, the Tigers have surrendered just over 300 yards per game over the last six weeks.
ECU turned in one of its most dominant defensive efforts in years in Saturday’s win, limiting the high-flying RiverHawks to 72 first-half yards, 218 total yards and a meager 28 yards on 29 running plays.
The defense also scored its fifth and sixth touchdowns of the season — on a 74-yard interception return by Dontae Smith (who is tied for the LSC lead in interceptions with six) to give the Tigers a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter and a fumble return by defensive end Armonty Bryant early in the third quarter to make it 33-7 — and also recorded six sacks to take over the conference lead with 28.
Bryant’s three sacks and seven tackles and his second touchdown of the season earned him his second North Defensive Player of the Week award this year and gave the Tiger defense its fifth Player of the Week in nine games.
“We’ve got some guys on that side of the ball that are pretty special,” McCarty said. “They’re not perfect, but they’re learning and they like to play.”
Other than the steady growth of the defense into one of the team’s biggest weapons, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the recent winning streak has been the Tigers’ dominance on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter of all three games.
Last week, after going three-and-out on five straight possessions to start the second half, the ECU offense came to life and keyed a run of 16 unanswered points in the final period. Quarterback Tyler Vanderzee (the North Offensive Player of the Week) tossed his second long scoring pass of the afternoon, then he ripped off a 40-yard scramble to ignite a long drive to the game’s final touchdown. The Tiger running game also continued its turnaround and accounted for a season-high 157 yards, including 97 by University of Tulsa transfer Charles Opeseyitan.
“Finishing games really goes back to focus,” McCarty said. “The game lasts 60 minutes, and we grade every play, even kneel-downs at the end. We expect these kids to do things right. You have to finish games, and teams that can finish are going to win.
“I’m happy with the way we’ve started and finished, but we’ve had some lapses in the second and third quarter,” he added. “Our offense has been inconsistent and we’ve been working on cleaning that up.”
McCarty said a first-ever North title would represent a huge step forward for ECU football as the school moves to a brand new conference for 2011 and would validate his plan to rebuild Tiger program when he returned to Ada in 2009.
“You can get discouraged when you’re young, but these kids hung in there,” he noted. “They had to have faith in something they couldn’t see, and it’s given them some substance to who they are. I really like the character of this team. I’m happy for them and I’m happy for our coaches.”