Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson
With less than two minutes remaining in last year’s season opener, receiver T.J. Lee changed the perception of East Carolina football.
Lee returned a blocked punt 27 yards to give the Pirates a 27-22 upset win over No. 17 Virginia Tech.
The win put the Pirates on the national map and was part of the reason the Pirates appeared at No. 14 in the AP ranking two weeks and another upset later. East Carolina was trumpeted as a possible BCS buster for the first time in school history and Skip Holtz, a coach of the year candidate.
More than a year later, that hype is gone.
East Carolina and Virginia Tech meet tonight under very different circumstances. The Pirates are no longer out to make a statement in an attempt to bust the BCS. That ship sailed with losses to West Virginia and North Carolina earlier in the season. And Virginia Tech has been on a steady decline after two consecutive losses knocked the No. 23 Hokies out of the top 5.
Holtz said the current statures of both teams won’t take away from the importance of this game, but the fact that it doesn’t mean as much as many thought it would is a little disheartening.
“It’s not going to detract from the quality of team that we’re playing, it may detract from some of the national attention that many thought would be on it,” Holtz said. “The reality of it all, neither one of us have done what we had to do to put that type of media coverage on this game.”
This was supposed to be East Carolina’s year. With nearly every starter from last year Conference USA championship team returning a year wiser from last year’s experiences, Holtz thought his squad could compete for a spot in the BCS and that this weekend’s game would be the one to put the Pirates over the top.
And while the Pirates are 5-3 and sitting on top of the East Division in the conference standings, winning this game might very well define their season.
“I've said this many times the last few years we've played them. Their program is kind of the blueprint for what we would like to do and how we would like to build this program,” Holtz said. “Twenty years ago, we were on very level playing fields and there was a great rivalry between the two schools. When you look at where Coach Beamer has taken that program and the things he has done with it, that's where we want to go and where we aspire to be. I think this will be a great measuring stick for where we are right now.”
East Carolina long ago shifted its focus from playing in a BCS bowl to winning its second consecutive Conference USA title. The Pirates have lost just once in conference play and have beaten two of the three teams jockeying for position below them. No team, since Conference USA split into division, has won back-to-back titles.
While there is disappointment that East Carolina couldn’t ride the momentum that last year’s Virginia Tech win provided all the way through last season, there is hope that this year’s Virginia Tech game can bring that spotlight back to the Pirates.
“Everybody has their BCS aspirations and those are goals that we have written for this program and aspirations we have to one day achieve,” Holtz said. “Obviously, it didn’t happen this year. But just because you’re out of the BCS game doesn’t mean we can’t go on to accomplish some great things here.”