GREENVILLE, N.C. - East Carolina's last winning streak was a beauty. The run of four consecutive victories included three away from home, and it led to a spot in the GMAC Bowl.
It also came four years ago.
Since then, the Pirates have gone 43 games and three coaches without stringing together wins. Their latest chance comes Saturday at SMU, a week after East Carolina rallied past Rice.
"Right now, we've got one in a row," coach Skip Holtz said Monday. "I'm not really a statistics guy. I don't use a lot of that for motivation."
Holtz took over in December when John Thompson was let go following two seasons and a 3-20 record. Thompson had replaced Steve Logan, whose 11-year tenure featured five trips to the postseason and that four-game winning streak in 2001.
Yet Logan was fired following a 4-8 mark the next season, and East Carolina (2-3, 1-1 Conference USA) is just beginning to show some signs of recovering. The come-from-behind victory over Rice was the second under Holtz, and he needs only one more in his first season to match Thompson's total.
"I would say we're ahead of where we initially thought we'd be right now, because of how many guys have stepped up and been pleasant surprises," Holtz said. "I've really been pleased with the progress. When you feel like you're getting better, you're always going to have a positive attitude on your football team."
The improvement comes at a great time, with C-USA enjoying one of its more competitive seasons. Longtime power Southern Miss lost to newcomer Tulsa last week, leaving four teams - including the Pirates - tied for second in the East Division.
At the top is surprising Central Florida, which had lost 17 consecutive games until winning three in a row. Those victories include ones over Marshall and Memphis, two of the "marquee" schools in the conference.
The West Division is equally jumbled, with five of the six teams within one game of each other. For the first time, C-USA has a title game, and the division champ with the highest winning percentage will host it.
As odd as it sounds, East Carolina isn't out of the running yet.
"This is a very competitive conference, and that's what makes a conference great," Holtz said. "When anybody can beat anybody on any given night, it makes for some terrific games all season."
One factor in the Pirates' resurgence certainly has been a favorable early schedule. An opening victory over Duke might look good to fans and to alumni, but the lowly Blue Devils might not beat a Division I-A opponent this season.
The Owls remained winless after the loss to East Carolina, and ordinarily, SMU would be in similar shape. But the Mustangs knocked rival TCU out of The Associated Press' media poll earlier in the year, then added another upset last week at UAB.
Throw in the fact that SMU runs much of the same offensive and defensive schemes as the Pirates, and Saturday's game should be close.
"Both teams will be comfortable lining up, because it will be like looking into the mirror," Holtz said. "They're not going to give up a lot of big plays on defense. They keep it front of them and make you earn it. We are going to have to work hard at being consistent."
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