The “middle eight” minutes of a football game was an idea first brought to prominence by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. The last four minutes of the first half and first four minutes of the second half, Belichick says, have decided many football games over the years, and the numbers back him up.

In a study done by SportSource Analytics back in 2019, they found FBS programs that won the middle eight minutes of a football game, won the contest 74% of the time over a five-year span.

Last weekend for the Pirates they fell in that other 26%, yielding four touchdowns to UCF from the 4:57 mark of the second quarter to the 9:57 mark of the third quarter. That offensive burst by the Knights blew the game open from 13-7 to 41-7 in an eventual 51-28 UCF victory.

“Unfortunately we didn’t play the middle eight, as coach Houston talks about, very well, which is the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half which are so important,” ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said earlier this week. “That’s where we really got whipped. If you look at the other parts of the game, we went toe-to-toe or won some of those. Boy that middle eight, we died before the half and we did not come out of the starting blocks very good in the second half right there.”

Of UCF’s four drives that resulted in points during the roughly 10-minute period spanning the halves, three began on ECU punts. With less than four minutes to go in the first half, the Pirates were driving the football and had just picked up a big third down conversion at mid-field on a nine-yard rush by Darius Pinnix Jr. That rush, however, was called back on one of ECU’s 11 penalties on the day, ultimately resulting in a Pirate punt and a subsequent UCF score.

“Certainly those last four minutes of the first half and first four minutes of the second half, you’d like to take those eight minutes away because that’s about four scores pretty quickly there,” ECU defensive coordinator Blake Harrell said. “UCF can do that to you, and that’s what they do. If you could have played better those eight minutes, then maybe it’s a different ball game.”

In the second quarter alone, UCF outscored ECU 17-0. With that 15 minutes of action removed, the Knights only outscored the Pirates 34-28, including the fourth quarter when ECU outscored the visitors 14-10.

To set all of that up, the Pirates fumbled the ball away on three consecutive possessions in the first quarter, forcing their defense to soak up extra snaps and wear down quickly in defense of UCF’s high-octane offense.

“Beyond that for us as well, besides the middle eight, we always talk about winning the next play, the last play is over,” Harrell said. “I think with a young football team right now we’re not quite mentally where we need to be. Like we got to keep pushing our kids, hey if something bad happens, move on. Something good happens, move on. We make a play, move on because it’s the next play that matters. Something bad goes wrong, move on because it’s the next play that matters.”

Last Saturday, ECU’s defense registered only three quarterback hurries and two tackles for loss despite bringing pressure around 60% of the time, according to Harrell. On one occasion, the Pirates yielded a 64-yard touchdown pass on a blown assignment, and ended up yielding north of 600 yards to the Knights offensively.

With their struggles in the middle eight against UCF, the Pirates have made that a big portion of their game planning for Saturday’s road opener against Georgia State. Against a team that likes to run the football like the Panthers do, keeping them from controlling the clock will be an important key to success for the Pirates.

Scoring more than seven points in the first half will also be a point of emphasis, but it is the middle eight the Pirates need to control to give themselves a shot to even their record at 1-1.

“I think the middle eight that coach Houston has been talking about has been the point of emphasis this week…We’ve got to find a way to play better in that little stretch…That’s going to be something we’re really going to emphasize this week as well,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’re going to have to keep the defense off the field. We got to score points, but we got to keep them off the field.”

ECU and Georgia State will kick-off inside Center Parc Stadium at noon on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

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