HAMPTON — Hampton University's journey back to competitive relevance so far included a flat tire, a blown radiator and a fleecing by the locals.
Now that the Pirates return to their neighborhood, they have a chance at a fresh start, with the possibility of a big audience.
After a month, HU is in the same position as a year ago — winless. Unlike last year, all of the Pirates' losses were to non-conference teams. They have the full Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference slate ahead of them, beginning with Saturday's opener 2 p.m. at South Carolina State (2-2, 0-0 MEAC), a game that will be broadcast on tape-delay by ESPNU.
"Regardless of whatever the record may be, we're just starting," Pirates coach Donovan Rose said Wednesday. "It's the MEAC. We went through a preseason and we didn't come out with the script that we would have liked. But we're here, and now, we have an opportunity to go in front of the entire nation. It shouldn't be any additional motivation required. Now, we get a chance to redeem ourselves and let them know who you are — the real HU."
Hampton (0-4) comes off of a 50-17 loss at Coastal Carolina, only the fourth time that HU has given up 50 points since becoming a Division I program. The Chanticleers, ranked 15th at the time, rushed for 382 yards and led 40-0 at halftime before taking their foot off of the gas pedal.
"I think you can learn from bad losses more than anything else because you realize, this isn't working, that isn't working," Pirates' defensive coordinator Bernard Clark said. "I don't think our players are discouraged. They look at us and say, OK, coach, how do we fix this? We're 0-4, but we still have eight games left. We still have a chance to have a good season. But we've got to get this right."
Rose used the video as a teaching tool, on both sides of the ball.
"What I saw was an offensive line that was in sync," Rose said of Coastal. "They took the right steps, they were aggressive and they knew what they wanted to do. What that did for our team is, they get a chance to see that and when you do things right, what can happen.
"On defense, you see what happens when you're not taking the right steps or taking the right gaps or stopping certain plays. Without a doubt, it was a learning tape."
He expects South Carolina State to learn from the video, as well.
"If I were our opponent, I would run it," Rose said. "They're going to keep running until we stop it."
The Pirates are allowing 246 yards rushing per game and 4.6 yards per carry, though much of that damage is tied to the Coastal and William and Mary games. The Tribe running game pummeled HU for 277 yards and 5.9 yards per carry.
"We can't continue to not stop the run and be a great defense," Clark said. "The worst thing you can say about a defense is they're soft, and that's how our guys feel about themselves right now. They feel like, we've got to stop the run. It's ridiculous that we can't stop the run, especially when we have the people to do it. Because we have the talent, we have the ability, but it's not getting done. That's where we come in as coaches: This is how we're going to get it done."
The Pirates made several personnel changes among the starters in the front seven. Clark said that they tightened some splits along the defensive line and tightened some fits by linebackers, in order to fill gaps and force opposing rushers to go side-to-side, rather than straight downfield.
Rose also has sought ways to ramp up the intensity level in practice. He might have found it by implementing a daily point system and pitting offense versus defense. Loser does extra drills and various annoying and uncomfortable punishments.
"Oh my gracious, it changed the whole mood," Rose said of Tuesday's practice. "Every play was like a game."
The Pirates' offense can aid the defense by extending drives and being more productive. They're averaging just 72.2 yards per game rushing and 2.5 yards per carry. They're converting just 22 percent on third down (11 of 50).
"This is the preseason," Rose said. "Learn from it. You've got to watch film and you've got to look at little things, and when you look at little things, you see why they turn into bigger things.
"Our biggest thing now, in any sport, but particularly in football, it's a physical sport. On the lines, it's something that we've got to shore up. I tell my offense, we've got to run the ball. On defense, we've got to be able to stop the run."
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.