East Carolina hosts a Memphis program on Saturday at noon that dealt the Pirates a 70-13 defeat in the Liberty Bowl last season. It was the dismal end of a 3-9 campaign and the final nail in a 2-6 run through the American Athletic Conference.
ECU should be more competitive with the Tigers this time around.
One obvious factor is the home field advantage which is worth about nine points compared to playing on the road.
The Tigers haven’t been playing on the same level as last year. Memphis comes in at 4-4 with a 66-35 loss at Missouri in their last game on Oct. 20. Like the Pirates, who fell 37-10 to Central Florida in their last outing, the Tigers have had some time to recover and regroup.
Memphis was 10-1 after hammering ECU last season. Among those gone from that team are quarterback Riley Ferguson and Anthony Miller, who is now playing for the Chicago Bears. Miller broke a screen from Fergsuon for an 89-yard score to get the rout going last Nov. 25.
The Tigers returned eight starters on each side of the ball, but have lost three of their last four games, including a 40-28 setback at Tulane on Sept. 28.
ECU is significantly better on defense this year. The Pirates are yielding 32.9 points per game, down from 45.1 in 2017.
There is optimism on offense as true freshman Holton Ahlers makes his second start at quarterback.
Practice schedule, bye week
The Pirates had an open date last Saturday.
“We went Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said. “We were in the building on Sunday, but we went Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday, we had a huge lift and conditioning deal. Friday, they had to go to all of their classes and take care of any academic requirements in study hall that they had to meet. Saturday, we gave them the day off. Sunday,we went right back to work.”
Memphis vs. Missouri
Montgomery said Memphis ran into a talented group at Missouri.
“Week to week, you watch all the offenses across the country,” Montgomery said. “I think Missouri has done a good job offensively. They’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of speed, especially on the perimeter. They have some matchups that would be troublesome for anybody. There will be some adjustments. There were some unfortunate situations, of course, in the game that happened to Memphis. They’ll be ready to play and it will happen out here in Greenville. We’re really happy about that. We’ll get it going at noon.”
Input from Memphis
The one-sided loss at the Liberty Bowl last season confirmed Montgomery’s contention that the Pirates needed a speed upgrade.
“The game was eye-opening for a lot of reasons,” Montgomery said. “There was an early screen play in the game where we had a couple of people who could have been able to get to the ball. Thank God (Miller) is in the NFL now. We couldn’t catch him. We couldn’t get him on the ground and we had people around. That was eye-opening.
“It really went into me changing my thought process at all positions, the defensive end position, the field safety position, who we’re playing at linebacker. We’ve put a lot more speed on the field this year. I had to adjust, there’s no question about it, to this league. We’re still in the process of doing that, creating more speed.
“A lot of people ask why we recruited so many DBs, why we recruited so many linebackers last year, why we recruited so much on the defensive side of the ball. It was because of the things that were going on last year. The biggest deal was we wanted to increase our overall team speed. There were a few big plays in the game where they popped some runs on us. It did not look the way it should look physically. So we had to address that and we did.”
Duce Fuller, who played with Ahlers at D.H. Conley, is a player to watch in the future.
“He’s gotten a lot better,” Montgomery said. “He’s not going to be a guy we’re really relying on to win this football game. I wanted to give him some love and show him some love. I think he’s worked hard to get where he is now. There’s steps to getting into the game. Of course, he’s got to go out and perform on special teams. He’s got to go out and have another good couple of weeks of practice. Hopefully, we’ll start to see a lot more of him.”
Ahlers accelerated his learning curve during the bye week.
“(Tuesday) was Holton’s best day of football practice that he’s had since he’s been to ECU,” Montgomery said. “Throwing the ball, scrambling, the run game, the operation of the motions and shifts. He did a fantastic job (Tuesday). … That was a really, really good sign to have the first day of the week and to see what the open date was able to do for him to come out and be as sharp as he was. It was his sharpest day. We’ve got to keep him going.
“The people around him were really sharp, which is a good deal. I’ve said it all along. I think he’s going to be fine. We’ve just got to keep the people progressing around him. We got Deondre Farrier back on the practice field. We got Taj Deans back on the practice field. There were more weapons around him. He did a really, really good job of protecting himself. I was especially enthused about his periods against the defense. There were new looks that weren’t Memphis looks, just different looks and he adjusted to all those looks. He made plays with his arm, a lot of tight throws in tight windows. He made great throws. An impressive day. He’s got to build on that because that was impressive.”
Winstead at center
With John Spellacy expected to miss the Memphis game, the Pirates are looking for true freshman Peyton Winstead to step up at center.
“It looks like Peyton will be our guy,” Montgomery said. “He’s growing and progressing. A lot of the run game is going to come down to his ability to make calls. The open date is good because you could teach him the ability to make calls. … It all comes down to a blocking scheme. When you’ve got a young guy making some of those calls, there can be mental errors. He’s been pretty good. He’s going to get much better. We’ve got to continue to progress him and the people around him.
“I think one of the more important things now is that Holton is getting to a point where he can correct calls, which is outstanding. Now we’ve got an 18-year old, he’ll turn 19 here soon, but we’ve got him correcting the entire run game. That’s really, really impressive by him. You can tell he’s been in his meeting room and been in the building a whole lot. It means a lot to him. He’s doing a good job.”
Reid Herring started the first six games at quarterback for ECU (2-5, 0-4 AAC).
Herring has been recovering from injuries in an automobile accident after Ahlers was named the starter against UCF. Herring was not available against the Knights.
“Hopefully, we’ll have him back this week,” Montgomery said. “He’s in return to play protocol now. There’s a concussion protocol. Then there’s a return to play protocol. Hopefully, we’ll see him on the field.”
ECU had five turnovers against UCF despite holding a 496-427 lead in total yardage. The defense did not have a take-away against the Knights.
“I think it’s really critical for our defense to come out of this open date,” Montgomery said. “We’ve practiced really hard. We’ve put a lot of time into it. We’ve got to create some turnovers. We’ve got to go get the ball this week. I think that we will do that. I think that’s one of the critical points of the game. We’re going to have to steal a possession and take the ball away. Our guys are locked in, in tune to be able to do it. I think we’re going to do it.
“Offensively, we’ve got to build on what we were able to do in the last game. We moved the ball effectively. Now we’ve got to turn this young quarterback loose. We’ve got to see if he can make some of these tight throws. We’re not going to play it as close to the vest around the red zone, the strike zone. I’m really confident in him protecting himself. That’s what it comes down to in a lot of those situations. He’s progressed.
“Special teams, we have got to find that player on special teams that can provides a spark. Whether it’s a Duce Fuller, whether it’s a Tyler Snead, an Anthony Scott, a Trevon Brown. We’ve got to throw some different guys in the mix to create a spark.”