Sixty thousand fans came to Death Valley in Clemson on Saturday for the Tigers’ annual Orange & White spring football game.
Not an actual game, mind you. But a meaningless intrasquad scrimmage five full months before the first meaningful snap of the 2019 season.
It’s Clemson, mind you, so the level of interest in the football program there — after two national championships in the last three years — is understandably higher than it is at most schools.
Especially one, like East Carolina, whose team is coming off three straight 3-9 seasons.
Because of those struggles, it would be unreasonable to expect Pirates fans to show up in anywhere near those kind of numbers at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday for their team’s annual Purple-Gold spring game.
That doesn’t mean they should stay away, either.
A new era is about to launch under coach Mike Houston and athletic director Jon Gilbert. It’s a fresh start not only for those directly associated with the program, but also for the fans that have suffered through all those losses.
It might only be a meaningless intrasquad scrimmage, but what a perfect opportunity to put the past in the past, wipe the slate clean and get off to a fresh start.
The festivities begin on Friday with the annual Pigskin Pigout BBQ contest, leading up to the actual game at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.
“I hope we have a huge crowd,” Houston said after a practice last week. “I look forward to the Pigskin Pigout barbecue contest and getting to meet a lot of our alums and fans. I hope it’s a very enjoyable day for all of our alumni and anybody that’s here to enjoy the day with us.”
While it’s important to create an enjoyable atmosphere to help get those in the stands back on board, the most significant happenings Saturday will be the ones that take place on the field.
This will be the first chance Houston and his staff will have to see and evaluate the talent on hand under game conditions and begin the process of setting a depth chart heading into fall camp.
While the winner of the game and its final score will be long forgotten by the time the Pirates kick things off against N.C. State on August 31, Houston has made it clear that the outcome is anything but insignificant to him.
It’s the first step toward reestablishing the winning culture ECU has lost over the past few years.
“I want to see a really competitive ballgame,” the new coach said. “We’re going to have some stakes that we’re going to put on the line for the game with our winners’ dinner we’ll eat the week following the spring game.
“The losing team will serve the winning team dinner, so we’ll have a little bit to put on the game. And we’re going to play a regulation game, modified a little bit. It’ll be a four-quarter game with something on the line, and I hope to see a really competitive matchup.”
As for things to watch, there are any number of areas of interest.
First and foremost will be the defensive scheme employed by new coordinator Bob Trott and how, if any, it promises to improve on the unsuccessful strategies used during the Scottie Montgomery era.
Among the specific areas of concern are a pass rush looking to reload after American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year Nate Harvey was denied an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and a secondary whose trademark has become giving up big plays.
Offensively, the biggest questions are on the offensive line and in the running game.
The one area that won’t need much scrutiny is quarterback, where sophomore Holton Ahlers has firmly established himself as the face of the program.
Ahlers’ performance alone Saturday should be worth the price of admission — if the game wasn’t already free.
That should be enough incentive to draw a large crowd to the new-and-improved Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Maybe not as big as Clemson’s. But big enough to help get this new era of Pirates football off to a promising start.