An East Carolina coaching era officially ended last December 1 with a 58-3 loss at N.C. State. Mike Houston’s first game as new coach of the Pirates on Saturday at noon is against the same opponent at the same site.
The new staff has had ECU on a fast track to recovery from four straight losing seasons.
“Preparations started last January,” Houston said. “It’s been a long time coming. You do so much when you come into a program that was in the condition that this one was in. So much to address. It’s not an address it quickly and a month later it’s fixed. It’s a long process. There’s been so much invested over the last eight and a half months in preparation for this week.
“It’s exciting to finally get to game week. Certainly, you could tell a difference in the step of the players on Sunday, knowing that preseason camp is truly over, that the offseason is truly over and it’s time to start playing football.”
Installation of game plan
The Pirates have spent two weeks focusing on today’s game plan.
“I think it’s been going pretty well,” Houston said. “The challenging thing with openers is you have to prepare for so much. Not that you don’t have to prepare for so much each week during the regular season, but with the opener you’ve got new coordinators at N.C. State. You have new staff on both sides of the football. You graduated several guys on offense. You’ve got a lot coming back on defense, but you truly don’t know what the team’s going to look like.
“You think you do, but with so much turnover, you really don’t know. Certainly, they’ve done a great job of recruiting. They’ll have talented players to replace the ones that graduated on the offensive side of the football. But with the new coordinators there, you don’t really, truly know what the identity is going to entail. I know what style of play Coach (Dave) Doeren wants to have with his program, but there’s certain nuances within that. That’s the challenge of preparing for an opener. We’ve thrown a lot at our kids.”
Last year’s fiasco
Houston saw the fallout immediately from last season’s trip to Raleigh.
“I think that whole game there that week, every time somebody mentions that, I think back to my first meeting that Monday night, December 3, with the team,” Houston said. “And just the feeling of how lost they were. That was just a weird set of circumstances. Coach (Scottie) Montgomery being let go midweek. Just a lot of unknowns surrounding that game going into game day. (Quaterback) Holton (Ahlers) is out. Several other starters are out. So you have a staff and a program that’s at the end of a fourth straight losing year, the third straight losing year with that staff.
“It’s a tough situation to put the kids in and it’s one that obviously did not go well. You’re facing a veteran football team that was extremely talented on both sides of the football. When you get in that situation and you go up against somebody like that, it doesn’t turn out too good and it didn’t.”
Houston is 80-25 as a head coach at Lenoir-Rhyne, The Citadel and James Madison. The Duke went 14-1 and won the Football Championship Subdivision title under his leadership in 2016.
That run to the FCS crown included a 27-17 win at the Fargodome, the indoor home of North Dakota State. The Bison have won 19 straight in their facility since then and have a .865 winning percentage there since the building opened prior to the 1993 season.
Houston and his JMU staff experienced the Wolfpack’s home field advantage last year with a 24-13 loss in Raleigh to start the 2018 season.
“Both are challenging and for different reasons,” Houstin said. “Certainly, Carter-Finley Stadium is a great home environment for N.C. State. Our teams have really thrived in those types of environments. The Fargodome is traditionally known as one of the toughest places to play in the country. However, my memories of the Fargodome are very positive.
“They’re challenging places and they’re challenging places because they both have passionate fan bases. They care about football. They take pride in being able to impact the ball game.”
ECU defensive coordinator Bob Trott recalled the win at North Dakota State.
“It’s nice when you can silence that home crowd,” Trott said.
Trott was secondary coach at Air Force in 1983 when the Falcons won, 23-22, at Notre Dame.
For all the emotion of an in-state rivalry, the factors that determine outcomes are generally consistent.
“As you look at openers, period, a lot of the factors are the same,” Houston said. “We’ve got to do a great job of ball security on Saturday. That’s something that can really get you in trouble in an opening game. We’ve got to do a great job on special teams and try to control the field position. Do a great job with our coverage units. They’ve got a dynamic punt returner. He gave us problems last year in the opener. We’ve got to do a good job of trying to keep him bottled up.
‘We’ve got to do a great job defensively, not having any breakdowns — not giving up the easy big play. We’ve got to make them work for what they get on offense. That requires a lot of communication, a lot of playing together and really doing a great job of understanding scheme and playing with a lot of intensity and physicality in the scheme. We’ve got to do a great job of no foolish penalties.
“When you see teams that struggle in the openers, just like Miami and Florida the other night, you see penalties. You see turnovers. You see sloppy play because of missed assignments or busted coverages. Things like that. Those are the things you’ve got to try to avoid and do a good job with.”
Ahlers gives effective look
Tuesday and Wednesday were physical practice days for the Pirates. The first unit offense and defense went against each other.
“I think you’ve got tot do that to make sure you’re ready for the speed of the game on Saturday,” Houston said. “I think that does help us with (Matt) McKay starting at quarterback. He’s a mobile guy, a dual-threat player. I think we’ve got a pretty good dual-threat quarterback as well so that will help prepare our defense. … Friday will be a walk through, get on the bus and go to Raleigh.”
Houston isn’t big on superstitions anymore.
“Hopefully, celebrate with a fight song at the end,” Houston said. “I’m up early. I try to get up early and mentally kind of go over things … make sure I’m prepared before the team gets up. I had superstitions when I was younger. I don’t have a lot any more. I’ve kind of got my routine. I try to do my morning devotion. I try to get a sweat in if I can get up early enough. I try to make sure I’m mentally ready for our first team meeting and what our team needs from me and what our coaches need from me on game day to make sure they’re ready to play.”
As a player at Mars Hill, Houston had a certain routine.
“I think I wore the same shirt under my pads every game my college career,” Houston said. “I guess that was kind of my good luck deal. I was always one that kind of got in corner and had to get myself psyched up and ready to play a certain kind of way. To a degree, I still feel like that as a coach. I’ve got to make sure our team is ready to play with a lot of physicality and a lot of intensity on Saturday. I think that’s something that you have to do a great job of getting yourself in that right state of mind to go out there and do that. It’s not going to be a finesse game. That wasn’t the kind of player I was.
“I think your game day routine has to reflect the preparation to play the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Doeren’s record at N.C. State is 42-34.
Ruffin McNeill’s record at ECU before he was dismissed following the 2015 season was … 42-34.