RALEIGH — There’s no more fertile breeding ground for knee jerk reactions and hot takes — both positive and negative — than the first game of a new season.
There were plenty of extreme conclusions to be made based on the result of East Carolina’s 2019 opener at N.C. State on Saturday.
But we’ll leave those for social media and the message boards.
Except for this one thing …
If you absolutely have to have some sort of concrete takeaway from the Pirates’ 34-6 loss to the Wolfpack, it’s that there’s more to changing the culture of a program than bringing in a successful new coach and staff, installing a new system and preaching such things as physical play and personal accountability.
All those things are important and may eventually pay dividends in the form of victories on the field — perhaps by the end of this season.
It’s just that dramatic change doesn’t usually happen with lightning bolts, especially when you’re dealing with a program coming off three straight 3-9 seasons. It more often comes with time — with hard work, guidance, repetition and in most cases, a couple of strong recruiting classes.
For now, the new improved version of the Pirates sure looks a lot like the bad old one wrapped up in a pretty new wrapper.
There were some promising moments, to be sure.
The game’s opening drive, for instance, was a thing of beauty with quarterback Holton Ahlers picking apart State’s veteran defense with an array of quick, short passes. But the shine quickly dulled when a self-destructive habit from the past — in this case, the inability to cash in on red zone opportunities — reared its ugly head when Ahlers fumbled on his way into the end zone.
The Wolfpack recovered the loose ball to kill the scoring opportunity, then drove 80 yards in the opposite direction for a touchdown that put an end to any momentum ECU might have built.
“That was a big play in the ballgame because it completely changed the outlook in the first half,” Houston said.
Actually, the biggest change didn’t really occur until later in the period.
The Pirates were still within 10-3 midway through the second quarter and looking as though they might be capable of hanging with the Wolfpack for the duration until Ahlers was picked off on a pass over the middle. Even after the young quarterback got a reprieve thanks to a hands to the face penalty that nullified the turnover, he turned right around and threw another interception while trying to make something happen while scrambling out of trouble.
ECU’s offense was never the same from there on out.
Houston blamed the change on State settling in and getting more comfortable with its new defensive scheme. An argument can also be made that ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick’s play calling got a lot more cautious after the interception.
Either way, the Pirates’ attack took on an eerily familiar look over the final 2½ quarters.
They couldn’t move the ball on the ground — averaging less than two yards per carry on 29 attempts. And trying to throw it wasn’t any easier thanks to a lack of protection that forced Ahlers to run for his life, often getting knocked on his back when he dropped back to pass.
Defensively, ECU gave a much better accounting of itself than the last time it played State last December. But there were still too many breakdowns in the secondary that led to big plays, six of them of 20 yards or more including a 48-yard touchdown in which no one was within 20 yards of Wolfpack receiver Tabari Hines.
They were the kind of recurring mistakes that could easily have more just than a frustrated fan base thinking “here we go again,” which is why Houston and his staff will likely be spending as much time on the mental side of the game as on the physical as they prepare their team for this week’s home opener against Gardner-Webb.
“My biggest fear right now is some of the things we saw last year,” Houston said. “That stuff has to be out of the program.”
For now, at least, he said he’s satisfied that the effort appears to be there.
That’s why, instead of flying off the handle with a knee jerk reaction over a not-all-that-unexpected loss, let’s just call Saturday’s opener the starting point from which the Mike Houston era of ECU football can now officially begin.
If nothing else, there’s nowhere else to go but up from here.