This has obviously been a difficult week for first-year East Carolina football coach Mike Houston with the passing of his dad, Bill, on Tuesday morning in Franklin, NC.
A memorial service was held Thursday and Houston left preparations for the first home game of the season on Saturday at 6 p.m. against Gardner-Webb to his staff while he went back to his hometown.
“One of the last conscious things he did this weekend was watch our team play against State,” Houston said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “My dad taught me how to throw a football when I was a kid. He taught me how to shoot a basketball. He was the one that instilled a work ethic and a tough mindset in me at a young age and how I did things. He taught me how to care about people. He taught me how to see people for who they were on the inside and not judge them by the way they were on the outside.
“He was a good dad and he was a good man. His connection the last couple of years has been through a lot of you guys. He kept up with our teams. He was the biggest fan I had. He read everything there was about East Carolina football and he was excited for me to be back in the state of North Carolina. Just keep my mom, my sister and my brother in your prayers. He was at peace this morning when he passed and after seeing him last night, it was time.
“With all that though, I’ve got a good staff. They’ll help me throughout this week. My focus is going to be on our players here and then on mom and our family back home. The service will be on Thursday. We’ve already made arrangements to ensure everything is taken care of here with the team so that we’re prepared to go on Saturday. I know Dad would want it that way.”
Houston spoke with the team at practice on Tuesday.
“Several of you said something to me about my dad and I really appreciate that,” Houston said. “Here’s why — my biological family and you guys, that’s my life. We spend so much time with you that you’re almost like a second son to us. OK? I’ve got to get on my 11-year old, too, and my 10-year old. I get on them, too, because I want the best for them. I want the best for you guys. (Monday) night, I got to see Dad for the last time. He had on an ECU football shirt. Why did he have that shirt on? He was barely conscious. … He couldn’t open his eyes. Because he cares about his son and his son is associated with ECU football.
“The same with your parents, right? I promise you. I promise you, your parents would be the exact same because they care about you. This whole thing with family? It’s not fake with us. It’s really important to us.”
Ifs in opener
ECU lost a fumble in the end zone on its first possession, setting the tone in a 34-6 loss at N.C. State to start the season last Saturday. The Pirates dropped some passes that were potentially big gainers as the game progressed.
“Good football teams don’t make those mistakes,” Houston said. “That’s the thing. Veteran teams, older teams, they don’t make those mistakes. That’s what we’ve got to get to. I thought we came out there and played very, very hard the first quarter.
“I thought the kids were really excited to play. It should have been a back-and-forth ball game. We did not make the plays in order to make it that way and N.C. State did. It is what it is. We’ve got to grow up.”
Running game struggles
ECU netted just 41 yards rushing on 29 attempts in the first game as N.C. State played a 3-3 stack with its box personnel.
“We anticipated it,” Houston said. “Tony Gibson (co-defensive coordinator), coming from West Virginia, we anticipated it. Of course, he ran a stack for many years. We were prepared to see that.”
The Pirates lost the battle of ball security.
“We had two critical turnovers,” Houston said. “N.C. State did not. A lot of that is us, too. They gave us some opportunities for some turnovers. They put the ball on the ground multiple times and we didn’t come up with it when we should have. We’ve got to make those plays.”
Houston gave his team video presentations during the week that showed the missed chances for takeaways.
“You have to always be around the ball and you have to understand if that thing’s loose, you have to go after it with some passion,” Houston said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a fumble or interception or anything else.
“I thought their defense was very active. I thought they were very aggressive and I think that makes a difference when forcing turnovers.”
Sunday mindset, staying on course
The Pirates worked out Sunday and Houston liked the team’s mindset.
“Very motivated,” Houston said. “Of course, everybody is very disappointed they lost, but nobody is hanging their head. I thought the kids came out and gave really good effort on Sunday. I saw some things we did as well as we have done. I think it’s part of the players getting to know us coaches and getting to know the routine.”
The Pirates are not going to react drastically.
“We’re not going to change courses,” Houston said. “We’re not going to come in and put in a new defense or a new offense. I’m not going to turn into some madman or something like that. We’re going to coach them. We’re going to develop them. We’re going to continue to push how we want to play. We’re going to stick to the script. It’s a process and the process is one that’s been proven. It’s not like we’re going to veer off course.”
As a Football Championship Subdivision team, Gardner-Webb has fewer scholarships than the Pirates.
“When was the last time East Carolina beat an FCS team?” Houston said. “2016 (Western Carolina). So it’s been awhile. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind. It doesn’t matter. Carroll McCray is a good football coach. I’ve known him for a long time. Kenny Ray is a very good offensive line coach. I’ve known him for a long time. I respect both of them. They will have their team prepared. They had a tough loss against Charlotte (49-28), but certainly they’re going to improve from that game. They’ve had a few extra days to get ready for us. I’m sure they will come in with a scheme that will challenge us.
“The big thing for us is focusing on us getting better. We got to improve on doing the things better that we need to do in order to be successful because you look at the game film from last Saturday and all the things we did to stop ourselves, both sides of the football and special teams. We’ve got to correct those mistakes. You take away a touchdown. You take away an N.C. State touchdown. You take away the 90-some yard kickoff return. All those things would have made a massive swing in the ball game and those were all mistakes that we made.
“The play on Holton (Ahlers) on the fumble was a great tackle by the safety from N.C. State. But aside from that, the other two were completely on us. The big focus is us correcting our mistakes and us being a better football team this Saturday than we were last Saturday.”
ECU has led the American Athletic Conference in home attendance in recent years. The new TowneBank Tower will provide a state-of-the-art game day experience on the south side of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“I would hope that we have a huge crowd,” Houston said. “I would hope that it is a very enthusiastic crowd and one that is excited to see the Pirates play. I think if that environment is what it should be, it should be a great encouragement to the players and we’d better respond to it.”
Healthy after State game
The Pirates came out of the State game with a virtually clean bill of health.
“Yeah, we did,” Houston said.
Running back Darius Pinnix was hobbled slightly at one point.
“He’s fine,” Houston said.
Conversion to coffee
The ECU football staff goes in to work around 5:30 a.m. That means trips to the coffee machine. Houston is working on consuming more coffee.
“I’m trying,” Houston said. “Unfortunately, I drink energy drinks. I’m trying to get away from those. I’m trying to become a coffee drinker. But I’m sitting here drinking a Monster as I’m talking. I’m not completely swung just yet.”
The next step
Coaches generally see significant improvement from week one to week two. Houston talked about practice objectives.
“The focus is us taking the next step,” Houston said. “Us continuing to improve. The big challenge for me with the whole program is, yes, we played pretty hard last Saturday compared to what — maybe what people had seen the last couple of years. But that’s not the standard that we’re trying to reach. We’ve got to play with more intensity. We’ve got to play with more physicality. We’ve got to play with more confidence. We’ve got to play more chin over our toes than we did.”
Houston referred to his film low-lights.
“It’s showing examples of where we could have played more aggressive in certain situations and we’ve got to,” he said. That comes from knowing what to do. That comes from having confidence in yourself and having confidence in what you’ve been instructed to do. We can not play with hesitation and we can not play with any kind of doubt. It is really about us taking that next step.”
Punts and field goals are not how possessions end ideally, but the Pirates performed well in both aspects of special team play.
Punter Jonn Young averaged 49.0 yards per boot.
“I thought Jonn Young was very strong Saturday,” Houston said. “He really did an outstanding job in the punting game. Things that the fans don’t see — he had excellent operation. He was under two seconds in full snap to kick operation on every punt, which that is really fast. I’ve been pushing him for that because it really helps. It allows some of those guys in that spread punt formation to get out a little bit quicker. We’ve got to do a little bit better job up front with protection, which is something we’ve got to work on this week. But I thought that Jonn did a great job with operation. I thought he did a great job with ball placement down the field, all those kinds of things.”
Kicker Jake Verity accounted for all of ECU’s points on field goals of 47 and 31 yards.
“Jake, excellent job on two field goals,” Houston said. “He’s disappointed, we’re disappointed in the one he missed (52 yards), because it’s well within his range. But I certainly am glad he’s on our team. He’s a great weapon.”
Houston talked about important factors in reversing that trend.
“I think it’s doing more of the things that good football teams do,” he said. “Eliminating the turnovers. We had two big penalties in the kicking game, one that called back a long kickoff return and another that kept us from pinning N.C. State deep in their own territory on a punt. We’ve got to eliminate those. That one was a post-snap personal foul. You can’t have those. You’ve got to eliminate the self-inflicted wounds. I think we need to play a much cleaner game defensively from the standpoint of the big plays that got out on us — the screen and go, the wheel route and the quarterback counter. Those are all very simple plays to defend as long as you stick to your keys. You’ve got great formation awareness and you’re very disciplined in your play. We’ve got to eliminate those big plays that we gave up on Saturday.
“Just make the opponent work for what they’re trying to achieve. Offensively, we’ve got to run the ball better. That sets up everything. We’ve got to be more consistent catching the football. The biggest thing for me is for our front seven on offense and our front seven on defense, we’ve got to play with more aggression. We’ve got to play with more intensity and we’ve got to play with more physicality. That’s going to be a real big emphasis this week.”