GREENVILLE — East Carolina won its first home game of the 2019 season, overcoming potential distractions during game week to down Gardner-Webb, 48-9, on Saturday night.
The practice schedule was different with coach Mike Houston away on Thursday for a memorial service for his dad, Bill, as conditions on campus were affected by the proximity of Hurricane Dorian.
“To be able to get a win with the opening of TowneBank Tower is a pretty special night,” said first-year ECU coach Mike Houston. “Certainly, we felt the energy in the stands from our fans.
“That’s the thing I’ve been looking most forward to, just to feel that passion and that enthusiasm for our program that Pirate fans have.”
Houston’s first win with the Pirate program came after his dad had passed away on Tuesday morning. The coach had been to visit him in Franklin, NC, on Labor Day.
“Men tend to compartmentalize stuff,” Houston said. “That’s just what I tried to do. Certainly that aspect of the family has been tough. I just tried to focus, when I got back here, on the players, the game and all that. The kids did just an excellent job and our staff, I knew that they would be able to handle everything when I had to leave for a day.
“The kids handled it with tremendous maturity. The way they responded this week is just incredible. It speaks a lot for their character. They were constantly checking on me and I didn’t want them doing that. I wanted them focused on the game, but it just says a lot about them that they have those thoughts.”
“When I took the job in December, that’s when my dad’s health started to decline a little bit more rapidly so I knew this day would come. I didn’t know when this day would come, but it came really quick over the weekend.
“It kind of punches you in the gut a little bit. The support of the fans, the support of the staff here, my staff, the administrative staff, everyone was just really incredible. It makes me sit back and really count my blessings. I’ve got a lot of really good people in my life. I’m very fortunate.”
Houston was asked how his dad might have reacted to his first win as coach of the Pirates.
“He would have found something we could have done better,” Houston said. “I can promise you that. … But he was always proud of the way our teams competed.”
Running game steps up
ECU had 365 yards rushing as Darius Pinnix (21 carries, 134 yards) and freshman reserve Demetrius Mauney (13-107) each ran for over 100 yards.
“I thought our backs did a much better job with yards after contact,” Houston said. ” … We wanted to be able to run the ball effectively early in the game, take control of the ball game.
“We wanted to try to force them to throw the ball. I thought we were able to do that. … I thought we played well up front. Our play on the two lines of scrimmage were truly the difference in the ball game.”
The Pirates managed just 41 rushing yards on 29 attempts last week in a 34-6 loss at N.C. State.
“We were very challenged,” Pinnix said. “Last week, I averaged 2.1 yards. There were some holes I should have hit better. I should have made more people miss. Today, I came out there with a chip on my shoulder. Coach Houston challenged me to be better.”
Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers lost a fumble approaching the end zone on ECU’s opening drive at State.
The Pirates ended a 10-quarter span without a touchdown when Ahlers scored on a 7-yard run with 10:40 left in the first quarter against G-W.
Ahlers was conscious of ball security.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Anytime you fumble or throw a pick, you’re going to be more careful with the ball. I’m not going to let that happen again.”
Ahlers ran for two TDs. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 195 yards with one interception and a 20-yard scoring toss to Blake Proehl as ECU improved to 1-1.
“It opens up everything anytime the running game is on like it was tonight,” Ahlers said. “It opens up because the backers will flow more. The (run pass option) will be there as well.”
Navy (1-0) is coming off an open date as it hosts the Pirates in the American Athletic Conference opener for both clubs on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.
“I told the kids they get about 12 hours to rest and celebrate the victory,” Houston said. “Then we’ve got to start getting ready for Navy.”
Houston is well aware of Navy’s option offense.
“We ran option when I was at The Citadel and Lenoir-Rhyne,” he said. “We studied what they did.”
Happy locker room
The Pirates could be heard in their locker room after the game from the interview area in the Ward Sports Medicine Building.
“That was the highlight of the day,” Houston said. ” … We’re trying to build something special here and that bond that we have in that locker room is a big key to it.”
Houston said the team would get a special meal Sunday night. Players as well as coaches and their families will be on hand.
“Big steak,” Pinnix said.
“Steak and shrimp,” Ahlers said.
“Lobster,” Pinnix said.
“You get a lobster after Gardner-Webb?” asked Brian North of WCTI-TV 12.
“It’s a win,” Pinnix said.