First-year East Carolina coach Mike Houston said after a 42-10 loss at Navy last Saturday that there would be positives for the Pirates after the loss in the American Athletic Conference opener was examined.
He shared his thoughts in that regard.
“As long as your kids are trying to compete, there’s always going to be some positives that you can take out of it,” Houston said. “Even though the final score was not competitive, … I did think that we had some things that we did well on Saturday in all three phases. Now, there weren’t enough of them and they were overshadowed by the things we did not do well.
“But I felt like to a degree, between the tackles on Saturday, defensively, I thought that we competed pretty well throughout much of the day and showed some signs of physicality in there. The fact that they did not run the fullback as effectively as they normally do is a sign of that so I felt like that was a positive defensively.”
Tyler Snead had three catches for 54 yards against the Midshipmen.
“Offensively, we did some good things,” Houston said. “Certainly, I thought Tyler Snead made a couple of very challenging catch and run plays where it showed some balance, showed some speed in bursts. I thought at times, Holton (Ahlers) made some really good throws. We did not give up a sack on the day. We gave up four quarterback pressures but did not give up a sack.
“Special teams-wise, certainly there were some negatives to start the game. There’s no doubt about that. But we also did some positive things there as well.”
Watching the film
Pirate players were asked to evaluate themselves in several areas when they watched the tape of the Navy game.
“The thing that we tried to do with that film was, when we came in on Sunday, I talked to the players about evaluating themselves from a standpoint of their alignment each play,” Houston said. “Every play starts with proper alignment. No matter whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, you’ve got to be aligned properly. Are you doing what you’re coached to do? On any given call or play, are you doing what you are coached to do? Because if you’re not doing what you’re coached to do, then we have huge problems.
“It’s hard to win at the college level. Anybody who has been around the game very long knows that, but you’ve got to have everybody playing on the same page to have a chance. If you’re not doing what you’re coached to do, if you’re not doing your job play after play, then you’re not giving yourself a chance because you’re not playing within a scheme.
“The third thing was, are you giving maximum effort? Every play, one play at a time, are you giving maximum effort? Because if you’re not, then that’s a huge problem. That’s a minimal requirement.
“The fourth thing was how well are you competing? I explained to them that you can align correctly, you can be doing what you’re coached to do, you can be giving great effort. If you’re a linebacker and you get to that point of contact with a running back, competing is do you get the job done? Do you get the ball carrier on the ground? Do you make the tackle? Are you tackling in the manner that you’re supposed to? Are you making the contested catch in one-on-one coverage? Are you making the play?
“I asked them to evaluate those four areas in each play that they watched because each of us can evaluate ourselves. Are we doing the best we can do to be the very best player, the very best coach, the very best whatever every single play, every single day, every single game, whatever it may be. I thought that they, especially the older players, were able to see a lot of things in that manner. They could see some room for improvement.”
The Pirates trailed 21-0 in the second quarter when a touchdown was nullified and ECU settled for a 23-yard field goal by Jake Verity.
“That was a young receiver and we had another receiver trying to correct him,” Houston said. “My challenge there is and that receiver is an intelligent young man. Obviously, he has to be in the playbook more because it’s an easy formation. You’re on the ball. He was not on the ball and so we got flagged to illegal formation. It’s a guy we’re trying to get on the field, trying to give him an opportunity, but obviously that was a costly penalty.”
Virginia Tech replacement
William & Mary visits ECU on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Tribe replaced a game from which Virginia Tech withdrew after the Pirates canceled last year’s trip to Blacksburg due to the approach of Hurricane Florence. Mike London is the new coach at William & Mary, replacing Jimmye Laycock. Houston is familiar with the Tribe from when he was coaching James Madison.
“The one thing is, Jimmye Laycock was highly successful there for 39 years,” Houston said. “I think I’m correct. Thirty-nine years. When you think about that, that is astounding. Certainly, playing against them in that league, I know them very well. Jimmye always did a great job of having his team ready to play. The only issues really the last two years has been he has not had very good play at the quarterback position.
“Other than that, he had a sound football team. Now, we were an elite football team at JMU so they struggled to compete with us. But when Jimmye retired, he left a very solid, veteran roster and, you look at them defensively and what I see is a bunch of older kids, seniors, juniors, multiple-year starters who were very good last year defensively, who were very good the year before defensively. They’re a very solid unit there on that side of the football.
“Offensively, I see a lot of the same guys that we faced the last several years with the exception of they have a very dynamic young quarterback (Hollis Mathis), who is new. He has made all the difference in the team, just from the standpoint that he was the missing piece from the last couple of years at William & Mary. You look at 2016, when we won the national championship. That’s a year where we went toe-to-toe with North Carolina that year. They were an 11-win football team at the FBS level. We mowed through the FCS competition, going 14-1. We won that game against William & Mary on a last-second touchdown — because they had a solid quarterback. So I see this program back to where it was in ’16 really quick because of the quarterback play.”
The Tribe has changed schematically.
“It’s different,” Houston said. “Defensively, it’s a three-down, shifting to a four-down at times, so schematically there are some similarities defensively. Offensively, they are different. It’s a tempo offense. It’s going to be a lot of two-back. They’re going to try to run the football, either with one of the running backs or a lot of quarterback-designed runs to take advantage of Hollis Mathis and his explosive play-making ability. Then, they’ll take their shots down the field. Mathis has a very strong arm. He can throw the ball vertically very, very well. No. 9, Zach Burdick, he has stood out on film as being able to make those contested catches down the field in coverage. I think he’s averaging just a touch under 35 yards a reception on the year. So they’re different offensively, but very potent.”
Houston talked about the emphasis in practice as ECU’s second game against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent approached. The Pirates (1-2) topped Gardner-Webb, 48-9, on Sept. 7 at home.
“I think the big thing in practice is we’ve got to focus on us again,” Houston said. “It’s no different than it was last week or the week before. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get better every single day. Obviously, we’ve got to put Saturday’s game behind us because that game is over and done with. We’ve got to focus on this week and William & Mary is the biggest game of the year and that’s the way we’ve got to treat it. We’ve got to go out today and have a very positive-energy, positive-effort practice, really doing a great job of pushing ourselves to get better and try to be the best that we can be. The way you do that is by going out with a positive attitude and working really, really hard at the things that you need to improve on and making sure that we have great team periods today, both against each other and against our scout teams in order to prepare for Saturday.”
Navy generated the only turnover of the game last week on an interception.
“I think it will be a lot of the same things that you look at each and every week,” Houston said. “Obviously, turnovers will be a factor. We’ve got to do a great job of taking care of the football. Defensively, we’ve got to try to create some extra possessions for our offense. I think limiting the big play defensively will be very important, limiting the home run shots in the passing game, eliminating the big runs. Making William & Mary work for whatever they can get on that side of the football — I think that will be very critical.
“On the offensive side of the football, it’s the opposite. We’ve got to be able to drive the football effectively. We’ve got to be able to keep the pressure on William & Mary and try to be aggressive and hopefully they make a mistake. When they make a mistake, we’ve got to capitalize on it. Special teams will be important because of the field position battle. I do expect it to be a close ball game and field position is going to be a critical component of that.”
Home field advantage
The Pirates had 34,118 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium shortly after the passing of Hurricane Dorian when Gardner-Webb visited two weeks ago. ECU is looking forward to having the home field advantage again.
“There’s no doubt,” Houston said. “I think that we saw that in the home opener. We’re expecting a crowd north of 40,000 on Saturday, which would be a huge advantage to us with Pirate Nation being what they are, being able to be that 12th man and have an impact on the ball game would be something that would be critical in our favor, especially with a young quarterback on the opposite sideline.”