The East Carolina football team has reached the midway point in its 2019 season. While its 3-3 record isn’t exactly what new coach Mike Houston had hoped, it’s still the best the Pirates have been after six games since 2015.
Now the task becomes building on that promising start, getting even better over the final six games and finishing on a high note — whether it ends up in bowl eligibility or not.
It’s a goal not out of the realm of possibility given the progress this team has already shown and a remaining schedule that, while difficult, includes eminently winnable games against South Florida, Connecticut and Tulsa.
As Houston and his staff bring their team out of a well-timed open date into what promises to be the most difficult test they’ll face all year at Central Florida on Saturday, here are three areas that need the most improvement as they embark on the second half of the season:
There have been times throughout the first six weeks in which the Pirates appeared to have been on the verge of a breakthrough. But there have been just as many times in which they continued to be haunted by the mistakes and bad habits of the past three years.
This is a concern in all three phases of the game, but especially on the offensive side of the ball, as was vividly illustrated during the Pirates’ last outing, a 27-17 Thursday night loss to Temple at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
In that game, ECU started with a 90-yard, 12-play touchdown drive on its opening possession and an 84-yard, nine-play touchdown march the final time it touched the ball. That’s 174 yards and 14 points on 21 plays.
In between, however, the Pirates mustered only 153 yards and three points on the other 53 plays they ran in the game.
So what do they need to do to eliminate such a wide disparity?
It starts with the ability to run the ball effectively, a pursuit that will presumably be aided by the return of Darius Pinnix — who was averaging five yards per carry and 78 yards per game before he got hurt. But it’s also going to take better blocking from the big guys opening the holes up front.
A serviceable ground game and the more balanced attack it would provide would also benefit quarterback Holton Ahlers, who needs to improve on his so-so .530 completion percentage and begin throwing more touchdowns and fewer interceptions than his current ratio of six scores and five picks.
Speaking of turnovers, nothing would help Ahlers and his offense more than to be given a few more short fields with which to work rather than having to put together as many epic 90- and 84-yard drives.
While the Pirates are on pace to far surpass their total of just 11 takeaways in 2018 and have already equaled their total of five interceptions, their eight forced miscues through the first six games still ranks in the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference.
Creating turnovers was a major point of emphasis for defensive coordinator Bob Trott during preseason camp and it’s something the Pirates have to continue to stress — and follow through with results — to make the second half of the season a success.
Winning third down
The ability to stay on the field offensively and get off the field defensively is the key to success at every level of football, but it’s a skill ECU has yet to master on either side of the ball.
Offensively, the Pirates have only converted 32.2 percent of their third down opportunities (28 of 87). That ranks 11th in the 12-team AAC and 116th out of 130 FBS teams nationwide.
They’re only slightly better on the other side of the ball, allowing opponents to convert 40 percent of their possession situations (36 of 90) — a figure that ranks 10th in the conference and 85th nationally.
Whether it’s cutting down on pre-snap penalties, missed assignments or any number of other little things that together can cause big problems for a team struggling to get over the hump, it’s a problem Houston and his staff must try to solve to accomplish the still attainable goals they have for the rest of this season.
If there’s one thing the young Pirates have going for them, it’s that effort (or lack thereof) is no longer the issue it has been at times during the recent past. Now all they have to do is match the effort with the same level of execution.
“I just don’t understand, not that we weren’t playing hard, but when you don’t play things according to your keys, where you have all week — that is very, very frustrating,” Houston said after the Temple game. “That is a big point of emphasis this week.
“Playing hard, OK, we’re doing that now. OK, we’ve got to play well. We’ve got to continue to bring drill work and team work during the week. And we’ve got to bring team work to game day. That’s all three phases.”