Considering the caliber of the opponent, East Carolina played its best half of football this season in a 41-28 loss at Central Florida last Saturday night.
The problem was that ECU trailed 35-6 at halftime before coach Mike Houston’s first-year team got things together at Spectrum Stadium.
The Pirates will be looking for continuity from the showing in Orlando as they take on South Florida for Homecoming on Saturday at 3:45 p.m.
ECU fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter of its previous outing.
“The first quarter was not what we wanted, obviously,” Houston said. “You look at the tape and I’ve looked at it multiple times, you see a completely different group as far as confidence for whatever reason in the second half.
“I think we got hit right square between the eyes, no doubt, by a very good team. Talent-wise, we’re not going to see any better skill players than what we saw Saturday night. I mean I don’t care who we play. I’ve played a lot of good teams in my time. We played Florida State when they were on their national championship run. That’s comparable to what we saw from the wideout positions Saturday night.
“We didn’t come out and play very well the first half from the standpoint of being competitive. At the same time, I felt like we kept playing hard. We got back into it in the second quarter. Having the drive that we had right before the half, we started on our own 4-yard line.
“We finally got a stop, forced a punt. Got it on our 4-yard line and then drove it the length of the field in about two minutes with one timeout and were able to successfully get some points on the board there on that last drive. That was a good boost going into halftime.
“But, obviously, the biggest boost was coming out of the locker room. We get a 3-and-out blocked punt, give our offense a short field there on the 1-yard line, punch it in. Another 3-and-out, and get the offense the ball back. All of a sudden, it gives your defense confidence that they can play with Central Florida. Then our offense started doing a much better job of moving the football, particularly up front in the run game in the second half. We were able to get it to 35-22 with about four-and-a-half minutes to go in the third — with the ball. So, at that point you’ve made it a ball game.
“If you can execute better, … not have those two turnovers in their territory in the second half, who knows what happens? But at least we were able to get back in it where it was a competitive ball game there in the third quarter.”
Sophomore running back Trace Christian lost a fumble in UCF territory after ECU had tallied 16 unanswered points to get ECU within 35-22.
“I saw it pretty clearly the other night,” Houston said. “He has to do a better job of taking care of the ball in traffic. It’s been something we’ve worked a lot with him on. He’s productive when he does a good job with ball security, but you can’t put the ball on the ground right there in that position. It’s probably the reason he hasn’t played much in the past. I think this was an issue with the previous staff. He’s got to do a better job with ball security.”
Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers tried to make a play in the grasp of a Knights defender and was intercepted in the fourth quarter.
“The biggest thing was on that play is our protection was designed for him to step up when he got pressure,” Houston said. “Instead of stepping up, he tries to scramble to his left and scrambles into a pass rush. I want him to step up in that situation when he does get pressure. Step up and either make the throw or tuck it and run it.
“But certainly, you don’t want to just throw it up into the air. It becomes anybody’s ball then. The thing I told him is you hold it and we’re in field goal range. We’re going to get points out of this drive. The best-case scenario is that you scramble around and find somebody to complete the ball to and we keep driving it. The worst-case scenario is take off and run, get what you can or throw the ball out of bounds, but don’t throw it up for grabs.
“He knows that’s a mistake. He felt awful about it after the game. He came and talked to me about it after the game again. It was one of those things when I was talking to him there — at that point in the game — he knows that I was trying to be very calm with him. That’s a mistake he’s got to learn from and it’s a mistake he can’t continue to repeat. You saw him later on in the game take that same situation, step up in the pocket and we had success.
“On the final scoring drive of the night, he had an almost identical situation, made the positive choice of stepping up in the pocket and was able to get some positive yardage on the quarterback scramble as opposed to either taking a sack or putting the ball in jeopardy.”
One of the defensive highlights at UCF was a fourth-down stop in Knights territory on a keeper by quarterback Darriel Mack.
“You look at their strategy,” Houston said. “Their strategy offensively drastically changed toward the end of the third quarter. They were pretty gassed defensively and were struggling to stop us on offense and all of a sudden we were getting the stops defensively. So they changed quarterbacks there in the fourth quarter.
“They subbed in D.J. Mack for that fourth-down situation. But certainly, our defense has got to get a lot of confidence from that stop right there. Our team, I keep trying to preach to them. They changed their style of play in order to get the game over with. That’s got to give our guys some confidence that you had that kind of, not only comeback, but you put the game in that kind of situation.”
Taking positive steps
Houston took over a program that was 3-9 for three straight seasons.
“The situation that we’re in with first year in a complete and total rebuild program, what you want to do is take a positive step each week,” Houston said. “I do feel like we’ve had two weeks of really solid practices coming out of the Temple game. Coming out of the Temple game, we had a good open week. We had a solid week this past week, so you’re starting to stack together positive work. I’ve tried to continue to motivate the players that their improved play — that they’re all seeing — because they see it. They see the improved play on the field. Their improved play is coming from their consistent work on the field in practice.
“Some of the frustrating things we talked about in the Temple game was not doing things in the game that we work repeatedly on in practice. … We allowed a 20-yard mistake against Temple. We had a great punt. We did not do a good job with our gunners on the punt team of downing the ball inside the 10. I’m telling you we work that drill every week. I don’t mean just work it once. We have a deal where we work it repeatedly on Sunday. They get a good four or five reps at it on Sunday night. They get another couple of reps on Tuesday. They get a couple of reps on Thursday. This is something we work a lot because, over my career, we’ve been very good at being able to down the ball inside the 10-, 15-yard line.
“It was encouraging to see us do a better job with it this past Saturday night. That’s one thing that’s a great example of so many things that we’ve got to continue to take positive play on the practice field and we’ve got to continue to take a step forward each week. We played better against William & Mary than we did the previous week. We played better against Old Dominion than we did the previous week. We played better against Temple than we did the previous week. We played better against UCF than we did the previous week. We’ve got to continue to take that step forward each week. Hopefully, we can have a better start Saturday than last Saturday and, hopefully, we can improve our play.”
Kirkpatrick in press box
Offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick worked from the press box at UCF and that’s where he will be at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this week as well.
“He will be,” Houston said. “Last week was the first time we’ve done that. I prefer it just because from a play caller’s standpoint you can see. Was it the reason we had a better offensive output? I don’t know, but I think you need to give it a couple of games to make a true evaluation, but he’ll be up top this week.”
Looking at USF
The Bulls are 3-4 overall, as are the Pirates. USF is coming off a 38-3 loss at Navy.
“I didn’t realize until Monday how little success we’ve had against South Florida in the series,” Houston said. “Only one win in nine games. We’ve never beaten South Florida at home, which is a little surprising. But certainly they’ve had a great tradition there. They’re always as extremely talented as anyone year in and year out. You look at their team this year — extremely strong on defense. A couple of grad transfers there that are having big years. The linebacker, (Patrick) Macon, is probably the one that stands out the most. But their front four, their defensive ends are long and extremely athletic and very powerful. Their interior guys are big space-eaters. They’re very athletic in the secondary. Very aggressive and kind of in your face, coverage-wise. A lot of pressure, a combination of zone blitzes and man blitzes. It’s a very aggressive defensive unit. The tradition is a really strong defensive philosophy. A good unit there.
“Offensively, a lot of skill. A big, athletic offensive line. They’ve had some issues at quarterback from the standpoint of health. (Blake) Barnett, who played against us last year, he’s out for the year. Jordan McCloud, who is an extremely talented redshirt freshman — he’s what you want, a dual-threat guy. Throws it really well. He runs really well. He’s battled staying healthy. I do expect him to play. I expect him to start. It doesn’t look like he was banged up too much against Navy. The switch at quarterback in the fourth quarter was probably the result of the state of the game. It was 35-3 at that point. The third-team guy (Kirk Rygol) is a walk-on, but has played well in his time. He’s from a junior college so he’s a guy that’s got some ability.
“Jordan Cronkrite, who our fans will remember from last year, I think he had a big game against us last year. A very talented senior running back out of Miami has had a lot of success there at USF over his career. I think he ranks in the top 10 in the conference in rushing right now, right at 500 yards rushing. Wideouts, (Bryce) Miller is their leading receiver. They have a lot of different guys that have speed and ability. Mitchell Wilcox, their senior tight end, is one of the better tight ends we’ve seen this year. He’s second on the team in receptions. Good player right there.
“They’re solid on special teams, what you would expect from a talented roster.”
ECU has won 12 of its last 13 Homecoming games.
“Homecoming is a festive event for the city of Greenville, our fans, our alumni,” Houston said. “It really doesn’t have anything to do with us. Our job is to make sure everybody has an exciting, happy Homecoming. Everything with Homecoming weekend, everybody coming back revolves around the football game and so our job is to make sure we get the job done on the field this Saturday so that everybody has a fantastic weekend. We’ve had a lot of success on Homecoming weekends in the past. We’re kind of keeping that philosophy because the parties, the hoop and hoorah, the pomp and circumstance and all that stuff doesn’t have anything to do with us. We’ve got to go play just like every weekend. It will be a big weekend for us.
“Hopefully, the weather cooperates. As long as it’s clear on Saturday, I would expect a huge crowd. We have a large recruiting weekend. Most of our committed players will be back on campus this weekend. We do have an official visit for four of them. We’ve got a lot going on from that aspect. We have a lot of underclassmen for 2021 that will be on campus this weekend. There’s a lot going on, exciting weekend, so hopefully we can get a win.”
A good start against the Bulls would be preferable to the struggle at the outset at UCF.
“Obviously, we’ve got to start better than we did last week,” Houston said. “I think that’s important, getting off to a positive start. I think continuing to progress offensively. We ran the ball so much more effectively last week and in turn we were able to throw the ball so much more effectively last week, primarily because we were able to protect the quarterback better. So I think continuing to progress there.
“Defensively, the big negative was giving up the big plays last week. We’ve got to do a great job of not giving up the big plays, trying to force South Florida to drive the football. That’s what we were able to do in the second half for the most part last week.
“I think turnovers are going to be big. South Florida is top five in the country I think in takeaways so we’ve got to do a great job of ball security. Certainly, if we can force McCloud into some turnover situations right there that would be a big factor in the ball game. I think we’ve got to stop Cronkrite. We’ve got to stop Cronkrite and we can’t let McCloud beat us with his feet. We’ve got to force him to beat us with his arm and hopefully we can do a great job in the secondary.”