East Carolina fans filtered into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for Homecoming looking for their team to continue to build on the squad’s strong second half at Central Florida the week before.
The day got off to the best of starts. Tyler Snead caught the opening kickoff on his goal line. He took his time to find a seam and then burst through the opening he found. Snead went 100 yards for the touchdown giving the Pirates the early lead over South Florida.
Unfortunately, that would be the one real highlight for ECU on this night. USF would roll to the 45-20 win, moving the Pirates to just 3-5 on the season.
“It was a great way to start the day,” said Pirate coach Mike Houston. “The stadium was electric. It was a great job by the return team, a great job by Tyler. We’ve been talking all year that we thought we had that ability. We’ve just got to keep working at it. It was good to see us finally make the play.”
While the Snead return was huge, it was equally important for ECU’s defense to protect the advantage on USF’s first possession. That didn’t happen and the game quickly got away from the Pirates.
”If we could have gotten a stop there on defense, what a way to start the game off,” said Houston. “But I did think they took a little bit of wind out of our sails the way they drove the ball down and scored.”
The Bulls just didn’t score. They scored and scored and scored some more. When the dust had settled USF had rolled to 35 consecutive points. Just like the week before against UCF, the Pirates were basically out of the football game at halftime.
In that first half the Pirates of old showed up. Coach Houston has stressed since day one at ECU that the team had to be more physical and had to tackle better. This Pirate team was neither on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to improve our tackling,” Houston said. “That was obvious to everyone in the stadium tonight. We did not do a great job tonight.”
While the Pirate offense struggled, the ECU defense had all kinds of problems. USF shredded the Pirates to the tune of a 347-yard night on the ground. When the Pirates were in position to make a play, they missed a tackle. The missed tackles were an epidemic.
The Bulls’ game plan was pretty good as well.
“They had a good plan,” Houston said. “When you have a quarterback run game, somebody’s got to win because they basically have a hat for every hat that you’ve got, and the quarterback’s the guy. That’s what makes that style of a deal so tough to defend.”
Mike Houston wears his heart out on his sleeve. You could tell in his post-game comments that he had no idea that his club would struggle so much in this game.
“Certainly disappointed with the outcome of the ballgame,” Houston said. “That’s not what we expect from ourselves. It’s not what we want to be. Too many critical errors at the wrong time that we put ourselves in bad situations and did not take advantage of some opportunities we had. You can’t do that if you’re going to win a ballgame against a good football team in this conference.”
Houston was quick to explain how the game got away from his Pirates.
“Two turnovers in the red zone,” Houston said. “You punch those two in, the tide of the game is completely different. We had opportunities to where it would have been kind of a blow-for-blow kind of deal. But we can’t make those critical errors down there in the red zone. That’s two weeks in a row we’ve done that.”
Things don’t get any easier for East Carolina. The Pirates are set to see a pair of the best teams in the American Athletic Conference over the next couple of weeks. Next up for ECU is a match- up in Greenville against Cincinnati. That’s followed by a road trip to ‘Big D’ to take on Southern Methodist. Both opponents are ranked in the Top 20 of the AP and Coaches Polls.
Houston knew there would be growing pains in trying to turn this program around.
Saturday night was one big ache for the first-year ECU coach.