A 46-43 loss to Cincinnati, ranked No. 17 last week, was East Carolina’s best showing for 60 minutes this season against a quality opponent although the Pirates missed out on a landmark fourth win under first-year coach Mike Houston.
ECU has gone 3-9 the last three seasons and plays at nationally-ranked Southern Methodist (8-1) at noon on Saturday.
“I think everyone is excited about the way our players performed,” Houston said. “Obviously, it’s another sign that we’re making progress. The program is moving forward. At the same time, to have an opportunity to knock off the 17th-ranked team in the country at home, you don’t get that chance very often. It’s been a long time since ECU has won a game like that.
“We certainly had more than just a chance, so it’s difficult to digest. It’s something that’s not easy to work through. I think the players were very motivated coming out of the game. At the same time, you want to win that game and kind of break the ice. It leaves us still sitting here passionately searching for that breakthrough win.
“We come out of that excited for this week. In my career, I was sharing with some of the guys — I can think back to that first year at the different schools I’ve been at and the situations I’ve been at like this, I’ve had many games just like that one before.
“You think you’re getting ready to get that big signature win and it escapes you. We’ve got to look at all the things, not just the last couple of drives. Look at all the things throughout the game where we could have done things better and point out all the little things add up to big things.
“Certainly, that game has a lot of that.”
Red zone challenges
ECU was 7-for-7 in the red zone but three of those trips into scoring range resulted in field goals.
Space for pass routes is reduced in the red zone and Houston said that makes things more difficult.
“It does every week,” Houston said. “That’s why we spend a lot of time working on red zone offense, red zone defense. Because when you get in a constricted space down there, you’ve really got to operate efficiently. That’s why we’ve got to continue to develop our run game, continue to develop our play action pass, some of our crossing routes, combinations and things like that.
“We were effective at times in the red zone and at other times, we weren’t. Obviously, you want to convert those situations right there for scores.”
Sustaining level of play
East Carolina played well in the second half of a 41-28 loss at Central Florida on Oct. 19, but did not show continuity the following week in a 45-20 home loss to South Florida, in which the Pirates trailed 35-10 at the half.
The ECU coach talked about maintaining last week’s level of play at SMU.
“I think the big thing is impressing upon the kids why we played the way we did on Saturday night,” Houston said. “We played the way we did Saturday night because of the way we practiced throughout the week and the way we mentally prepared for the ball game. It’s a product of the kids — they talked about they felt that everyone was prepared. They felt that everyone was really dialed in to that ball game.
“When they feel like everybody is on board, it certainly gives them confidence in each other. I think that’s a key. … Obviously, we’re facing a different animal in SMU, different football team that has a different philosophy than Cincinnati and still another nationally-ranked opponent. We’ve got our hands full again this Saturday.”
Interacting with former players
ECU had Hall of Fame and Letterwinners Weekend in conjunction with the Cincinnati game and Houston had an opportunity to meet some former Pirate players.
“I did, quite a few,” Houston said. “That’s a special weekend. I made it by the reception Friday night after walk through. I showered up real quick and ran over and spent some time at the reception while the team was eating dinner before we got started with our Friday night meetings.
“I was able to congratulate the Hall of Fame inductees, Kevin Miller and Junior Smith. Obviously, Dave Hart, I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time with. I was able to spend some time with them. I was able to meet some other former players there at that function.
“On game day, we had so many guys back and on our sideline. I spent a good amount of time with Justin Hardy. Before we went to the stadium, he came by the hotel.
“We’re trying very hard to establish a strong relationship with our former players, being a new staff here. We want them to feel connected to our program. We want them to be a part of this and so it was great having all of them back this weekend. I think that they were all encouraged by what they saw on the field from our players. That’s important, too. I want them to be motivated about the direction of the program.”
The new staff appears to be bringing in a solid group of recruits.
“It’s going really well,” Houston said. “We’re excited about it. Our commits are very firm and they are developing a strong relationship with each other. I think they’ve kind of bonded together as a group.
“We are still actively recruiting other prospects. We’re trying to look at what we can do, not only on signing day but looking at what additions we can make in the spring or next summer to give us the strongest possible roster going into next season.”
NCAA, player endorsements
The NCAA has indicated players can make endorsements in the future but what that will mean is not clear.
“I am all for whatever we can do within the amateurism model to support our student-athletes,” Houston said. “Of course, I am a former student-athlete so a lot of the things that have been done regarding the scholarship and the compensation since my playing days is significant. Things have trended towards more benefits for the players.
“I do think that you’re dealing a little bit with Pandora’s Box with this subject. I think that there needs to be a lot of thought put into how they’re going to regulate it because at the end of the day, you want to protect the student-athlete model. You want to protect these 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kids who are growing into men. These are not professional athletes and they’re not 27-, 28-year-old grown men. You want to make sure that you protect them because any time you start dealing with money, you’re going to have predators.
“You’re going to have people trying to get into their lives who may not have the best intentions. They may not really care. All they’re after is the money. You’ve got to be cautious with how we move forward with this.
“What said there is all fine and good but what about all the other players on the team? You can undermine the team concept. You can tarnish just the purity of the game. I’m really concerned about protecting the student-athletes. I’m all for anything we can do to help them, help make their lives better, help their families, but I’m just really, really concerned about protecting what is best for their long-term future and for their lives.”
Thoughts on SMU
SMU is averaging 43.6 points per game.
“They are one of the most explosive offenses in the country,” Houston said. “There’s a reason they were 7-0. I just got through watching the TCU game. They’ve played a pretty good schedule, too.
“They’ve got weapons everywhere on offense. They’ve got a quarterback (Shane Buechele) who was the starting quarterback at the University of Texas. They’ve got playmakers everywhere. They vary their tempo but they do go pretty fast. They can run it with two explosive running backs and when they throw it, they’ve obviously got a tremendous talent back there at the quarterback position. He’s got a lot of talent out there at the wide receiver position.
“The one kid is probably out but then you look up his backup, who is the freshman (Rashee Rice), had 122 yards receiving last week and had some huge catches down the sideline. Then (James Prochet) is probably one of the top one or two receivers in our conference, No. 3. They’ve got a great tight end, 83, (Kylen Granson), very similar to the one we saw last week. It’s just a really explosive offense. We’re going to have to do a great job to try to slow them down.
“Defensively, they’re a multiple, four-down, three-down front. You’re going to see a lot of different stuff in the secondary as far as coverage. You’re going to see a variety of pressures from them. They’re going to be one of those kind of take-some-chances deals on defense. They’re going to make some big plays and they’re probably going to give up some big plays.
“Special teams, they’ve got some good and some bad there. They’ve been really, really good in the return units. They’ve been a little up and down in some of the coverage units. They do some different things with the punt team. Their starting strong safety (Trevor Denbow) is their punter. He’s a rugby-style, hit the low line drive, hard-to-field punt. They do just a lot of different things there, too, that you’ve got to prepare for.
“It’s just a different kind of team than what we just faced, but still one of the top one or two teams in our league. Even with a loss to Memphis (54-48), they still sit there with a great opportunity to win the conference championship and play in a New Year’s bowl game.”