First-year Pirates coach Mike Houston thought the second bye week of the season went well.
“I thought we had an excellent bye week,” Houston said. “I thought we got a lot accomplished with the things that we set out to accomplish. We got some guys a little bit of rest that needed it. We had a few bumps and bruises coming out of the SMU game.
“We were able to get those guys a little bit of rest and at the same time we had three very productive practices from the standpoint of we weren’t out there tremendously long but the time we were out there was very energetic with great effort.
“I thought we got a lot accomplished. We were able to address some mistakes in the SMU game and get some things corrected. We really focused on doing a few things better that we have not done well here lately and then begin some preparations for UConn and giving our roster a real good look at what we’re going to face in all three phases.
“We accomplished those things. Got a couple of days off at the end of the week with Friday and Saturday, then had a good, solid Sunday practice to start this week off.”
True freshman receiver C.J. Johnson went out of the SMU game.
“C.J. was fine,” Houston said. “There were no issues with C.J. so he practiced fully all week.”
Sophomore running back Trace Christian saw limited action against the Mustangs.
“His deal is just a little bit of healing on a little minor injury,” Houston said. “We did what we need to do to address that.”
Practice focus this week
The Pirates prepared well for the previous two games and that was a point of emphasis going into the trip to UConn.
“I think the big thing is just having a solid week or practice,” Houston said. “Probably the best week of preparation we had was going into the Cincinnati game and I feel like that’s probably the best game we’ve played overall this year although we played very solid at SMU.
“I thought we had a good week of preparation for SMU. The kids have seen for themselves and understand it’s important to have a solid week of preparation. It’s going to be a dogfight on Saturday. You look at UConn’s performance at home this year and they’ve played, outside of the Navy game, which is kind of the outlier, they have played very well at home. It’s going to be a great challenge going up there.”
The average margin for the Huskies at home this season has been minus-9.2 as opposed to minus-39.2 in road games. ECU defeated UConn 55-21 in Greenville last season.
“I think they are much-improved, both talent-wise and performance-wise from last year,” Houston said. “I expect to probably see No. 4 (Steven Krajewski) back from injury, the quarterback. he has not played since UCF (Sept. 28). I would expect him to play against us. I don’t know if he starts or not, but I expect him to be available and play, and could possibly start if he’s healthy enough.
“I think they’re a good football team. We’ve got to go up there and play our tails off and do everything we can in order to have a chance to win.”
UConn departing AAC
This will be the Huskies’ last home game in the American Athletic Conference. The contest will unfold on Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Hartford, CT.
It will be the last matchup against an East Division opponent for ECU, which will host West Division foe Tulsa to conclude the season.
“There will be no divisions,” Houston said of the league’s structure for football in 2020. “There will be a one-division, 11-team league and you will rotate opponents throughout the seasons. … There will be a championship game. It will be the top two teams.”
ECU’s 2020 AAC opponents were announced this week. The Pirates won’t face Memphis or Houston next season. ECU won’t meet SMU or Tulsa in 2021.
Weather at UConn
Houston doesn’t think weather will be an issue for ECU on Saturday.
“We’ve been practicing in colder weather the past week plus,” Houston said. “I’m glad Mother Nature cooperated with us and gave us some cool weather down here. We’ve probably practiced in worse conditions than what we’re going to see on Saturday. To me, low 40s is not real cold to be honest. I’ve played games down around freezing.
“Our group practiced very well last week in the chilly weather and we expect them to be ready to have that be virtually a non-factor on Saturday.”
Houston said their are limits to the value of thermal gear.
“They’ll take their basic stuff,” Houston said. “You have to be careful with that stuff because anything that you wear can not impede performance. That’s the real critical thing there. You want to make sure that the players are comfortable and able to play. You certainly don’t want to do anything that restricts their performance.”
Looking at the Huskies
Houston’s evaluation of the Huskies started with their size up front on defense.
“If you start looking at their defense, they have four down lineman, they’re big, strong guys,” Houston said. “48, Kevon Jones is having a solid year. Very athletic, has a little bit of length. Plays with a good motor. The two interior kids, 57 (Travis Jones) and 52 (Caleb Thomas), are big, strong, powerful players. 57 is 336 pounds, 6-4. … A big guy right there. The other end, (Dillon) Harris, is a little more of an athletic linebacker, hybrid type, much like our guy (Kendall) Futrell. Inside linebackers are very active. You have the one very experienced player in (D.J.) Morgan, who’s a fifth-year senior, very active. You can see that he is very savvy. He’s a transfer from Notre Dame. Their SAM linebacker, (Omar) Fortt, has been active this year. 25 (Tyler) Coyle, their boundary safety in the secondary, good speed, good size. 6-1, 205, fourth-year player and he’s been very productive this year.
“They look the part defensively. They run pretty well. They’re a 4-2-5, much like us. You’re going to see corners in man coverage. You’re going to see pressures. Something very similar to what we’ve seen from the other four-down fronts this year. Again, I look back at some of the home games they’ve played this year and they’ve had some good performances defensively so I think they’ll present us some challenges there.
“You flip over to the offensive side of the football and I think they have an outstanding running back, (Kevin) Mensah, right at 1,000 yards rushing on the year. He’s been very productive all throughout the year. I think they do a very good job of having an effective rushing attack. Big, strong offensive line. They do a great job blocking up front. They’ve got a good 1-2 punch with Mensah and (Art) Thompkins. Thompkins is a little bit smaller, more of a quick back. He does a good job running between the tackles, but he’s more of a guy to get out on the perimeter, throw the ball to, stuff like that. But Mensah is one of the better running backs in this conference.
“Cam Ross, freshman receiver, is very dynamic, has had a big year. They have some other targets, (Ardell) Brown, 83, has done some really good stuff. … They’ve played three quarterbacks. They’ve had some injury issues there. No 12 (Mike Beaudry) was a graduate student. He started a couple of games early in the year. Then he was replaced by the redshirt freshman, Krajewski, No. 4, Steven Krejetski. He’s probably the most talented of the three. Had a great game against UCF, but then was injured in that game. Did finish the game but has not played since. Zergiotis. Jack Zirgodis is a freshman from Canada. He’s started the last several games. I think we could see Krajewski back. He runs very well. Throws the ball well. Is going to present a lot of challenges. You could see a combination of two quarterbacks, but really that’s been the one thing. When they’ve played well at that position, they’ve been very effective offensively. When they’ve struggled at that position or turned the ball over there, that’s when they’ve struggled. I really think a lot of it goes to that. Certainly, we’re going to be challenged to stop the running back and to defend a very solid offense.
“Special teams, the punter and kicker are solid.
“They’re a good football team. I know everybody looks at maybe their record and thinks one thing or says one thing, but when you look at the film if I didn’t put the scores or the record up there and I showed you the film, you’d say this is a good football team. I think that’s indicative of what the American Conference is. It’s going to be a challenge for us. We’re going to have to play very, very well to get a win. It’s going to be a situation where it’s going to be a dog fight.”
ECU has noon starts for its last two games of 2019.
“We’re ready to go whatever time they kick it off,” Houston said. “I do think playing on the road late in the year, I like noon from the standpoint of you get up, you go play and you get back to Greenville before too late.
“That way you’re not just dead tired going into the next week with a big ball game coming up. We’ve had several noon kickoffs. Had one at SMU, 11 a.m. Central down there. I think that we’ll be fired up and ready to go at 12 o’clock on Saturday.
Passing game productivity
ECU sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers has passed for 1,033 yards in the last two games.
“I think there’s a lot of things that have worked together just to make our team play better,” Houston said. “You talk to the players. They’re going to tell you there’s a good vibe in our locker room. There’s a lot of guys that are fully committed to this thing and really putting a lot into it. That whole team concept, really caring about your brothers, really being committed to being great every day, all those core values that we’ve preached for 10-and-a-half months or so. All of those things have taken strong footing and you have a lot of guys going out and enjoying playing the game of football. I mean we had a great open week and I just tell you that is a sign of some real steady, solid progress. I think that goes into a lot of why we’re playing better offensively. We’re playing with more confidence. We feel good about being out there together.
“Obviously, we’ve progressed farther along with a really young group of skill players. They’ve meshed together very, very well. I think it’s just a lot of things like that. Believing in yourself and having confidence and feeling like everybody is committed to a common goal, you can’t underestimate the motivation of all those factors. I think a lot of that stuff goes into why we’re playing well.”
The Pirates won at Old Dominion, 24-21, on Sept. 28 and will be looking for another win away from home.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to be able to go on the road and play really well,” Houston said. “It will be a challenging environment up there at UConn and we’re going to have to be able to handle that. I think we’ve got to be extremely aggressive in all phases and I think we’ve got to play with a lot of confidence and a chip on our shoulder. We’ve got to do a great job of taking care of the football and driving the football, which we’ve done the last several weeks.
“We’ve got to do a great job on defense of stopping the run and trying to prevent the big plays and get off the field and getting our offense the ball back.
“We’re going to have to win the kicking game. I think that’s going to be critical. Winning the kicking game is going to be very, very important.”