A 31-24 win at Connecticut in the penultimate game of the season gives East Carolina a chance to reach five wins in a season for the first time since 2015 as the Pirates (4-7, 1-6 AAC) host Tulsa (3-8, 1-6) on Saturday at noon (ESPNU).
The win over the Huskies showed measurable progress under first-year ECU coach Mike Houston after three consecutive 3-9 seasons.
“It’s a game that in the first year of a rebuild with this program is an important step,” Houston said. “The thing you step back and look at is that everybody wants us to be back to the nine-, 10-win program that East Carolina was over a decade ago.
“We knew going into this, if we were realistic, that it was not going to happen overnight. We have made steady progress and that win Saturday is another step along that upward ascent. You had a game on the road, late November, against a team that was having a similar season. A little bit of cold weather. I wouldn’t say cold, cold weather, but temperatures in the low 40s. A game that our kids were really excited to play. I thought we played well. I thought we went out and we played hard.
“I thought that was a game that multiple times throughout the game, I felt like we were getting ready to pull away from it. But we made some critical mistakes. We made a critical mistake on the first defensive possession of the game. We made a critical mistake on a 2nd-and-long from deep in their territory. We made some mistakes. We turned the ball over a couple of times where the mistakes allowed UConn to stay in the ball game. Now, certainly, they get credit for making plays. They’re a much better football team than anybody gives them credit for. They made those plays to stay in the game.
“I say all of that to say if it was not for the resiliency of our young men, the unity in our locker room, the mental toughness that we are continuing to develop — when we gave up that 94-yard touchdown pass and then two plays later turned the ball over deep in our territory with the game tied in the fourth quarter — a lot of times, you see that game lost.
“I think if you had our team in late August, early September, be put in that situation, I don’t know that we would have won the ball game. But what happened was, we got a 3-and-out then we took the ball and drove it the length of the field to take the lead and then had a player slip on a pass play that gave UConn another chance deep in our territory, but we made the plays in the red zone to win the ball game.
“I’m very pleased with the way our team battled. The mistakes that we made are correctable mistakes, but they have to be corrected. Make no mistake, they’ve got to be corrected. But winning that game on the road, late November, when you have some adversity, I think that’s an important next step in the process of the program. Achieving that fourth win, that’s a big deal for these kids. There are seniors that are graduating that have never won four games in a season. So don’t sit here and think that’s not important to them. It gives our kids, No. 1, a sense of accomplishment this past weekend.
“If you talk to any of them, they are not going to hesitate with their motivation this week. They are motivated to get win No. 5. … I would expect us to play well on Saturday, but we have a tremendous challenge this Saturday.”
The Pirates had a team dinner Sunday evening as is the custom after wins in programs under Houston’s guidance.
“We did,” Houston said. “It was fantastic. We had music playing. We had little kids running around everywhere. We had steak and shrimp and peanut butter pie. Just a real happy atmosphere with the coaches and their families and the players.
“That’s one of the things that’s very important to me is that family atmosphere. People have talked about on social media seeing some of the celebrations in the locker room after the game and the thing I pointed out is the interactions between the staff and the players and everybody together, that’s not fake. That’s real. We have worked very hard to create a culture where everybody knows there are people around them that care about them as people and we’re all committed to the same thing.
“We’re working hard to support each other so that winners dinner night is a chance to stop and catch your breath and not focus on football but focus on just enjoying each other’s company. So when you’ve got a bunch of little kids running around tables between players and players coming over and inter-acting with families, I just think that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s the culture I want.”
The offense has produced 1,791 yards in its last three games under the direction of sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers. ECU is operating more efficiently after an adjustment period.
“He had his bright moments last year,” Houston said. “But I think he started off a little rocky this year and certainly there were reasons for that — new offense, new coaching staff. Certainly, the go-to receiver from last year (Trevon Brown) is no longer here. So you had new receivers for the most part that you’re working with and there were a lot of mistakes.
“The protection was not great early in the year. You had a lot of dropped passes. You had a lot of mental busts by the receivers and by the quarterback, but as we have progressed throughout the year what you have seen is now the offensive line is protecting our quarterback very well. We allowed no sacks on Saturday. We had a couple of pressures we gave up but that was it.
“I think Holton is doing a great job in the pocket of decision making. He’s throwing the ball very accurately. I think our receivers really feel comfortable right now. We have very few mental busts. We’re catching the football very well. We’re making plays after the catch. There’s just a real good continuity with that group right now that’s resulted in Holton putting up some really impressive numbers over the past month.”
Seniors to be recognized
A group of 16 players will be honored at the Tulsa game, their last as Pirates.
“Just like every other football program in the country, the senior class was much larger in the beginning than it is in the end,” Houston said. “It’s one of those things that when you look at this group Saturday, when they’re recognized, No. 1, I would hope that everyone, like me, feels the same way in that you have to respect what they have done. When I got here last December this group, the one thing they were vocal about they did not want to go out in the manner that the program was in last December. They wanted to ensure that the program was better than they found it and they wanted to ensure that the program was headed in a positive direction. I think that they have been very committed to that. They have been leaders in our locker room when it comes to culture.
“Not all of them have been on-the-field stars. Some of them have. Some of them have been behind-the-scenes stars. Some of them have been leaders on our scout team. But all of these seniors have earned the right to be recognized on Saturday as important contributors to the turnaround in our football program. Yeah, we all wished that we had been able to make a couple of plays at the end of the SMU and Cincinnati ball game and be sitting here with six wins and trying to get a seventh and headed to a bowl game. We all want that. I promise you nobody wants that more than these kids do, but at the same time, the reality is what it is, but that does not devalue the commitment that these seniors have made to do things right and I look forward to honoring them on Saturday.”
Players who will be recognized include: running back Cam Coleman, offensive lineman Jack Doyle, wide receiver Deondre Farrier, offensive lineman Fernando Frye, defensive end Kendall Futrell, cornerback Colby Gore, deep snapper Erik Lawson, defensive back Rowe Mellott, offensive lineman Branden Pena, defensive lineman Jalen Price, deep snapper Anthony Ratliff, tight end Jaray Sampson, defensive lineman Michael Swift, defensive lineman Alex Turner, tight end Anthony Watley and defensive back Mike Witherspoon.
ECU did not have classes scheduled on Wednesday, Thursday or today, allowing a little more flexibility for the Pirates in preparing for Tulsa and celebrating Thanksgiving as well.
The staff stayed later than usual Tuesday to get ready as the Pirates had breakfast, weight lifting and meetings on Wednesday before practice after lunch.
There were meetings and practice early on Turkey Day. There was a Thanksgiving team dinner at 1 p.m. on Thursday for coaches, coaches’ families, players and support staff.
“That’s a special meal for us,” Houston said. “Over the years, I’ve taken that time to really stress the importance of being thankful for all the blessings that each of us have in our lives. That’s something that we’ll reflect on during that time. We’ll adjourn after that. That gives families the opportunity to come into town on Thursday evening and see their sons and have kind of a relaxing Thursday evening.
“Friday will be a fairly normal Friday heading into the weekend.”
Looking at Tulsa
Tulsa has averaged 24.4 points per game while yielding an average of 32.
“Tulsa is a great challenge in that I’m sure fans and the average person is going to look at their record and think one thing,” Houston said. “Then you flip on the film and it kind of hits you in the face that this is not a 3-8 football team. This is a team that has taken Memphis to the wire, 42-41. They beat UCF, 34-31. They took Tulane and Houston and Cincinnati down to the wire, one-score games. They took SMU to the wire, 6-point loss in triple overtime. They beat a very good Wyoming team. They played Michigan State and Oklahoma State close.
“This is a team that, on paper, when you look at their individuals on each side of the football, they have four players — two on offense and two on defense — that may be the best individual players at their respective positions that we’ve seen all year. Wide receiver Keylon Stokes, running back Shamari Brooks, defensive end Trevis Gipson and cornerback Reggie Robinson II. Those four are elite players. Throw in their grad transfer quarterback, Zach Smith, he’s had a solid year. Guys like weakside linebacker Zaven Collins, 6-4, 260-pound linebacker that can run. And then you have all the other players who are very solid players, very good players in this league. This is a team that when you look at them on film, it looks like an 8-, 9-win football team that’s battling for a conference championship or a really solid bowl game. I’m sure that was the expectations coming into the season.
“For whatever reason, they haven’t been able to close out a few ball games and it is what it is. But talent-wise this is one of the better teams we’ve seen all year.
“Offensively, they’re an up tempo, spread offense, very similar to SMU or UCF. (Tulsa coach Philip) Montgomery was the offensive coordinator at Baylor under Art Briles, when he was there. We all remember the elite offenses that Coach Briles had at Baylor at that that time. So that will be their style offensively.
“Defensively, they’re a 3-down front. They’re a 3-3 stack, 3-4 defense that really uses the secondary support to bring the extra guy into the box. You’re going to see some movement. You’re going to see different run fits from them depending on which secondary player they bring into the box and where they bring him in. The five-technique Gipson, he may be the best five tech we’ve seen all year. He’s top five in the conference in sacks and tackles for loss from a 3-down front, which that’s a little bit tougher to do than a 4-down front. It’s a challenge on both sides of the football for different reasons.”
Houston will be looking for continued improvement.
“I think we’ve got to continue to play better each week,” Houston said. “The mistakes that we made last week, we’ve got to eliminate those. When you look at us defensively, we’ve got to be able to handle the tempo of the Tulsa offense. We’ve got to do a great job of trying to limit the big plays. That really broke our back last week. We played very solid, take away four or five plays in the ball game, but those four or five plays created huge plays — big chunks of yardage and scores — so we’ve got to try to limit those big plays. Play sound defensively. I think we’ve got to be very, very physical on that side of the football. If we can make them drive the football and be very aggressive with them, then hopefully, we can force some mistakes.
“Offensively, I think we’ve got to continue to build on last week. I liked our balance last week, being able to run the football effectively. Certainly, (Darius) Pinnix being back was a big factor in that. Our offensive line continues to play better and better. Being able to be balanced, having 135-odd yards rushing in addition to almost 400 yards passing, it was a really solid day. I want to see us continue to try to take care of the football better, but I want us to be aggressive.
“Just seeing guys continue to play with confidence and really attack is going to be important there.
“Kicking game-wise, I thought we did some really good stuff in the kicking game last week. We gave up the punt return early in the ball game on the first punt and that’s really the only huge negative we had. … I thought our kickoff team did a good job of setting the tone. We’ve got to be really solid on Saturday in the kicking game as well.”