East Carolina is scheduled to make its latest start to a football season on Saturday at home against No. 13 Central Florida (ABC, noon) since a 27-9 loss to Lenoir-Rhyne in Greenville on Sept. 27, 1947. Originally scheduled for ESPN+, the matchup has been shifted to the higher-profile ABC platform in place of the Notre Dame-Wake Forest game which was postponed due to COVID-19 test results.
The Pirates were scheduled to host Marshall to open 2020 but that game moved from Sept. 5 to August 29 to Sept. 12 before it was postponed indefinitely due to coronavirus readings and quarantines that caused the ECU program to be paused from August 19 to Sept. 1.
“It’s certainly not been an easy task,” second-year Pirates coach Mike Houston said of a highly-unique preseason camp, which got underway July 31. “Many times we’ve doubted if this week was ever going to come. The players and coaches have been through a lot since last March and they’ve been through a lot since the beginning of fall camp.”
ECU did not have spring practice in 2020.
“But this is what we’ve been looking forward to,” Houston said. “The kids are excited. They’re excited just to finally get away from the COVID world, the uncertainty and all of the different things that we’ve had to navigate and get ready to play a football game. It’s an exciting time.”
The players’ classes are all online and smaller groups in practice were used to comply with government regulations on the size of gatherings.
Just getting into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium for a competitive situation other than a scrimmage will be a victory in itself and will represent a monumental effort to keep the program healthy during the ongoing pandemic.
ECU went 4-8 overall and 1-7 in the American Athletic Conference in 2019.
The Pirates have invested heavily in an influx of running backs and defensive linemen going into 2020.
“We certainly have more depth and I think there is more raw ability in those two rooms,” Houston said. “Now those two rooms differ in that at running back, we do also have a good bit of experience. That’s a good thing. The one uncertainty on the D-line is we’re just so young. We’re going to be playing multiple freshmen playing their first college football game this Saturday. It’s going to be exciting and also a little nerve-wracking.
“When I took over the program, those were two areas that we were pretty thin at and it needed to be upgraded a good bit. Certainly, that was a goal of the offseason. I do like the personnel in both rooms. I think it’s created a tremendous amount of competition in both rooms and I think we’ve prepared both groups to have the ability to play at a high level for multiple years to come.”
The Knights launched their season on Saturday with a 49-21 win at Georgia Tech. UCF was picked first in the AAC preseason poll while ECU was 10th among 11 teams. The Knights are favored by 27.5 points on Saturday.
“Central Florida is what we thought they were,” Houston said. “Everybody expected them to be one of the better teams in the country this year. You look at a Georgia Tech team that is obviously greatly improved over last season, knocking off Florida State (16-13) in the opener. You look at Georgia Tech, personnel-wise, and they’re certainly much more athletic — bigger, faster, stronger than they were a year ago.
“Central Florida laid it on them pretty good, 660 yards total offense, 49 points. The speed Central Florida plays with was challenging for Georgia Tech and the speed at the skill positions on both sides of the ball and special teams was just more than Georgia Tech could handle. Very, very impressive. Looked like a veteran football team, which they are. We’ve got a great challenge this week.”
Last year vs. UCF
The Pirates lost 41-28 at UCF last season after trailing 35-6 at the half. A blocked punt by Leroy Henley helped swing the momentum for ECU. .
“I think special teams will play a big role this year also,” Houston said.
Will last year’s second-half surge in Orlando give this year’s Pirates some confidence?
“I think the players that are back that did play in that game, certainly I think that you can take some positives away right there,” Houston said. “But when you look at the film last year and look at the film this year, the personnel that we have on the field is not the same. Maybe a few of the key guys, (quarterback) Holton (Ahlers), (receivers Blake) Proehl, C.J. (Chris Johnson), (linebackers) Bruce (Bivens), Xavier (Smith), but the vast majority of the players that played in that game last year are not here.”
Case in point is Henley, who transferred to Richmond.
Former ECU coach Pat Dye passed away on June 1 at the age of 80. His record with the Pirates was 48-18-1 from 1974 to 1979. He later won four Southeastern Conference titles at Auburn.
Dye coached in the first college football game that Houston attended.
“I was a freshman in high school,” Houston recalled. “I’d never been out of Franklin (NC). Everything I knew was within 20 minutes of the surrounding area that I grew up in. A buddy of mine, his dad was a huge UT (Tennessee) supporter and we played football together. They loaded us up one Saturday morning and we went over to watch Tennessee take on No. 1-ranked Auburn (1987) when Bo Jackson was at Auburn. Coach Dye was the coach there. Just a great memory, the first time you ever saw a college football game in person. Certainly, some great memories from that.
“It ended up being a 20-20 tie, which was an upset at that time. I was just a fan in the stands. … I got a chance to talk to Coach Dye spring before last when I was hired at East Carolina. I did get a chance to speak with him over the phone at a get-together that was celebrating one of the bowl teams (1978 Independence Bowl) that he coached here at ECU.”
Attendance will be limited as ECU takes on the Knights.
“Each student-athlete has been given two tickets for immediate family,” Houston said. “It is up to the student-athlete who those two tickets go to. The governor’s office, that’s what they’ve allowed us to do. Whether that’s all parents or whomever, the student-athlete assigns those two tickets. It has to be immediate family though. Those are non-transferable.”
Admissions are scheduled to increase to seven percent of stadium capacity in October.
Taking care of the football will be essential to ECU’s aspirations for an upset.
“You look at the game last week between Georgia Tech and Central Florida, the biggest thing that stands out to me is the turnovers,” Houston said. “Georgia Tech turned the ball over a good bit last week (two interceptions, three lost fumbles). You give that offense those extra possessions and that’s just something you can’t do. I think that will be a big key for us. We’ve got to make sure that we play a clean game from that standpoint, making good decisions, really having great ball security and trying to make sure we maximize every possession that we get.”
The Pirates averaged 141.3 rushing yards per game last season, which ranked 91st among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
“If we can run the football effectively, I think certainly it allows us to control the game a little bit more,” Houston said. “I think it’s going to open up a lot in the passing game. You look at UCF defensively, they’re long, they’re athletic, they have a lot of speed. They have really good size. If we can make them commit the safeties to the run game, force them to get a seventh guy into the box to help with the run game, then that’s going to open up some things in the secondary.
“I think if we can get our guys in some good matchups in the secondary and give Holton time right there, I think we’ve got an opportunity to make some plays. Being able to run the football effectively is going to be a big key to our balanced attack.”
The extended forecast was showing a 70 percent chance of precipitation on Saturday. The Pirates have practiced in the rain.
“It is what it is,” Houston said. “The one thing that I have learned in my short time in eastern North Carolina is that there’s no sense in looking at the weather forecast this far out because it’s going to change every 20 minutes.”