Despite the evolution of offenses and defenses over the years, football still comes down to blocking and tackling.
As East Carolina heads to No. 7 Cincinnati for a Friday night kickoff at 7:30 p.m., the Pirates will have to do a much better job in the trenches than in a 38-21 home loss to Tulane last week.
There’s no sugar coating the fact that ECU was limited to 35 yards rushing while the Green Wave piled up 277 yards on the ground. The 351 yards that the Pirates generated in the passing game was not enough to offset the disparity in the run game and too much of ECU’s air production came after the visitors had taken a commanding 31-7 lead.
The Pirates came into the game averaging 179.6 yards rushing.
“Tulane is very good in the front seven,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “They are athletic with good size and played very well. We did have some missed assignments. When you have those up front, it’s hard to have a productive play.
“I think it’s a combination of playing a cleaner game from an execution standpoint up front. I don’t want to take anything away from Tulane. That’s a very good football program and a solid team when it comes to the line of scrimmage on both sides.”
One challenge this week will be to show improvement against the unbeaten Bearcats, whose run-game numbers are better than Tulane’s. Cincinnati leads the American Athletic Conference in rushing defense at 96.3 yards per game and in rushing offense, 238.5 yards per game.
“It’s not just their defense but, looking at all three phases, it’s their team speed,” Houston said. “I think they run really well at all three levels. They have good size on the defensive line and those kids can really move. They run really well in the secondary and at the linebacker position. You’ll see them play some drop eight where it’s just a three-man rush and they are still getting pressure on people. They also bring a variety of pressures just like we do. People have struggled to run the ball against them this year. They’ve been very stingy.”
ECU denied upset in 2019
The Pirates led Cincinnati, then ranked No. 17, by a 40-35 margin last year in Greenville with five minutes to go. The Bearcats managed a 46-43 win on a 32-yard field goal by Sam Crosa as time expired.
ECU feels as though progress is being made in a rebuilding effort.
“It’s the same players,” Houston said about the Bearcats when asked about last year’s matchup. “When you look at their roster, the same guys have been playing for multiple years. They are seniors backed up by juniors across the two deep. We played well against them offensively last year. Tough game. We lost on a kick there at the end. Obviously, having to travel up there and playing on the road will be tough.
“I think they are much improved, even from the team I saw at the beginning of the year. Great depth across the board so I just think we are playing a really good football team Friday night.”
Another Friday nighter
The Pirates have already appeared on ESPN 2 on Friday night in a 34-30 setback at Tulsa on Oct. 30. Forced to take Tuesday off before Tulane due to an NCAA mandate on allowing players to vote, ECU is dealing with a departure from practice routine for the third straight week.
“Quick turnaround. Saturday to Friday means everything got sped up pretty well,” Houston said. “We came back (Sunday) and took a look at the film with the players. The coaching staff was back in the office early Sunday morning preparing for Cincinnati and got the corrections and adjustments from the Tulane game taken care of. We had a shorter practice (Sunday).
“Concerned about getting the kids fresh for Friday night so … a touch shorter than normal early in the week. Tough matchup. Good football team we are playing. One of the top teams in the country obviously. It’s an exciting matchup for our players. Being able to go on the road against an opponent of Cincinnati’s caliber and playing on a national stage has our players and staff excited.”
A personnel overhaul in the program’s second season under Houston’s command has left the Pirates short on experience. One of the problems of youth is inconsistency, which might explain the down week against the Green Wave. The youngsters still possess a significant degree of promising talent.
In the last three games, ECU has lost to Navy without starting quarterback Holton Ahlers due to COVID protocols and were dealt a defeat at Tulsa due to an officiating error that was acknowledged by the AAC before taking a beating from Tulane.
That’s some rough sailing.
“We have seen progress on the field in that we are highly competitive in American Conference games versus a year ago when we struggled,” Houston said. “We do have a youthful roster. Those guys are going through a lot of first experiences. The big thing I try to do is keep them focused on the important things we preach daily and that’s pushing ourselves to be the best we can be and to be a more cohesive team.
“I try to find something motivational each week. We have set some goals for what program I’d like us to become. We are working towards those goals every single day. It’s tough keeping so many 18-year-olds upbeat but I see so many positives. I was extremely disappointed in the way we played in the middle of our ball game against Tulane, but I can still find some positives and bright spots. It’s just trying to focus on the things we are doing well and to get things corrected that we aren’t doing well.
“I think we could have done some things better as a coaching staff last week. The biggest thing is focusing on having a positive team culture in the locker room. We have really good kids in this program. We have to cultivate that and try to get better every week.”
Better week of practice
Houston credited the quality of practice sessions prior to the lone win thus far this season at South Florida on Oct. 10. He said Wednesday that ECU has had another good week of workouts.
“I try to be upbeat and positive,” Houston said. “But I also try to be very honest with them. There was a concerted effort to really practice hard, particularly Monday and Tuesday, our pad days. … I thought the scout team was better this week. I thought (Wednesday) was a sharp practice. I’m glad we got it in. I was worried about lightning but it stayed out of the area.”
Building process, battle at hand
Houston has built programs successfully at other universities and knows what that process involves.
“They all came to college to play football,” Houston said of his players. “That’s why they’re here. You play a game to win. You compete. Everything around our program is built on competing. Certainly we’re building a culture. We’re less than two years into it but we’re building a culture where you compete daily. You compete weekly on the gridiron Saturday, Friday night, right here. So it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. I don’t care if it’s Cincinnati. I don’t care if it’s Alabama. I don’t care if it’s Gardner-Webb. Whoever it is, when we take the field, we’re going to compete.
“You have to go through some growing pains. The biggest thing I was disappointed in last week was I didn’t think we played our best. Part of that I think comes from our preparation. Part of that comes from guys understanding this conference, particularly the new guys we have. Every single team in this conference is a solid football team.
“There’s not a whole lot of convincing. I told them the style of play I think we’ve got to play to win the game Friday night. We put the game plan in. They put in the work this week. … However long it is until 7:30 Friday night, we’ve got to get our legs under us, get some rest, take care of our bodies, make sure we’re fueled up, hydrated up, because it is going to be a backyard brawl Friday night. It’s going to be one of those. It’s going to be a fight. We’re preparing for that kind of game.”