East Carolina is getting ready to play one of its oldest opponents for the first time at a neutral site. The Pirates played at Appalachian State in 1932, the first year that the institution, now known as ECU, had a football team. The Mountaineers won, 21-0 as the Pirates were 0-5 in that maiden season.
Appalachian won the first 10 meetings in the series before ECU broke through in 1952 with a 22-19 win in Boone.
The Mountaineers lead the series, 19-12, going into Thursday night’s 7:30 kickoff at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte (ESPNU).
The Pirates have won the last six matchups with Appalachian, dating back to a 35-7 triumph in 1976 that secured a Southern Conference championship for Coach Pat Dye and company.
The opponents from opposite ends of the state last clashed in 2012 with ECU posting a 35-13 victory in Greenville.
The last five triumphs against the Mountaineers have come with the Pirates having more scholarship players. Appalachian, which won three Football Championship Subdivision titles from 2005 to 2007, moved to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2014.
The Mountaineers will be designated the home team for the 2021 season opener.
“I would imagine they’ll be in all black,” said ECU coach Mike Houston.
Houston played tight end at Mars Hill, which is about an hour from the Appalachian campus.
Houston’s nose looks like he might have played before there were facemasks on helmets, but he’s too young for that. He won’t turn 50 until the week of the Navy game this season.
“I’ve had a couple (of injuries) playing football and basketball,” Houston said. “I’ve had my nose broken several times and had surgery several times.”
The similarities of ECU’s offense to Appalachian’s attack has some value for the Pirate defense from scrimmage situations.
“Well, there’s some similarities,” Houston said. “So, when we do go against each other, as we have, for example this week, we try to collaborate so that a couple of the looks of the offense needed to see, we gave that to them defensively. And a couple of looks the defense needed to see had the offense give those to us.
“So, we’re able to do that. The biggest thing you get from your good-on-good interactions during the week is the speed. Just the speed of the travel team players, the guys that play on game day is just so much faster than what you can get from a scout team look. So really you try to keep them sharp. Sometimes you’ve got to tell your kids, listen, you’re not going to see that this week because you are going against a different opponent. But overall, it’s good competition just to keep you sharp between game days.”
Alex Flinn has been playing the role of Chase Bryce, the Duke transfer who is expected to start at quarterback for Appalachian.
“Alex primarily has been our scout team quarterback to emulate Chase Bryce,” Houston said. “We’re very fortunate to have a guy like that. I mean, Alex has done a great job this week. Really has given us good looks and done a good job preparing our defense.”
Payoffs from the portal
The transfer portal has been busy since the NCAA waived the rule requiring transfers to sit out a year at their new school.
Houston evaluated how those emerging from the portal might impact the contest on Thursday night.
“Appalachian State has an All-American offensive lineman transfer in Isaiah Helms (from Western Carolina),” Houston said. “So we expect him to start at guard. So certainly that’s going to be a guy that will be a significant impact player. They have a transfer safety from Wisconsin, Madison Cone. They also have a transfer running back from Notre Dame (Jahmir Smith), but I don’t know that we will see him.
“So, on their side, you’re going to see a little bit of impact, but not a ton, but you look at their roster, I mean, they’re all seniors. This is a team that senior class or super senior class is sixth-year guys. They’ve averaged 10 wins a year over the span of their careers. So, it wasn’t a roster that needed a whole lot. So they just kind of plugged a hole or two.
“For us, obviously D.J. Ford (safety, UNC) has had an impact since he got here and as a guy that we expect a lot from defensively this year. Probably Ryan Jones (Oklahoma linebacker who has moved to tight end at ECU) is the guy on offense that has a chance to be an impact guy for us over there. He’s had a really good preseason camp and will be a guy that’ll play a good bit Thursday night.”
Within the program, Houston feels the gains from the portal outweigh the losses.
“Well, I say it’s not really close,” said the Pirates coach. “I mean, I think we benefited ourselves in the portal. No one left that would have been a guy that was really going to play for us this fall. And those situations there… If guys aren’t playing and they want to go somewhere, a lower division or something like that to get a chance, yeah. I (will) certainly do anything I can to help them.
“So I think we’ve benefited from it, but I think that’s going to be a key moving forward with the transfer rules changing. We’ve got to try to do a great job of keeping the guys that are the quality players, that are going to contribute heavily, keeping those guys in the program.”
Houston talked about factors that will influence the outcome in the Queen City.
“Well, I think there’s lots,” he said. “I think the real storyline is probably going to be their run game versus our defense. They averaged 270 yards a game rushing last year. They have Camerun Peoples, who ran for 300 and some yards in the (Myrtle Beach) bowl game. Nate Noel is a really quality back. And then the offensive line is a veteran offensive line. So can we slow down their run game? Can we contain those super senior receivers? They have four guys there that are all-conference caliber players in the receiving room: Thomas Hennigan, Jalen Virgil, Malik Williams and Corey Sutton. So can we slow that offense down?
“On the flip side, we’re excited about what we have offensively. Certainly, I love our two running backs. I think we’ve got some playmakers in the receiver room. And so it’s just, can we do a great job operating on that side of the football, win the turnover game? . … Make the plays that we need to make to get in the end zone? I think there’s so many storylines in this game.”
Quarterback Holton Ahlers shapes up as a potential difference maker as he enters his fourth season as a starter for the Pirates.
“Well, I think we have an advantage there,” Houston said. “I mean, we have an experienced veteran quarterback that, when he’s on, he can put up huge numbers and I think he’s got the best supporting cast that he’s had. So, you got an offensive line that’s a legitimate offensive of line of quality players with some depth. He’s got a couple of good young backs that are going to make plays in the run game and the pass game. And you’ve got guys in those receiver rooms and tight end rooms that can do something when you put the ball in their hands. So, I think he’s going to be a key factor for this ball game.”
Some of Ahlers teammates talked about what makes him special.
“He’s a veteran quarterback,” said ECU second-year freshman defensive lineman Elijah Morris. “He’s been doing this awhile, a lot longer than I’ve been in college football. He reads coverages very well. I think what a lot of people under-estimate is that he can move in the pocket and out of the pocket. He’s athletic and a great leader for us.”
Morris walked on at ECU from Terry Sanford in Fayetteville and has earned a scholarship.
Running back Rahjai Harris, another second-year freshman, credited Ahlers with helping his adjustment at ECU.
“When I got here, I was lost,” Harris said. “Holton helped me a lot. I came out here in the spring (of 2020). Holton came up to me and I was surprised. I was a freshman on campus and Holton is a legend, a 252 legend. Ever since that day, me and Holton have just been locked in. He’s my brother and I’m going to protect my brother. I’m going to do everything I’m capable of doing for my brother.”
Harris was first team All-American Athletic Conference in 2020 and earned the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
Appalachian was coached by Jerry Moore from 1989 to 2012. Current Mountaineers coach Shawn Clark played for Moore.
“I’ve known Coach Moore for a long time and he’s spoken to my teams over the years, several times,” Houston said. “He and his wife, Margaret, and Amanda and I, have done a lot of charity events together, so we know each other very well and I’ve always enjoyed my time with him.”
Time on Pirates’ side
ECU will play its first home game against South Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 11, at noon.
The Gamecocks won’t open 2021 until Saturday at home against Eastern Illinois at 7 p.m. That gives the Pirates some additional time in the preparation process.
“Friday, a bunch of our (coaching staff) are leaving after the game Thursday night and headed out recruiting all over,” Houston said. “So we’ll be in high schools on Friday and be everywhere we can be watching high school prospects play Friday night. So it’s an opportunity you don’t get very often during the season. So, we’ll take advantage of that.
“The coaching staff will be in the office on Saturday going through the Appalachian State game, making corrections on that game. We’ve already planned for South Carolina this summer so we’ll pull out our plans from this summer and look over those in preparation for getting started with them. Then we’ll be able to watch the game live on Saturday night, … So, it will give us an opportunity to really put Appalachian State behind us and have a good jumpstart on South Carolina going into Sunday.”