East Carolina played before a crowd of 36,752 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte in a 33-19 loss to Appalachian State on Sept. 2.
The season opener drew a larger crowd, by almost 30,000, than attendance for any Pirates game during the COVID limitations of the 2020 season.
“It was a great stage to play on,” said ECU coach Mike Houston..”After last season, having that kind of environment that was there, just brought you back to what college football’s meant to be. Our kids loved the environment. I love the environment. It’s something that you don’t get a chance to play in that kind of setting very often. So it was just a great place to kick off the season.
“And certainly, we faced a very, very good team. I was thoroughly impressed with Appalachian State, and going back and looking at the film, they are much improved over last year. I think the quarterback (Duke transfer Chase Brice) was a pretty good upgrade the other night. If he could play at that level all year, they have a chance to have a very special year. They look like a veteran, experienced, winning football team.”
The Mountaineers had 17 starters back from a 9-3 team. ECU took a 6-0 lead as Keaton Mitchell scored on a 63-yard pass play from Holton Ahlers with 9:26 left in the first quarter.
“We had a great challenge and I thought, at times, we did some really good things,” Houston said. “I thought we had a great start to the night, there in the first quarter. I thought that, at times, we struggled to execute, and I think that’s really the biggest negative to take away is just the mistakes that we made that are very correctable. But there are things that we can clean up that would allow us to be much more effective. And certainly, we had some breaks go against us, because of big momentum swings in the ball game. But at the end of the night, we just have to execute better in all phases.”
The Pirates had a Hail Mary touchdown call reversed on video review at the close of the first half and trailed 20-6 at the break.
The first ECU conversion kick sailed wide right, which was a consequence of the crowd.
“The noise messed up the snapper/holder communication right there and the snap came a little early,” Houston said. “So that’s just a timing thing. We got it fixed after that.”
Owen Daffer subsequently hit field goals of 38 and 39 yards.
The Pirates returned to the practice field on Sunday to get ready for a noon kickoff on Saturday against South Carolina (ESPN2). Houston said the players had to work through some emotions.
“They were disappointed,” Houstoin said. “They expected to win the ball game last week. Anytime you go in with expectations like that, you’re disappointed when it doesn’t go your way. But they’re back and they’re excited about this week. They were around the facility (Monday) on their day off. They were sticking their head in, and getting a head start on South Carolina.”
The Pirates lost offensive lineman Bailey Malovic to a knee injury in Charlotte.
“Just a freak deal,” Houston said. “It was virtually a non-contact play for him and just very, very unfortunate for him. He’ll have surgery and we’ll get him back going. He’s worked so hard and I’m just concerned about him mentally right now. So we’ll support him throughout, but certainly hate losing him.”
The Gamecocks got their season started with a 46-0 win over Eastern Illinois on Sept. 4.
“You get to see it on TV,” Houston said. “We’re not allowed to go see them in person, but I get to see it on TV, and I think that always helps watching the TV copy. You see a lot of things around the play. But certainly, they had a huge win at home against Eastern Illinois. … I thought they played very well. A lot of excitement around the program right now. I think Coach (Shane) Beamer’s brought in a little bit of a breath of fresh air to the program. So they’ll be excited coming in here.
South Carolina offense
Coaching changes bring system changes. Houston talked about the upcoming opponent offensively.
“They’re a little like us, a little different,” he said. “They’re a multiple spread zone offense. So they’re running the inside zone, running the stretch, running the counter, a combination of play action, RPO (run, pass option), and drop-back passing game.”
Saturday’s visitors have some personnel that the Pirates have focused on this week.
“Well, we’re facing Kevin Harris, the leading rusher in the SEC last year, who, did not play Saturday night against Eastern Illinois,” Houston said. “So we’ve got a tremendous challenge there. We’re facing a very big, physical, offensive line, multiple great backs. They have really three quality running backs. MarShawn Lloyd was one of the top running backs in the country two years ago, coming out of high school.
“So a very talented offense, got to do a great job against the run game right there. They have some guys that can make plays in the passing game. And then, they have one of the best defensive lines in the SEC. Their three defensive ends are really three of the better players we’ll see all year. Jordan Burch, who doesn’t even start, was the top recruit in the country a couple of years ago. So we’re going to face a very talented front on both sides of the ball.”
Crowd factor at home
Houston is looking forward to the full game-day support of the crowd at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“We’re excited about it, after going through last year with no fans in the stands,” said the third-year Pirates coach. “But that was the thing, most of our kids the other night, that’s the biggest crowd they’ve ever played in front of. And so, they’ll see, most likely, a bigger one this weekend. So it’s a great experience for our team, and great to have home field advantage. And it’s going to be great weather, 12 o’clock kickoff, SEC East opponents. So should be a great day for college football.”
It’s often said that there is significant improvement between the first and second game, a factor that could prove beneficial for the Pirates.
“We’ve got to do a great job of cleaning up our execution,” Houston said. “I think that’s the biggest thing is just eliminating some of the mistakes that kept us from being as effective the other night as we could be in all three phases.
“I think we’ve got to increase our level of physicality and intensity. At times, we played very much that way, at times, we didn’t. So I thought our kids played hard, but I want us to compete at a very high level, from a physicality standpoint.
“So that’ll be a big emphasis this week during practice. And then, probably the third thing is just feeding off the home field environment. It can be a great equalizer and this is probably the first time I will get a chance to experience it as the head coach here at East Carolina. We didn’t have a game, really, like this my first year. And then last year we had the pandemic. So it’s going to be a great environment to play in and just excited to see what our team’s going to do.”