South Carolina never led in Saturday’s nonconference matchup at East Carolina until the game was over. A 20-17 loss to the Gamecocks was a disappointing outcome for the Pirates, who were ahead 14-0 until a USC pick six late in the first half.
ECU coach Mike Houston was glad to see a crowd of 40,816. The largest attendance last year at home during the pandemic restrictions was 3,500.
“What a great day, a great setting in our stadium,” Houston said. “To have fans back at our game, and an SEC team coming into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium …. What a great college game day environment. And certainly it was electric at kickoff. Our players fed off of it. Our recruits were able to see the passion of Pirate Nation. A great setting and I thought the kids played their tails off. I thought we competed at a very high level, I thought we were physical, I thought we gave great effort and really we controlled the game much of the day. We did everything except winning, in the end.
“They made some plays there in the second half. And I’ll tell you, they were a big athletic group. Their fronts, their stand-up players on both sides, there’s a reason why they’re in the SEC.
“I hate that we couldn’t pull it out in the end. It was one that’s a tough loss for the players and the coaches, because we poured everything into it and went in believing we could win and played well enough most of the game to win it. And just, they were able to make some plays to stay in the ball game and then able to get that drive there at the end of the game to win it. So tough loss, but our kids can take a lot from that. And in just the way they played, and we’re moving on to Marshall and we’re focused completely on them.”
The Pirates visit Marshall on Saturday for a 6 p.m. kickoff.
ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers was 11 for 24 passing for 77 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions against USC.
“The quarterback gets a lot of focus and attention,” Houston said. “It’s that way everywhere. And it’s an important position because that individual handles the football on every offensive snap virtually. So, it’s one where they get a lot of praise and they get a lot of criticism and everybody on the sidelines and in the stands, they’re much better than he is on game day.
“And that’s the way that goes. Everybody can tell him what he needs to do, but it’s different when you get out there on the field. So I think Holton did some good things. He made some big plays and put us in positions to win the game. I think there’s some things he can do better from a decision-making standpoint and there’s things that he has to do better.
“I think that we can do a better job of supporting him. We had some guys that were open that he put the ball on them and they didn’t come through with a catch. I think that’s something we can do better. … I thought our protection was better this week than it was a week ago. I think we can continue to protect him better. I think we can play better in the run game to take some pressure off of him. So I think it’s a cumulative thing, but at the end of the day, the quarterback does get a lot of heat. So, that’s just part of it.
“I talked to him about that before our first game together. And it’s something that you’ve got to embrace about it, but he’s a competitor and he’s going to work hard to improve on himself this week and he’s motivated to play better this Saturday.”
Run game improves
ECU’s run game was more effective than in the season-opening 33-19 loss to Appalachian State in Charlotte on Sept. 2. The Pirates totaled 86 yards on the ground against the Mountaineers. ECU rushed for 111 yards against South Carolina and outgained the Gamecocks on the ground..
“Our offensive line played much better this week,” Houston said. “We were playing against one of the better defensive fronts in the SEC and their linebackers and safeties, they could really run and were erasers. We had several opportunities for big plays and just their speed would get us on the ground before we got out. So I thought we did a really good job the bulk of the day in the run game. And I think that that’s something we can continue to improve on.”
Exits from AAC
Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston have accepted invitations to join the Big 12. Houston talked about the implications for the American Athletic Conference.
“That’s a situation where they’re doing what they think is best for their institutions,” Houston said. “It really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with us other than the fact that the American Conference is very motivated to keep our conference at the level it’s at. So I think we’ll be aggressive with trying to bring the correct institutions into the league that will enhance the conference from a standpoint of national attention and keep us where the conference has been for the last several years.
“It is what it is. It’s always going to be an evolution of change with the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) level. And it’s all going to revolve around one thing and that’s TV money. Those TV contracts are really what’s going to dictate everything.”
Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina, both presently in the Sun Belt, have been mentioned among potential additions to the AAC.
“I don’t know, because there’s just so much that goes into it,” Houston said. “I think they’re both really good football programs, but I think that, like I said, I think that the TV package is going to have more to do with it than anything.”
Marshall is off to a 2-0 start that includes a 49-7 win at Navy and a 44-10 home triumph over North Carolina Central last week.
“They’re a good football program,” Houston said “Doc Holliday was there for over a decade and had tremendous success. I think he won the last six bowl games. He had a team that won seven games last year and was ranked in the top 20 in the country. So, he left a very veteran, talented roster. They’re an old group that’s had a lot of success and so it’s a very healthy roster. Coach (Charles) Huff has come in and he’s retained some of Coach Holliday’s staff and he’s done a good job of taking what he inherited and is off to a fast start.
“They’re a big athletic football team with a lot of weapons, a lot of guys that can run. They have a dynamic young quarterback. He’s a third year kid who was the newcomer of the year in the conference (Conference USA) last year, Grant Wells. And he’s very, very impressive. So, they’re sitting there, they’ve blown out both opponents here to start the season, averaging 46 points a game. So, they’re a very, very challenging opponent.”
Houston talked about what the Pirates will focus on in preparation for the Thundering Herd.
“We’ve got to obviously improve on some things that we can do better,” Houston said. “So that’s one focus. The other focus is preparing for Marshall, preparing for their passing attack, preparing to defend an offense. They had 700 yards of offense last Saturday night, 250 or so rushing and the rest throwing, preparing for a big athletic defense, preparing for special teams that has already blocked a punt and a field goal on the year. So, we’ve got our hands full. It’s going to be an important week, but our kids are excited and they’re motivated.”
Houston evaluated the factors that would produce a favorable result on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to do a great job defensively,” said the ECU coach. “We’ve got to limit their run game and at the same time, we can’t sit there and give Wells the kind of time to throw the football he’s had in the first two games. He’s sat back there, really unharassed the first two games out and with his arm talent, you can’t do that. So we’ve got to get some pressure on him, got to do a great job keeping the top on the defense because they’re a vertical attacking, passing attack. So, big challenge right there.
“I think offensively, we’ve got to make those plays that are there to make. We got to make those catches, those contested situations. We’ve got to continue to run the football better and we’ve just got to make better decisions at quarterback. And I think there’s a lot of room for improvement on that side of the football. So I think we’re doing some things good in the special teams game. Obviously, the kickoff return was a big play in last week’s game, there in the fourth quarter, so we’ve got to win the special teams and field position this Saturday.”