East Carolina’s offense, defense and special teams put it together down the stretch on Saturday night, outscoring host Marshall, 21-0, over the last eight minutes for a 42-38 triumph.
ECU coach Mike Houston said the Pirates didn’t make any late-game adjustments defensively against a team that had averaged 46.5 points in its first two games,
“We did a better job of playing what was called,” Houston said. “Part of the issues with Marshall, defending them, is the quarterback (redshirt freshman Grant Wells). I think he’s the best quarterback we’ve faced this year. I think you’ll see him playing, he’s still young, but I think you’ll see him playing on Sundays one day. I think he’s very, very talented. And they have a lot of talent at the skill positions. We probably underestimated the running back (Rasheen) Ali a little bit. I thought he in person was much more impressive than he had been on film.
“The receivers we knew they were talented and they were in person. And so, part of it’s their personnel. They make a lot of plays, but we helped them some too. We misfit a couple of runs. We missed some tackles. I didn’t think that we triggered as well as we did the week before against South Carolina. I didn’t think we triggered well in the run game the first three quarters, but we played hard now. I thought we played hard. I thought we had great pursuit. I thought we did a great job with some of our physicality at the point of contact. I thought we did a good job forcing turnovers.”
Wells threw for 433 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. A pick by Ja’Quan McMillian came at the ECU 1-yard line with six seconds to play to seal the outcome. Ali ran 24 times for 189 yards. The Herd also lost a fumble.
“We did some really good things throughout the game, but they did some good things too,” Houston said.
As has become custom in the Houston era after wins, the Pirates had a banquet on Sunday night. The meal also marked the shift of program focus to a home game with Charleston Southern on Saturday at 6 p.m. (ESPN+).
“It was great, because it was the first time in a year and a half, two years, we’ve been able to have the families and the kids and everybody together and just more of a celebration,” Houston said. “It was a really fun evening. For us, that’s a good way to wrap up the win. We talked about it at the end of that victory dinner. We’re on to Charleston Southern, but you want to make sure that you enjoy those because I’m telling you wins are hard to come by at the college level.”
ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers drew criticism after completing 11 of 24 passes for 77 yards with no touchdowns and two picks in a 20-17 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 11. Ahlers completed 30 of 47 at Marshall for 368 yards with two TDs and no interceptions. Ahlers also had a scoring catch and a rushing TD.
“We work very hard with Holton every week,” Houston said. “I know it looks really easy when things are going well from the stands, and anybody can do better when things are going tough, but Holton takes a lot of pride in his play. Certainly, he knows that he didn’t play his best against South Carolina, and so he came back ready to work on Sunday and he worked very hard last week.
“I think that everyone worked very hard last week. I think that you have some guys make some plays around him catching the ball. I thought he did a good job putting the ball on the receivers. I thought he did a good job with decisions. I think he did a good job with ball security.
“Holton didn’t want to go out and have a poor game against South Carolina. He wanted to go out and play his best against South Carolina, but he had a great bounce-back game, and it says a lot about his toughness mentally given just everything last week, and it says a lot about him just as a competitor.”
Calhoun provides boost
Tight end Shane Calhoun did not previously have a catch this season, but had eight receptions for 114 yards with a touchdown in a breakout game at Marshall,
“It’s good to finally have Shane back healthy,” Houston said. “He’d been battling some stuff from the preseason and he’s back going full speed and had some really good matchups. I thought (offensive coordinator) Donnie (Kirkpatrick) did a good job taking advantage of those matchups and I thought that Holton and Shane did a good job with execution.”
Pirate kicker Owen Daffer made the recovery on an onside kick, which led to ECU’s go-ahead score. Houston has had the play for a long time but had never used it at ECU.
“A close friend of mine who’s a special teams coordinator in the ACC (Andre Powell, Pitt), he gave it to me a little over a decade ago,” Houston said, “We’ve used it at other schools. Hadn’t used that scheme here, but we’ve worked this scheme throughout the preseason, and the really impressive thing is it’s one thing to do it in practice, it’s another to execute it successfully in the game. And Owen, a lot of pressure, a lot of adrenaline. That’s a tough kick to pull off, but he pulled it off and did not flinch. (Bruce) Bivens and Chad (Stephens) didn’t either.”
Bivens and Stephens drove potential receivers away from the ball and Daffer fell on it as it went 10 yards.
“Great execution by Owen,” Houston said. “A really big play in the game, probably won the game. Could we have won it without getting that? Yeah, maybe, but our chances certainly went up exponentially when we recovered that.”
Winning changes things
Houston talked about the difference a win makes.
“The food tastes better,” he said. “The air’s a little fresher. Everybody feels better. There’s no dark clouds. There’s sunshine coming in my window right now. That’s the deal. That’s the way it is. Last week it was all dark clouds and gloom and doom. It’s great to get a win. It’s great to get a win on the road. It’s great to get a win against a quality opponent, one that I’m sure is going to have a great year this year.
“That was earned. That was a tough deal right there. It’s one that I don’t know that certainly the teams my first two years wouldn’t of won that game I don’t think. I don’t know when the last time you had an East Carolina team that could’ve done that, so I think it says a lot about these young men.”
Pirate Nation may see this week’s game as a breather, but the players and coaches can’t afford to take their Football Championship Subdivision opponent lightly.
“You can’t worry about that stuff,” Houston said. “That’s the difference between fans and players and coaches is the players and the coaches understand that you’ve got to respect every opponent. You’ve got to focus on yourself especially in a week like this. You’ve got to focus on getting better today. You’ve got to focus on addressing the things that you didn’t do well Saturday, improving on the things you did do well. It’s really about our process of development, and it’s a chance, a home game with what’s going to be a great crowd, and that’s the great thing about fans.
“They make a difference. I hope everybody understands that. You make a difference, and those fans that were up there in Huntington made a difference. Our stadium, full this weekend, is going to make a difference. I said on the radio show (Monday) night we all want the same thing for East Carolina football and we all have to work together, and the players need the fans, and the fans need the players. The coaches need the fans and the players. We all need each other, and so it’s a deal where we’re focused on trying to get a big win at home this weekend. We want to play well. We want to play better this weekend than we did last weekend.
“The older kids, the leadership council, we talked about it (Monday) afternoon. They’re very focused on that. The thing that worries you, the young kids that are not as experienced listen to the noise. They can’t do that. I talked to them last week at the beginning of the week. ‘You can’t listen to the noise. You can’t listen to everybody telling you how terrible you are, and how you stink,’ and all, and you can’t listen to the noise this week either. You cannot listen to the noise.
“You got to focus on everybody that’s inside the building. You’ve got to focus on each other. You’ve got to focus on the process, and it’s very, very hard in the day of social media because anybody can get on there and say anything no matter if they have any sense about them or not.
“That can be very damaging to 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year olds.”
Keys vs. Buccaneers
Houston summed up important factors for ECU (1-2) against the Buccaneers (1-1).
“I think it’s improving ourselves,” he said. “I think we want to go out, we want to play fast and physical. We want to be us playing very aggressively and playing with a lot of emotion. We want to continue to improve on our execution.
“Charleston Southern is an older team, so those guys have been there and played a lot of ball. They have a very talented quarterback (Jack Chambers). They’re very well coached (Autry Denson). This is their Super Bowl. They’re going to come in here with a lot of motivation and nothing to lose, so that’s a very dangerous group. We’ve got to make sure that we’re really on it this week and we’re prepared to play Saturday.”
Herd visits App
Marshall visits Appalachian State on Thursday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m.). Houston shared some thoughts on the matchup, having played both teams already.
“I think Marshall’s going to have a tough time recovering from the other night,” said the third-year ECU coach. “One, that was a very physical football game, and two, to lose the way they did that’s tough.
“And it’s a short week. And going on the road I think that’s going to be a tough deal. I think you’ll find out a lot about what they have in them. Obviously, I have a very high opinion of Appalachian State. I hope it’s a really good game. I really don’t have a dog in the fight as far as who wins or loses, but I think you’ll find out a lot about Marshall on Thursday night.”