Replicating last week’s investment in preparation will be crucial as East Carolina ventures into the Bounce House, otherwise known as Spectrum Stadium, to play Central Florida on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Pirates are coming off a 52-29 win over Tulane, which is different than moving forward from a 31-28 victory over Charleston Southern.
Resting on the laurels of a 3-game winning streak and a 1-0 start in the American Athletic Conference is not an option.
“I was extremely pleased with the way we played, but the players have got to understand, they played that way because of the way they practiced and the way they prepared,” said ECU coach Mike Houston on Tuesday. “They’ve got to do that every week and just like getting over a loss or getting over a bad performance, you’ve got to get over a win, too. And so we talked about putting the Tulane game behind us Sunday and really focusing on UCF during our off-day yesterday. Just preparing and coming out and having a great practice today is the real focal point. You got to have a great Tuesday if you want to play well Saturday. And so, today’s practice is critical.”
Houston learned something about the Pirates in their league opener.
“I take away that when we’re focused, when we’re playing with a tremendous amount of effort, we’re playing with a tremendous amount of intensity, when we’re playing together and we’re focused on each other and focused on the team and just really locked into the game plan and have had a good week of practice and executing at a high level that we’re a dang good football team,” Houston said. “But this is not one of those deals where you can just show up on Saturday and go out there and play and expect to perform the way we did last Saturday.
“There was just a tremendous amount of work and just very focused, hard just grueling work that went into last week in preparation, but it showed on Saturday. Because physically, I felt like we dominated the ball game. I felt like up front on the offensive line, we dominated the ballgame. I felt like our DB’s and linebackers and D line, with the way they were running and hitting, our kickoff team, the way it was covering kicks with aggression, the way we were tackling, that physicality was a big, big factor in that ball game.”
ECU produced some impressive totals against the Green Wave, including 310 yards rushing and 302 through the air.
Keaton Mitchell had 15 rushes for 222 yards with touchdown runs of 68 and 30 yards.
“He takes a 4- or 5-yard run and turns it into a 68-yarder,” Houston said of Mitchell. “That’s what he does. He don’t need much room. He has very good vision, he has very good balance. He’s a very good, between the tackles runner. And then once he gets out into the open, if you’re not playing top down, you’re not going to catch him, I don’t care what kind of angle you got on him, you’re not going to catch him. So he is a threat to take it the distance every time he touches it.”
The running game helped open things up for quarterback Holton Ahlers and the passing attack.
“We threw for 302 yards, so one of our better passing performances on the year, and I’ve said it since I’ve took the job and I know some people are critical of when I say it, but we threw the ball because of the way we ran it, and anytime that you’re balanced like that, it takes so much pressure off of the quarterback and it makes pass protections so much easier,” Houston said. “It all goes back to the way the offensive line played in the run game, and their ability to give our running backs room to run, both Keaton and Rahjai (Harris). Rahjai had a great day Saturday, 70 yards rushing and a touchdown there in the fourth quarter. He had a 4th-down conversion there in the second half, on a very hard-nosed run. So, anytime that you can run the ball like that and play that way up front, it’s going to give you the ability to throw the ball the way we did.”
Houston talked about ECU’s response to a span in which Tulane cut the lead from 31-7 to 31-23 with the help of a pair of 2-point conversions.
“We didn’t really have an offensive lull,” Houston said. “We scored on the last possession before halftime. We came out on our first possession the second half and drove it all the way down the field to inside the 25-yard line, didn’t get the fourth down conversion. So that’s really the only thing we didn’t do. But then the next possession, we drove it back down again, and we were able to punch that one in for the first touchdown of the fourth quarter.
“So, really you were productive offensively, all throughout. It’s just, Tulane had two good drives there in the third quarter … So you didn’t have the explosive quarter the way you did in the first quarter. We got to play better defensively there, in the third quarter. We had them on fourth down a couple of times and they were able to convert. You get those stops right there and the game’s even more of a wide margin than it is. But offensively, I thought throughout the day, our kids executed very well.”
After an 0-3 start, Navy turned back UCF, 34-30, in Annapolis last week. The Knights were favored by 16 points.
“If you remember back when we were getting ready for Marshall and everybody was talking about Navy and I told them, I said, ‘Don’t worry. Coach (Ken) Niumatalolo, he’s a great football coach. He’ll get them figured out and he’ll get them straight.’ And he did it quicker than probably anybody expected, but they look like a completely different team.
“They look like a different team, defensively. And so they look (like) what Navy typically looks like, they ran for 360 yards running that triple option scheme. Last Saturday, they forced a couple of turnovers there in the second half, able to get scores off of those turnovers to come back and able to go ahead off a turnover that turned into a touchdown.
“They blocked a kick for a touchdown. So, they played very, very well. UCF, as talented as anybody in the league, speed everywhere, size, a couple of big-time transfer kids on defense that are huge impacts and they’re kicking themselves, they had a two-touchdown lead. They had a lead with a couple of minutes to go and just let it get away. So it was a great football game in our league. And we don’t have to see Navy for a while now, so we’ll worry about them at the end of the year, but certainly, we’re playing a very talented UCF team this Saturday that is coming off of a disappointing loss, so I’m sure there’ll be highly motivated.”
Practicing to make a withdrawal
Houston shared thoughts on the practice emphasis this week.
“I think it’s the same, you just want to try to do just a little bit better,” he said. “There’s still things that we can do better execution-wise, on all three phases than what we did last Saturday. And so you try to improve on those. You try to build on what you did in practice last week, because the great thing about last week is, the kids invest in a lot and they saw the fruits of their labor on Saturday.
“And we talked about it last week that we were making deposits for a withdrawal we wanted to make on Saturday, and the kids put in the work and then Saturday, they got rewarded. So, for them, it’s confirmation that when we practice the way we should and when they’re focused and their preparation is where it should be, then the fruits will be their performance on Saturday.”
Speaking of rewards, the Pirates have had three straight winners dinners on Sunday. It’s a rare opportunity for Houston to get some weekend time with his family. His older son, Owen, missed the dinner for basketball practice, but his younger son, Reid, and wife, Amanda, were on hand.
Houston talked about the keys against the Knights as far as setting the table for another Sunday banquet.
“The big thing for us is, again, we’ve got to build on last week’s performance,” he said. “UCF is a talented football team. They were picked I think, two in the league, preseason ,and you look at the film and you look at their talent and there’s no question as to why. They’ve got speed everywhere at the standup positions. They’re very, very good on the offensive line. They’re well coached on the offensive line. I’ve known Herb Hand forever. He’s as good as there is in the country. Long time offensive line coach at multiple Power Five schools, just does a great job. You look at their D line, and they have two of the better defensive lineman we have seen all year. Big Kat Bryant, transfer from Auburn, was a great player in the SEC, followed Coach (Gus) Malzahn to UCF.
“Kalia Davis, who’s the red shirt senior defensive tackle, was an all-league performer a couple of years ago, opted out last year. He’s as good as the defensive tackles we’ve seen this year. So they have talent. So the thing we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to focus on us. We got to focus on preparing this week, physically, preparing to play a very physical, very intense, go-after-them type ballgame.
“Prepare mentally, execute in practice, because all those things turn out to us being prepared to play on game day. And if we’re prepared to play on game day, it’s going to be a heck of a ball game. It’s going to be fun to be a part of. So we’re excited about the challenge, excited about the trip down there to the Bounce House. It’ll be a great atmosphere Saturday night. So we got to put our work in this week to get ready for the opportunity.”