Despite the disappointment of a 20-16 loss at Central Florida in East Carolina’s last game on Oct. 9, Pirates coach Mike Houston is mindful of the progress ECU has shown as the Pirates face another American Athletic Conference road test against Houston this Saturday (ESPNU., 4 p.m.).
“Tough loss, excited about the way our kids competed,” Houston said Tuesday .”I said last week, you go down there, my first year, with a very thin roster and not much team speed, and it’s 35-7 at the half. And you were able to, maybe, make it a little bit more competitive in the second half (41-28 loss, 2019).
“But really it was just a tough loss. And last year, more competitive in the first half, but still just couldn’t match their team speed. And it got away from you there in the second quarter (51-28 loss in 2020 in Greenville). And then you look up and you feel like you should have won that ball game. You feel like you outplayed them. You feel like you out-gained them. You put yourself in a situation to win the ball game. So it’s frustrating. At the same time, it’s encouraging, because you see the continued growth of the program.”
The Pirates were able to mend some with an open date on Saturday, Oct. 16.
“We were able to take time last week and focus on getting healthy, focus on sharpening up, focus on developing some things we needed to develop, working on some things we needed to do better in the second half of the season,” Houston said. “So we prepared a good bit for Houston last week. We prepared some for South Florida (at ECU on Thursday, Oct. 28, ESPN). So we feel good coming out of the bye week. Now, we’re completely focused on Houston this week, and getting ready for that game Saturday, and excited about the opportunity down there.”
Houston’s comments were brief in regard to offensive lineman Trent Holler, who was dismissed from the program after a violation of team rules this past weekend. Holler had played 44 snaps as the Pirates started 3-3 overall and 1-1 in the AAC..
“It means he’s no longer with us, so the next man up, and they’ll be ready to play together Saturday,” Houston said.
Houston, the opponent
Houston overcame a 22-17 deficit in the third quarter for a 40-22 win at Tulane in the Cougars’ last contest on Thursday, Oct. 7. Houston has won five in a row since a 38-21 loss to Texas Tech in its season opener.
“Houston is 5-1, and they’re 5-1 for a reason,” said the ECU coach. “They feel like they probably should be 6-0. They have a ton of kids back on both sides of the football. They return 10 starters on defense. The one that’s not a returning starter is a transfer from Iowa State (defensive lineman Latrell Bankston) They’re juniors and seniors, so they’ve been there.
“They’ve played together, they’ve had a lot of success. I think they’re the fourth-ranked defense in the country right now, statistically (allowing 262.7 yards per game, fourth in Football Bowl Subdivision). So it’s a challenging group on that side of the ball.
“Offensively, they’re scoring at a very high rate (37.1 points per game). Most games this year, they’ve been in the 40s offensively. They’re dynamic on special teams. Marcus Jones, their punt returner and kick returner, is No. 1 in the country in punt returns, averaging 17 yards a return, and has two touchdowns on the year so far.
“They’re a talented group. We’re going to have to play very, very well. … We’ve got to prepare for what they do. And then, at the same time, we’ve got to really focus on us being prepared for what we need to do. We’re going to have to play a very physical ball game. We’re going to have to play really, really hard. We’re going to have to execute at a high level. You got to win the turnover matchup in this game. You got to try to win the special teams matchup in this game. So it’s an important week for us, and one that we’re really excited about.”
Cougars exiting AAC
Houston, Cincinnati and UCF will be leaving the AAC for the Big 12 in the future.
“I’m sure that they’re excited about their move and we’re excited about the future of the conference,” Houston said. “My concern is East Carolina University. So I want to do everything I can to put us in the best position we can be in, to continue to move the program upward.
“I came here with a vision of building a program that’s going to compete for conference championships, and that’s all I’m worried about. So we’ll play whoever’s on our schedule. I have zero say in the schedule, so whoever they put on there, we’ll play.”
Houston discussed keys against the Cougars.
“You look at the games we’ve won, and you look at the games that we’ve lost,” Houston said. “The games that we’ve won, we’ve won the turnover battle. We lost the turnover battle against UCF. And we had some costly turnovers against South Carolina. We lost the turnover battle against Appalachian State. So I think the turnovers would be a huge key this week.
“Got to do a great job of taking care of the football, which for the most part we’ve done this year. And then we’ve got to continue to do a great job forcing turnovers, which we’ve done a pretty good job with that too.”
ECU run game
ECU is averaging 164 yards per game rushing, including 106.5 per game from Keaton Mitchell.
“They’re going to sit there in a base 4-2-5, 4-3, whatever you want to label it,” Houston said. “So four down front. They’re big and physical. Their linebackers are real thumpers. Their safeties do a great job in the run game. So it’s going to be a challenge to run the football.
“That being said, we’ve run the ball very effectively this year, Keaton Mitchell right now, leads the conference in rushing. Rahjai (Harris) has had a solid year also. I think our rushing attack has been very good through the first half of the season. It’s going to be something that we’re going to have to do well on Saturday. And we’re going to have to be able to throw the ball Saturday. So the key there is protecting Holton (Ahlers) when we do throw.
ECU linebacker Bruce Bivens is among the Pirates from the Houston area. He has 28 solo tackles and 19 assists thus far.
“He’s from Houston,” said the Pirates coach. “So’s Ryan Stubblefield. Audie Omotosho (17 catches, 234 yards) is from right around that area (Plano). So we have several guys from the Houston area. So I’m sure that they’ll have large groups in attendance from their families.”
Short week pending
The Pirates play USF after a short week following the contest with Houston on a Thursday nighter in Greenville.
“It’s going to be a quick turnaround because you get back at probably 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, and it’s Tuesday. It’s Sunday for everybody else, but it’s Tuesday for us, which means that’s a big, big install day, a very big prep day.
“Our coaches are probably not going to get much sleep that week. And we got to get the kids fresh, but get them prepared. And South Florida does some different things, defensively and offensively. So we’re really going to have to have a great week of preparation when we get back. So we’ll worry about that Sunday morning, but we’ve already got our plans laid out for just getting the work in.”