East Carolina got through the demands of a shortened week to defeat visiting South Florida, 29-14, on Thursday night on ESPN.
The Pirates improved to 4-4 overall and 2-2 in the American Athletic Conference following a 31-24 overtime loss at Houston in a contest that was delayed five hours, 20 minutes on Oct. 23 due to lightning.
“Well, it was obviously a very tough turnaround, getting back after 6 a.m. on Sunday morning from our game in Houston on Saturday night and a short week,” said ECU coach Mike Houston.”It’s been really, really challenging.
“Everybody was pretty worn out from that whole experience down there. I thought it was a challenging week from a standpoint of trying to get enough rest to be fresh, and trying to get our work in so that we were prepared. I thought everybody gave incredible dedication and effort.
“The coaching staff, you’re a little bit like the Twilight Zone for most of the week last week because you’re trying to cram everything into a couple of days and trying to find time to sleep in between. I’m really proud of the effort the staff put in to get our team prepared. And the kids, the kids were great. I mean, we had a great practice on Monday and a really solid practice on Tuesday. And you just know going into Thursday, you just loved where they were mentally and knew we were going to play well.
“Went out and I thought they played very, very hard Thursday night. They played with a lot of physicality. Made some mistakes in the first half that really kept us from having control of the football game at halftime. But came back out in the second half and just went at them and played just very, very well all the three phases in the second half. Being able to take control of the game and get a big win for our program.
An ESPN game on Thursday night has benefits in terms of exposure for recruiting. Houston talked about the value of beating the Bulls.
“Well, I think it’s a win on national television,” said the Pirates coach. “I think it’s a win at home, a win on a Thursday night in front of a packed Boneyard where our student body really turned out. I thought it was an important win for a lot of different reasons.
“This team has continued to play better and better and better each week and they continue to improve. And I’m really proud of the way that they came together and found a way to really play well in the second half and could get that win.”
The Pirates had extra time after their first-ever win in Greenville over USF. ECU hosts Temple on Saturday at 3 p.m.
“We took the day Friday with our staff and our players and really took a great, long look at South Florida,” Houston said. “Being able to spend a lot more time on that game than we normally have. And so that was good, because there’s a lot of things we can improve and do better. The staff got a chance to hit the road Friday night, hit a bunch of football games here in the Carolinas region. We got to see a lot of really top high school recruits in the area and that was good.
“Then we took Saturday with the staff, gave the players Saturday off. The staff spent Saturday taking a good head-start look at Temple. So we got a head start on them Saturday, and then again Sunday preparing for Temple. And then kids came back Sunday afternoon with a couple days off and so they were very fresh and had a good Sunday night practice, and now we’re into our normal game week.
“It was good to get a little bit of extra rest for the kids and get a little bit more work on Temple. We feel good going into this week, got to have a great week of practice. A big ball game for our program Saturday. Temple is a very dangerous opponent and we’re going to have to play very, very well.”
Dominant second half
ECU outscored the visitors, 23-0, in the second half on Thursday night.
“Really the offense played pretty well in the first half also,” Houston said. “Just had a turnover and then got stopped there on the fourth down, on the one-inch line before the half. But really, just felt the only thing stopping us in the first half was ourselves and that’s what we talked about at halftime, just getting out of our own way.
“We had a big kickoff return to start the first series in the second half. Tyler (Snead) got us all the way out to the 50-yard line so that was good. Great momentum deal right there. And then to go down and score at the start of the second half, that was big. Got the momentum back in our direction and then just played very well the whole second half.
Houston said the Pirates will need to play physical against the Owls (3-5, 1-3 AAC).
“The practice emphasis is going to be very important this week that we’re prepared to play a very physical ballgame,” Houston said. “Temple, they hang their hat on their physicality and toughness. And you look at their offensive line, they’ve got three grad students, a senior and a junior. So they have an old offensive line, veteran guys, a lot of experience. They’re big, physical. It’s going to be a challenge for our defense. We’ve got to really have just a physical, good, solid week of preparation. Tuesday’s practice is going to be very, very important.
“Part of our success offensively here of late has come from just better continuity and physicality from our offensive line. They’re continuing to play better and better and better. And so we’ve got to have that kind of week from our offensive line this week because we’ve got to be able to control the line of scrimmage on Saturday. That was the real key to success for our run game last Thursday night, and also for Holton (Ahlers’) success in the pocket. Just being able to sit in there and have time to throw and go through his progressions, was very, very important.”
Pending membership changes in AAC
The American will lose Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston to the Big 12 at some point. The AAC will admit six teams from Conference USA, including Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas San Antonio.
“They don’t ask me what they should do,” Houston said. “I would assume that they’re probably going to have divisions, but that’s not my decision so I don’t know. But it is what it is, I think that the American did a good job of solidifying the conference the way they thought was best. As we all know, their TV package with ESPN probably had a huge impact on that.
“It’s a tough conference. It’s going to continue to be a tough conference. We will bring in some quality football programs. It is what it is. The only one I’m worried about is East Carolina University. I’m worried about us and I’m worried about Temple this week and that’s really the only thing on my mind.
Temple QB situation
The Owls were down to a fifth-string quarterback in last season’s 28-3 loss to ECU in Philadelphia. Temple is in better shape this year in terms of offensive leadership.
“They’ve got two really good ones. They’ve got a transfer from University of Georgia, D’Wan Mathis, who’s a young guy with a lot of ability. He’s a dual-threat guy, throws it very well, runs very well. He’s their main guy. He’s made a lot of plays this year.
“They’ve got a young guy, it’s kind of a change-of-pace guy that comes in. (Justin) Lynch. … He brings a little bit more of a running threat. He can throw it well also, but just a little bit more of a wildcat guy, quarterback runs, stuff like that. I’d say they’ve solidified their quarterback position from where it was a year ago.”
Houston discussed what will be important to climbing over .500 and taking another step toward a bowl game in 2021.
‘I really just think that the keys for a win on Saturday are for us to continue to improve and continue to play better,” Houston said .”We did a lot of good things last Thursday night. We’ve got to build on the ones that we did well and we’ve got to correct the mistakes that we had. We’ve got to eliminate the turnover situation because that’s a big one each week. Continue to force turnovers defensively.
“The biggest thing is just to continue to play with a lot of physicality, continue to compete, continue to play really, really hard. Really focus on just each play, just doing our job, playing together, playing with a lot of intensity and passion. Because I think this group is just … We’ve done some good things, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near our potential yet.”