East Carolina’s 30-29 overtime win at Memphis last week came in a place and at a time of year that has not been conducive to success for Tigers’ opponents.
The Pirates will take the belief and momentum of a 3-game American Athletic Conference winning streak into another demanding venue at Navy on Saturday (CBS Sports Network, 3:30 p.m.).
ECU coach Mike Houston was not aware of the difficulty of winning at the Liberty Bowl in November until after the Pirates (6-4, 4-2 AAC) had become bowl eligible for the first time since the 2014 season.
“Just a huge win for our program,” Houston said Tuesday of the trip to Memphis. ” … It’s always tough to win on the road in the AAC, but I didn’t realize the run that Memphis had had in the last five or six years at home. I think they were 30-3 in their last 33 games at home, including 16 straight wins in American Athletic Conference play at home, and 17-0 in the month of November since the season of 2016.”
ECU was much more dominant than the final score indicated with a 32-16 lead in first downs and 25 minutes more in possession time.
“To go on the road late in the year and win a ball game like that at Memphis is just an incredible achievement for our team and our kids,” Houston said. “And certainly one that they worked very hard for. Really, you dominated the game much more than the end score tells, but at the end of the day you won by one, so you take that, and you move on.”
The Pirates were prepared when Memphis went for a 2-point conversion and the win in the first overtime.
“It’s a look and a call that we worked multiple times last week,” Houston said, “It’d been a play that they’d shown on film down there in the red zone. And we called time out, talked to the kids about don’t be shocked if they go for two right here. They had the call, the offense came out, so the kids already knew what we were going to play. And they just did a great job of execution. Bruce (Bivens) got some pressure on the quarterback, which rushed the throw. We had two or three defenders around the receiver and Myles Berry was able to knock the ball down.”
Red zone results
ECU settled for field goals of 24, 29 and 21 yards by Owen Daffer. Touchdowns, obviously, are the most desirable way for the offense to end possessions.
“No doubt,” Houston said. “We knew that they were going to be tough down there. They had been all year. They go all or nothing down there in that part of the field, and we wanted to make them pay.
“We had a really nice throw to an open receiver that we weren’t able to convert, had another throw against zero coverage where you’d like to have made the catch right there. I thought there could have been an interference call. Didn’t get it. But they really made it tough on us down there.
“We had to take a couple of field goals. A little bit better execution in the run game or the pass game, and you punch those in for touchdowns, and it’s a two-score win on the road. But I’m glad that we’ve got Owen Daffer. I’m glad that he executed at a high level on Saturday, and he got his points, because at the end of the ball game nobody cares. You’re glad you got those points, because — win by one — every one of those points mattered.
Sunday night investments
Navy’s option offense presents a unique challenge, one that has plagued the Pirates in five straight losses to the Midshipmen.
“It’s something we spent all year getting ready for,” Houston said. “We’ve worked on Navy every Sunday night throughout the year. And it’s something we definitely have invested a lot in preparation for this game. I think it’s going to be maybe our toughest road game of the year.”
Navy is 2-7 overall, 2-4 in the AAC and had an open date after a 34-6 loss at No. 8 Notre Dame.
“They are playing very, very well right now,” Houston said. “They’re one of the best defenses in the league. They beat Tulsa at Tulsa (20-17, Oct. 29).. They really physically pushed Cincinnati around in their last home game and just lost right there at the end, beat UCF at home earlier in the year, just very, very good football team.
“They’re playing very well right now. Completely different team than what we saw on film early in the year. And you wish you were playing that team, but you’re not. And it’s been a decade since East Carolina has beaten Navy. And there was a lot of good teams there in 2012, 2013, 2014. Those were quality teams that East Carolina had and still couldn’t beat Navy. It’s going to be a challenge. It’s one that our kids are excited about. It’s going to take a special effort.”
ECU lost 27-23 at home to Navy last season with Mason Garcia at quarterback after Holton Ahlers was sidelined due to an apparently false positive COVID test.
The Pirates’ lone win in the series was by a 38-35 margin in 2011. Navy won matchups in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2019 by an average margin of 29.7 points.
2019 at Navy
ECU was dealt a 42-10 defeat at Navy in Houston’s third game as coach of the Pirates in 2019. The ECU program has changed extensively since.
“There’s no comparison,” Houston said. “Anywhere. It is what it is with what was here when I got here. But that team had no shot. It was a humiliating day up there in Annapolis two years ago.
“The bunch that we’re taking up there right now is a tough, hard-nosed bunch. They compete at a high level. They’re unselfish. They play together. They’ve got experience. We’ve got guys that can make plays in all three phases. It’s a completely different animal. The biggest thing is the culture is just night and day with how the kids work and compete and how they practice, how they prepare, how they play. It’s just they’re doing things the way they’re supposed to be done right now, which is the reason we’re playing well.”
Changes in practice
There will be some adjustments in practice this week.
“We won’t do as much good on good this week, because the offense that we run, the offensive that Navy runs is completely different,” Houston said. “The scout look that we get from our guys is important. We’ve been working with scout teams preparing for this all year. It’ll be a lot of pod work defensively, half line, some team, but just a lot of individual stuff, just drilling down what we’ve got to do.
“And then offensively, we have as good a unit that our offense is going to go against. A lot of the guys that have played this year defensively will be helping give our offensive look, because Navy for the most part runs the same defensive scheme that we do. It’s just very, very similar. You’ll have a good look for our offense. You’ve got to balance things this time of the year. We want to be fresh going into Saturday, I want to be careful with how much we’re out there.”
Navy’s desire to control the ball and the clock are factors ECU must handle..
“Turnovers will be huge, because you have limited possessions,” Houston said. “Any possession we can steal from Navy is going to be critical. You don’t want to give them any just because they’re going to eat the clock anytime they get it. I think defensively just being assignment sound, being able to match or exceed their physicality I think will be really, really key.
“The kicking game is going to be as critical this week as it ever has been, because it is going to be a field position game. And then I think offensively we’re going to have to be able to handle their pressure, and we’re going to have to be able to throw the ball. We’re going to be able to run the ball, and it’s going to take a balance of both on Saturday. We’re just going to have to execute very, very well.
“There will be a lot of pressure on our offensive line. We’re going to have to play so well up front offensively. But it’s just going to be one of those games where it’s going to be challenging. They have Senior Day at Navy, 25 seniors, that they’ll be recognizing. It’s their last home game of the year. It’s quite the task that we’re up against this week.”