Cincinnati comes to Greenville on Friday (ABC, 3:30 p.m.) with an 11-0 record while East Carolina (7-4) will have the momentum of a 4-game winning streak, thanks to a 54-yard field goal by Owen Daffer as time expired at Navy for a 38-35 victory.
“Obviously a pretty exciting road win this past weekend up in Annapolis,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “We talked about it last week, tough place to play and a really good football team. With two weeks to get ready, you kind of knew what it was going to be. Senior Day up there, 25 seniors being recognized, and I knew it was going to be a good one and it was.
“Went down to the wire and what a way to win it. I think it continues to show the growth of this group and their ability to finish close ballgames here after we’ve had our share of close losses. Back-to-back weeks of getting big road wins in conference play in the fashion that we’ve won them in shows the continued belief, resiliency, confidence, growth, all of those things. Really proud of the kids and the way they stuck together and found a way to get it done.
“Good win, obviously that one you had to get over pretty quick. We started on Cincinnati (Sunday), regular-season finale. Last home football game of the year in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium this Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. Big football game for our program. A chance to hopefully get win number eight. It will be tough. You’re playing one of the top couple of teams in the country. Obviously, they’ve had a special season. Nobody has knocked them off, undefeated, so I think it’s the highest ranked opponent to visit Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
“I think Miami (Fla.) back in the ’80’s was maybe ranked third coming in here, so I anticipate them being about the same. Tough task, but you know what, an exciting time. If you told me back in the summer we had this situation going into this ballgame, I promise you, me and everybody else around Greenville would have taken it.
“The kids are motivated. They’re excited about the game. The biggest thing is we really need Pirate Nation. We need our student body. I know it’s Thanksgiving weekend, but we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving on Saturday. Let’s fill Dowdy-Ficklen on Friday afternoon. It should be a good one.”
Hard to say on Senior Day
Quarterback Holton Ahlers has not said if this will be his last game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. He and some others could return for another season or move to the next stage of their careers and life.
“I’ve kind of left it up to them,” Houston said. “We’re recognizing the guys that are in their last year of eligibility. There may be a couple of others that are participating also. It’ll be great to recognize those guys and then the primary focus is Cincinnati. Everybody wants to end it on a win. I think that any decisions that may be made otherwise after the season, we’ll address that after the season.”
Special team moment
Daffer’s game-winner was big for him personally and for the program.
“Obviously a huge kick,” Houston said. “Walk-on freshman, first-year starter to hit a 54-yarder in Annapolis on a cool night with four seconds left, they don’t get any more clutch than that. There was no doubt about it, when he hit it, you knew it was good. That thing would have been good from 60 (yards). Great job by him. Great job by the protection. Obviously, we had a pretty heavy rush coming.
“Great snap. Great hold. The battery right there of Slade (Roy), Jonn (Young) and Owen, they’ve been consistent all year long. I told him after the game, I had already decided you’re going on scholarship anyway. I hadn’t told anybody that, him or his parents or anybody. There’s no better moment to tell him. It makes it that much more of a special moment for him.
“Really proud of him. I felt like coming out of last year, when Jake (Verity) decided not to return, we elected not to take a transfer or anything like that just because I had a really good feeling about him after last year. We had a couple of guys that came in to compete with him, but really, he’s done a great job of preparing for this opportunity.
“Everybody sees his personality. I think everybody got a glimpse of that last week. You understand why I’ve said he has the perfect personality for a kicker. He really does. He’s never had a bad day. He’s kind of unflappable. Really excited for him.”
Houston gave the officials an ear full on Saturday after a flag for an illegal block was picked up on a fourth-quarter kickoff return for a touchdown by the Midshipmen. Replays showed that the penalty should have been administered.
Houston was limited in his comments on the situation Monday.
“We took care of all of that (Sunday),” he said. “There’s a process for it, so we followed the proper procedures.”
Officiating cost ECU a win at Tulsa in 2020.
The Cincinnati offense is averaging 40 points per game, which ranks 13th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“Well, it’s obviously a very potent offense,” Houston said. “They’re averaging 40 points a game. I think it all starts with the quarterback, (Desmond) Ridder. He came back to try to have a chance at a special season like they’re having and he’s the key to it all. He’s dynamic with his legs. He throws the ball very, very well. He throws the ball well in the pocket. He throws the ball well on the run. The biggest improvement I think I’ve seen from him is you can just tell they’ve put a lot more on him with checks and stuff and he does a good job getting them into the right play and making the right ID’s and stuff.
“The running back (Jerome Ford) is right at 1,000 yards on the season, so he’s obviously having a great year also. The receivers, just the matchup problems they present. Whether it’s No. 11 (Leonard Taylor) who has the great size, No. 7 (Tre Tucker) in the slot who has the dynamic speed, No. 21 (Tyler Scott) first play last week with a play-action home run shot against SMU for 53 yards to start the game. The tight ends, they present a lot of problems with their size and athleticism.
“They do a great job in the run game and the pass game. Offensive line is basically the same group we faced last year. Big, strong, athletic, long so they’re an extremely talented, experienced group. They do a good job with the zone run game. They do a great job with the (run-pass option) passing game off of it. They have a big play capability like I mentioned.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us. We’ve got to focus on us all being on the same page and being locked into whatever is called. The film study this week is going to be important to make sure our kids are prepared formationally, alignments and things like that. We’ve got to go right at them. We’ve got to play our … tails off. We’ve got to play defense the way we’ve been playing it all year. We’ll see. It’s going to be a challenge, but our kids are excited about it. It’s going to be an exciting afternoon for us next Friday.”
Pirate running backs
ECU has averaged 173.6 yards per game rushing, enough to take some pressure off the passing game.
“Well, I think anytime you can get the ball in 47 (Rahjai Harris) or 25’s (Keaton Mitchell) hands, then obviously you’ve got a chance for a significant play,” Houston said. “Rahjai and Keaton have done a great job all year of that 1-2 punch. Obviously, Keaton started the game very well last Saturday, which I thought was important for us to come out and get on the board early.
“I don’t know how many of you guys remember signing day two years ago, but I was pretty amped up about those two and I think everybody knows why now. He’s a special player, he’s a phenomenal young man, both of them are, and I’m glad they’re Pirates.”
Fake punt in 2020
Houston did not address the potential motivation from a fake punt that the Bearcats ran late in a 55-17 win at Cincinnati last year. Houston spoke at length with Bearcats coach Luke Fickell after that game.
“Our kids, they know this is a big game for us,” Houston said. “It’s the biggest game of the year. It’s the only one we’ve got this week. Our motivation is trying to get better every day and trying to prepare to play well on Friday afternoon. We’ve got a great opportunity for our program. It’s going to be a big ballgame and we’re excited for the matchup.”
Houston was asked how his pregame speeches are formulated.
‘“All of that stuff is just kind of a culmination of the week,” he said. “So much goes into the preparation for each game and the big thing the last couple of days before kickoff. You’re focused on the schemes and getting everything ready X- and O-wise early in the week and then refining it later in the week.
“But the mental preparation the last 48 hours or so before the game, we’ve already talked about what kind of game this is going to be on Friday and what we’ve got to do to prepare to play at our best in that game Friday afternoon. It kind of builds towards that. But it’s all a natural culmination of whatever has been our theme for the week. There’s a certain, obviously, brand and belief that I have in how you’re supposed to play the game and how I want this program to play.
“That really hasn’t wavered since I took the job. It’s good to finally see that displayed on the field. That’s all that was. The kids believe in it. They believe in how we want to play. They believe in what kind of identity we want. That’s the big key to it. I mean, I don’t have any eligibility left, I’m not the one out there playing. It’s those kids. If they believe in what we’re doing, then we’ve got a shot and they believe in our style of play.”
Success begets opportunities
ECU hasn’t had five straight wins since 2014.
“I told the players before the game last Saturday, they’re the ones that have created this,” Houston said. “These ball games, they’re big ball games because of what those kids have done on the field. Their play has, each week, made each ball game bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s exciting for them, but you can’t get beyond that. This game is no bigger than the last game. I understand it is for everybody outside of here.
“But you can’t, as a coaching staff and a player, you’ve got to treat them all as that’s the biggest game of the year. You’ve got to do the same things you did this week as you did last week, that you did the week before, that you did the week before that. It’s the same preparation. It’s in how you prepare. It’s how you execute during practice throughout the week because you’re going to play on Saturday the way you play during the week, the way you practice during the week.
“Then it’s the mental focus that last 48 hours and being ready to play together at a high level. You’ve just got to focus on the preparation, you can’t get into getting too hyped and reading too much into it, because then you go out there and try to do things that you haven’t done all year and you try to do too much and that’s when you see big mistakes. Really the focus is on them and their process and like I said, they’ve created this. They’ve created this because of the way they’ve played on the field.”
Keeping the upcoming game in proper focus is a continuous process
“We just talk about it,” Houston said. “The one thing I promise the kids is that I’m always, whether they like what I say or not, I’m always honest with them. I’m honest with them about good stuff, I’m honest with them about bad stuff. I’m not much of one to sugarcoat stuff.
“It’s pretty straight. So, we just talk about it. I think there’s been lessons that have been learned. Now that we have some of those older kids, we’ve been together for a couple of years. There’s lessons I can reference from early in this season or last year or we can use other teams across the country for certain examples and things like that. We just talk about it. The whole thing is just us focusing on the guys that are in that building, the guys that are in that room.
“You can’t pay any attention to the noise. It’s hard, it’s harder now than it’s ever been. Because when I was playing, there wasn’t social media, you didn’t live your life on your cell phone. It’s hard right now. But it’s just constantly trying to message what our thoughts for the week are and what’s important right now and all of that stuff. That’s all you can do. But I think our team has grown throughout the year and they’ve learned some valuable lessons about what’s important and what’s not important.”
The NCAA adjustments for the pandemic has meant teams have more experienced fifth- and sixth-year players. Houston was asked about the value of the older group.
“Everything,” he said. “We talked about it; I’ve referenced it from time to time with our players. December 2, 2018 — it was the first night that I met the team. It was a beat-down group. It was a group that had no confidence with a losing culture. Those guys, not many of them are still here. The ones that are still here, those are the ones that I have just tremendous respect for. I respect them because of their mental toughness, their character and the way that they have come back for one reason. That was to do what they’ve done this year.
“You can say whatever you want, for the rest of their lives, they can carry that with pride. Because not everybody could do what they’ve done. Not everybody could endure the change. Because the change has not been easy. That first year, they’ll tell you, it was not sunshine and rainbows. It started to turn last year and then it’s turned significantly this year. But it’s been their backs that this whole thing’s turned on. Those kids will be special to me for the rest of my life, for the rest of my career. I and everybody else are indebted to them.
“Because they’re the leaders and it’s why I trust them so much. Proud of them. That’s what’s going to make Friday afternoon special when we recognize them. Because like I said, they could have chosen to not buckle down and do this because it was not easy. But they chose to pursue this and it’s just a great story. Just really excited for them and really proud of them.”
Houston made a plea for students to come out Friday.
“One big thing I want to ask for is from our student body,” said the Pirates coach. “The Boneyard has been a huge part of our home football games, especially this year. It’s been as electric and impactful and rocking as it has been all year. I understand Thanksgiving break and the timing of this ballgame on Friday afternoon. But as many students as we can get back here for this game at 3:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon, we want you here.
“I know that the Pirate Club is offering I think four guest passes for each student ticket, so you’re with a bunch of friends and you can get them here cheering for the Pirates. We want them here also. That student section is going to be important Friday afternoon. We’d love to have the Boneyard rocking for kickoff at 3:30 p.m. We’d love to see you back here, just know that you’re important and you’re impactful. Go Pirates!”