East Carolina’s much-anticipated season opener with N.C. State at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is at hand. The Pirates, looking to build on their first winning season since 2014, host the No. 13 Wolfpack on Saturday at noon (ESPN).
“A lot of hard work went into preparations for this game, and certainly it’s a big one, and we’ve got a tough test with the opponent, the highest-ranked N.C. State team in school history,” said ECU coach Mike Houston on Tuesday. “So it’s certainly a huge challenge, but we couldn’t be more excited. It’s going to be a great weekend around Greenville.”
Houston’s first game as coach of the Pirates in 2019 resulted in a 34-6 loss to State in Raleigh.
“Certainly, we haven’t had cakewalks for season openers,” Houston said. “A very good Appalachian State team that we played last year in the opener. … The interesting thing is that game on that stage with our young team, a lot of those players commented to me after the game that that was the most people (36,752) they’d ever played in front of, and certainly, (running back) Keaton (Mitchell) said the noise and just the stadium rattled him a little bit.
“I think that experience was a good experience. That and some others last year help us prepare for what Saturday’s going to be like, because certainly Saturday is going to be an electric environment. It’s going to be the biggest crowd that Dowdy-Ficklen has seen in, I don’t know, 10 years. … It’s going to be electric on Saturday, so it’s a great way to start the season. Just so excited for Pirate Nation, and so excited for the city of Greenville.”
Game Day leads in
ESPN will go from its entertaining Game Day show in Columbus, OH, to kickoff in Greenville. The noon start was driven by television
“We wanted it to be like a 6 p.m. kickoff or a 7 p.m. kickoff, but ESPN, I think just with how highly-ranked N.C. State is, and just the rivalry that East Carolina and N.C. State has been for years, I think just that match up, they wanted it for the 12 o’clock slot on the main network. So, we’re excited for the exposure, because certainly it’s going to be national exposure for our program.”
The forecast is calling for a high of 90 degrees in Greenville on Saturday.
“Well, I wish that August would’ve been a little bit hotter.” Houston said. “We kind of got lucky with the weather in August during preseason camp that it wasn’t typical Greenville, North Carolina, but we’ve had a couple of hot practices last week.
“I think it’s going to be pretty warm (Tuesday), so we’re getting some preparation. I think that how we prepare our bodies the 48 hours before kickoff is going to be important. I always preach that to our kids, just with sleep, and hydration, and nutrition.
“I think our depth will be a factor on Saturday, and so I think there’s lots of things. We got to really work on controlling our emotions. I think that’s going to be a big factor, because we always play with a lot of passion, but you’re going to have an environment that’s going to be electric, and there’s a fine line between playing with emotion and controlling your emotions, and I think that’s going to be just a big factor for us, especially early in the ball game Saturday.”
In looking at the ECU offense, the focus tends to go to veteran quarterback Holton Ahlers, but the Pirates have a running game that features Mitchell and Rahjai Harris.
“In my experience, and I don’t think I’m the only one, if you’re going to win consistently, and you’re going to win big, you’re going to have to be able to run the football,” Houston said. “Certainly, you’ve got to be able to throw it, too. You’ve got to have balance, and I think certainly we have the ability to throw the football at a very high level, but we had no running game when I got here, and it really hurt us, and made us kind of one dimensional. We’ve worked very hard to develop that running back room.
“We’ve worked very hard to develop our offensive line. We’ve worked very hard to develop our tight ends, and now we have an offense where the running game and the passing game kind of feed off each other. And certainly, if we can somehow get that going on Saturday, it gives us a great shot. I really like our guys, and I think that we do have an experienced quarterback that can run our offense at a very high level. I’m excited to see this bunch play.”
The Pirates have 14 known commitments for the next signing class.
“Recruiting is never complete.” Houston said. “I think we have a solid group that’s committed. I’m excited about all those guys. I’m excited about just the very high talent level of the kids that are committed to East Carolina, but we’re nowhere near done.
“I think a lot of things will transpire over the next six months that will kind of leave you with an understanding of exactly where you are, but I’ll tell you, with all the changes with the transfer portal, and name, image, likeness, and just a lot of the rules, recruiting is never ending.
“We had official visits all throughout the spring. We had official visits during the summer. We’re going to have official visits during the season. We’ve got official visits this winter. We’re on the road the whole winter, the beginning of the spring, the end of the spring. It is just nonstop, so this recruiting class probably won’t be finished until the end of the spring semester.”
Houston has multiple factors to handle in fine tuning for Saturday.
“It’s kind of twofold,” Houston said. “One, I want to make sure that our roster is fresh going into Saturday. … I think we’re at a good place conditioning-wise, and we’re at a good place preparation-wise. So, what we do on the field will be really prioritized this week, but I think we’ve got to sharpen everything up, just really hone in on what things we really focus on, game plan-wise.
“I think special teams this week in preparation is going to be huge, because to me, this game is going to be a lot about who makes the least mistakes. Maybe not necessarily who makes the huge play on special teams, but who doesn’t make the mistake on special teams. … We’ve got to play to execute, and so I really want to hone in on just our execution and sharpening up this week.”
Former ECU player and coach Ruffin McNeill returns to his alma mater as a special assistant for the visitors.
McNeill used to take his teams to a movie the night before a game. Houston’s routine doesn’t include the cinema.
“Unfortunately, they don’t give us much time,” Houston said. “I can’t get the kids out of class early or anything like that, so they’ll go to class on Friday, and then we’ll get them mid-afternoon.
“We have meetings and walk through, and then I try to feed them a good dinner. We have chapel, and then a quick side-of-the-ball meeting, and then we’re going to try to get them in bed early Friday night (off campus lodging).
“With a noon kickoff, we’re going to be up at 6:30 in the morning and pregame meal is at 8 a.m. Kickoff is going to come fast on Saturday. We’ve got to get in the bed early Friday night to get a good night’s rest.”
Avoiding miscues will be important as the Pirates look to improve on a 3-1 record against State at home.
“It’s the obvious things in the openers; turnovers and penalties,” Houston said. “I think those are big pieces right there. Once you get beyond that, I think it’s going to come down to execution, and who can make the plays.
“And matchups, and what I mean by that is, when they’re running the ball, it’s going to come down to free hitters, kind of one-on-one with their backs, and can we get them on the ground in the open field, and their receivers matched up against our DBs down the field? Can we make the plays right there on the contested balls?
“And how do we do with (State quarterback Devin) Leary? Can we get him rattled in the pocket? And then I think those are going to be some big things. It’s going to come down to who can execute those plays, and the one-on-one matchups.
“You flip the script to the other side, and it’s the same exact thing for us. It’s going to be matchups, and our execution versus theirs, and tackling versus open field running, and if we can play a clean game from a turnover, penalty, execution standpoint, then we feel like we’ve got a great shot.”