East Carolina didn’t dot the ‘i’ in “win” at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday, but the Pirates’ performance against then-No.13 N.C. State in a 21-20 season-opening setback certainly ramped up anticipation for the remainder of the year.
“Obviously, disappointed to not get a win, especially considering how we played,” said ECU coach Mike Houston on Tuesday. “I thought the kids’ preparation going into the game was excellent. I mean, it’s everything I could ask for. We kind of lay out expectations at the beginning of the week, and they checked the boxes across the board and had a great week of practice.
“Friday and Saturday was as good a preparation with our meetings and walk-throughs as we’ve had, and I told them before we left for the stadium Saturday morning that I was as confident as I’d ever been in how they were going to play. I knew we would play well.
“Certainly, we were facing a tough, tough opponent and they made some plays too, but the team that showed up on Saturday is the team I’ve been talking about all preseason, and certainly, I think we’re all excited about the performance and had our chances to win it. Should have won it. Really dominated the game in the trenches. Just a tough way to lose it, but what a great day for Pirate Nation with Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium being back the way it’s supposed to be, and our team back playing at a very high level.”
Accurate pregame perception
In discussing last week’s practice focus, Houston was concerned that special teams might not get off on the right foot.
“This game is going to be a lot about who makes the least mistakes,” Houston said on Aug. 30. “Maybe not necessarily who makes the huge play on special teams, but who doesn’t make the mistake on special teams.”
State blocked an ECU punt for a touchdown in the first half, but Houston minimized his prophetic perception.
“Well, I’ve been a head coach for a long time, so I’ve had a lot of season openers,” Houston said. “I know what’s going to bite you in the rear end and get you in a season opener, and so that’s why I was worried about it. … The punt’s the big one. You had a missed block on the backside, which is just a basic fundamental execution thing, that we had one of our players do a very poor job at it, and the N.C. State player made a great play.
“Luke (Larsen, punter) still has to try to get it off, and he can. He’s a very smooth operator back there. So, that was very costly, and you wish you could go back and say this or that or the other, but you don’t get do-overs. You try to impress it upon guys, but that’s the thing about first games — it really drives home that you don’t get do-overs.”
Kicker Owen Daffer missed an extra point that would have tied the score at 21 with 2:58 to go and a potential game-winning field goal with five seconds remaining.
“So, the blocked punt was the big one, because that put us in a hole there in the first half,” Houston said. “Certainly, the missed kicks, just that’s what the life of a kicker is like. Owen hits the game-winning field goal against Navy last year, has the onside kick against Marshall. First team all-conference placekicker, 19 to 23 for the year, just all the highs, and he had a bad two kicks. And that’s what it is.
“Certainly, our team put us in a position to win the game multiple times there in the fourth quarter, but it’s a team game. When we win, we all win together, and when we lose, we all lose together.”
Quarterback Holton Ahlers left the game for one play in the first quarter to pop a dislocated right shoulder back into place. Rather than put in back-up Mason Garcia, the Pirates went to third-stringer Alex Flinn.
“We’d sat Mason down and sat Alex down, Coach (Donnie) Kirkpatrick (offensive coordinator) and I, and just went through scenarios. And we said if it’s a situation where it’s just going to be Holton out of the game for one play, Alex would take the snap. Mason still has a redshirt year available to us if we want it. Mason is on board with that.
“If it’s a situation where there’s an opportunity for extended playing time of any kind, then certainly we’ll use that for Mason, but I didn’t want to burn one of his four games for one snap, and just that. So that’s something that we talked about last week before we got into the weekend, and the scenario arose and I was very proud of Alex and the way he handled the situation. They brought a pretty challenging look at him, and I thought he managed the play clock and managed everything for that play very well.”
History kicks in
ECU has played a Power Five team in each of the last two seasons and each matchup has ultimately been decided by placekickers.
Parker White of South Carolina kicked a 36-yard field goal as time expired to give the Gamecocks a 20-17 win in Greenville last season.
Owen Daffer of the Pirates was wide right on a 41-yarder with five seconds left in a 21-20 loss to State on Saturday.
Daffer was not the first to miss a vital conversion against the Wolfpack at home.
In 2010, Michael Barbour missed an extra point after ECU scored in overtime. Barbour got off the hook when Damon Magazu intercepted Russell Wilson on the Wolfpack’s overtime possession, preserving a 33-27 victory.
ECU will host Old Dominion on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Monarchs raised eyebrows with a 20-17 win last week over visiting Virginia Tech.
“The big thing for everybody to understand is after watching the film, that was not an upset,” Houston said. “The better team won. Old Dominion’s a very good football team, which we knew. I mean, you watch them last year, they won five straight down the stretch to become bowl eligible and did it in very impressive fashion. They have a 1,000-yard receiver, Ali Jennings, who’s returning from a year ago. I’ve known Ali for a long time. He’s a very, very talented player. They have a 1,000-yard running back returning, first team all-conference, Blake Watson. He’s hard to bring down. He’s just a tough runner, probably something between Keaton (Mitchell) and Rahjai (Harris), ability-wise.
“Hayden Wolff is their starting quarterback, 6-5, 220, a redshirt sophomore, so a third-year player. Had a good year last year. Had a solid game against Virginia Tech. Zack Kuntz is a redshirt junior, transfer from Penn State, 6-8, 250. He had 73 catches last year, which was second in the country for tight ends. And then a very solid offensive line. Defensively, they’ve got a defensive end that’s going to give us some problems. Marcus Haynes, long guy, good pass-rusher. They have solid interior guys that are very similar to ours. Alonzo Ford’s a guy that I know. Very, very similar mold-wise to our defensive tackles. They have all conference linebacker Ryan Henry. They have two safeties that I think are very good players.”
“They have a bunch of guys out there that play very hard, so what I see is a team that’s very similar to us in a lot of ways, and so I think it’s going to be a tough game. I think it’s going to be one that’s going to be a dog fight. I think we’re going to need the crowd. We’re going to need Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium like it was last week, and we’re going to need to improve this week and play better this Saturday. We’ve got a really tall task this Saturday.”
Houston said the Pirates will work on getting better this week.
“You’re always, game prep-wise, getting ready for the next opponent,” Houston said. “I think it’s improving, and I think that’s kind of our mantra every day, is get one percent better each day. And so, I think improving each day, obviously we got to correct some things with the breakdown on punt, we got to correct some things on kickoff return. I think our kickoff unit played very well, but we’ve got to improve there, too.
“Got to get Owen back going, and I have confidence that he’ll be fine, but we just got to correct our mistakes from this past week and get better and be a better version of ourselves this Saturday. But we’ve got to have the same mentality and mindset and drive from our players, from our coaches, from our fan base, from everyone this Saturday. We’ve got to perform at a higher level this Saturday in order to get the win.
“Everything that cost us the game last week is correctable, and so if you can get those things corrected, then you’ve made great improvement from week one to week two.”
What will be keys to setting the table for a victory supper on Sunday?
“It’s going to be a lot of the same keys that we talked about last week,” Houston said. “I think it’s going to be winning special teams, winning the kicking game. I think it’s going to be winning the turnover battle. I think it’s continuing to do a great job with penalties. We only had two penalties for 20 yards last week, so I think it’s continuing to do a great job there. And then I think it’s executing at a high level.
“Executing offensively in the run game and pass game at a high level, don’t make mistakes that kind of beat yourself. Executing at a high level defensively, not having busts, everybody be on the same page. And I think the final thing is just having that same intensity, having that same mindset. That’s so important. Our team last Saturday is what I envisioned our team to play like when we started this thing. That’s the kind of team and program we’ve been trying to build, and I think it’s continuing on that path.”