East Carolina has played its best football in the late stages of its first two games, putting a comeback together in a 21-20 loss to N.C. State in week one and pulling away from Old Dominion for a 39-21 triumph last Saturday.
Coach Mike Houston talked on Tuesday about the outcome that evened the record at 1-1 going into a home game with Campbell (1-1) on Saturday at 6 p.m.
“Great to get our first win of the season,” said the fourth-year Pirates coach. “Great to be at home again. Really, really pleased to not only get the win, but get a win over a quality opponent like Old Dominion.
“Obviously, they came into the game with a big win (20-17) over Virginia Tech. It would not shock me to see them knock off Virginia this week. They’re very good. They were bowl eligible last year. Very solid program, so great to get a win the way we did against them. The good thing is I didn’t feel like we played particularly sharp in the first half, especially on offense.
“There’s lots of things that we can clean up and do better and play better. I love the way we finished the game offensively in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter. Not real pleased with some of the plays we gave up in the secondary and on defense. It’s one of those things where you got a good, solid win.
“The kids played really hard, but you got a lot of things that you can improve on, which means we should continue to make improvement in our play on the field moving forward. Hopefully, this week.”
Three TD receiver
Ali Jennings III had eight catches for 200 yards with touchdowns covering 16, 18 and 35 yards for the Monarchs. Jennings was recruited by Houston.
“I’ve known Ali since he was a sophomore in high school,” Houston said. “Recruited him heavily at JMU. Thought we were going to get him. He ended up going to West Virginia. I know his high school coach very well. He’s high school teammates with Isaiah Winstead and Kerry King and Suirad Ware, so he is a familiar guy to us all and a great kid.
“He’s had a great year. He had a huge game against Virginia Tech also and had some monster games last year. That performance Saturday night was not an anomaly for him.”
The Pirates had their first victory dinner of the season on Sunday.
“We did,” Houston said. “It was good. Families came over and we were able to have a lot of good community time and just be around each other and celebrate that achievement and then move on to the next.
The Pirates opened the season with a noon kickoff against the Wolfpack. The start was 6 p.m. against ODU.
Houston shared thoughts on how time slots impact game day.
“Well, obviously (6 p.m.) allows the kids to sleep in a little bit in the morning, which they should be well rested. It gives us some good time to spend with an extended walk-through, some more meetings. It allows the kids to have a little bit more time to mentally prepare for the kickoff, so I think all those things are positives.
“It’s great for the fans. They get to tailgate, and I think they enjoy it. I think they are pretty electric for night games. The only negative is night games, the coaching staff, we don’t see our families much during football season. Sometimes Saturday nights is the one night you get to see them, but if you play at night, I don’t get home until probably midnight. You don’t get to see your family very much with a night kickoff, so that’s the only negative for me.”
So, what would be the optimum kickoff time?
“It depends on what your goal is,” Houston said. “If your goal is for the fans to have a great day, it’s probably a six o’clock kickoff. That’s why we try to do that anytime we can. If it was purely for me getting to see my kids, then I’d say two o’clock would be perfect. That way, I’m home in time for a late dinner and we can watch one of the night games and have fun outside or something.”
Keaton Mitchell had offers from Nebraska and West Virginia, among others before choosing ECU.
The sophomore from McDonough, GA, ran for 160 yards and two TDs against ODU. Houston talked about the process that made Mitchell a Pirate.
“As we got to know him and got to understand who he was when he was a high school player and watching his film, you saw a lot of potential,” Houston said. “His high school head coach was actually a Citadel alumnus, so I knew him from my time at The Citadel.
“We had recruited the high school when I was at The Citadel and when I was at James Madison, and so we had some ties there and then, you get to know the background of his mom and dad. Certainly, they were both elite athletes, and so you knew good genes, that’s always a positive. Then just the more you watched him throughout his junior year, you just loved everything about him.
“I can still remember he was committed to us. It was before signing day, and he had a big playoff game down in Georgia and a buddy of mine who was a high school coach down there that I played with in college, he called me up the next day and he said, ‘Hey, this Mitchell kid’s committed to you. Is that right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you, he is one heck of a player. He had five touchdowns that night and just really put on a great show.’ He was a great high school player. I think he’s turning into an even better college player. I think the best is still ahead of him.”
Conversion kicks have not been routine in college or pro football this season. ECU had a miss against State and two were blocked by the Monarchs.
“Owen (Daffer) had a very solid game rebounding from the opener and really proud of him,” Houston said. “I thought he handled himself very, very well Saturday night. You had a young guy up front that had a fundamental breakdown that gave up the first block and he’s trying to do too much instead of just doing his job.
“That’s one of our big focuses, is to do your job and trust your teammate to do his job. This young man was trying to help out too much and gave up an inside gap and got the thing blocked and the next one was a similar deal. It’s something we got corrected on Sunday. It’s something I’m going to really harp on this week. We spent a ton of time on PAT and field goal last week.
“You’ve got to go through it every year. You’ve got to get everybody dialed in to listen. Sometimes you have guys that aren’t starters … and they’ve got to understand that’s a snap. If that’s the only snaps they get on the night, just how critical and important those snaps are for the success of the team.
“As we know, this is going to be a year where you’re going to have some tight ball games down the stretch, and you’re going to have some games that are going to be decided by a kick. We’ve already had one. We’ve got to make sure that we continue to shore that up.”
The ECU coach approves of the plan to expand the College Football Playoff from four to 12 teams by 2026.
“I think it’s great,” Houston said. “Of course, I was a member of a similar format when I was at James Madison, and it afforded us the ability to win a national championship (Football Championship Subdivision) and play for another. We played for a national championship at Lenoir-Rhyne, also.
“You look at the opportunity for everybody to have a legitimate shot. Certainly, if that format was in place the last several years, you would’ve had multiple AAC teams involved in the playoff. I think it gives East Carolina University a chance to be a part of that, and so I think it’s great for the game.”
East Carolina’s first football win ever was against Campbell, in Greenville, 6-0, on Nov. 11, 1933.
Houston provided a scouting summary on the current Camels.
“A really good football team,” Houston said. “They were 3-2 last year to start the year before their quarterback was injured and missed the remainder of the season. He was the freshman of the year (Big South Conference) in 2019. I got to see him play in 2020. He was a dynamic player. He is what makes them go, He was Malik Fleming’s high school quarterback. They won a state championship together down there, so very, very good player.
“They have a left tackle (Mike Edwards, 6-7, 355) that’s a transfer from Wake Forest that’s an NFL prospect. They have a tight end (Julian Hill), that’s an NFL prospect. They are enormous up front. They will be much bigger than we are when we take the field on Saturday. Then you turn around defensively, they’ve got the reigning Big South Defensive Player of the Year, Brevin Allen, at defensive end. They have a DB punt returner or kick returner (Josh McNeely) who was all-conference last year.
“This is a really, really good football team. They messed around last week and lost a game (37-21 at William & Mary). They probably had a great shot at winning, but they’re just outside of the top 25 in FCS, so probably the best team in the Big South on paper.
“It’s a big challenge for us. We’re going to have to have a great week of practice. We’re going to have to improve our play from Saturday night. We’ve got to iron out some things that we did not do well Saturday night, and we’ve got to play at a much higher level this coming Saturday.”
Houston discussed what the Pirates will focus on prior to taking on Campbell.
“I wasn’t really happy with the way we played offensively, especially up front in the first half (vs. ODU),” Houston said. “I think that’s got to be a big focus this week to just really be dialed in more, playing together better in both the run game and pass protection. I think we’ve got to do a better job blocking on the perimeter than what we did, especially in the first half last week. I think that we got to clean up some stuff defensively, where we had just too many breakdowns that led to just some easy plays.
“We played really well at times and really sloppy at times and we’re capable of playing at a much higher level. We will hit our punt coverage, our kickoff coverage, and our PAT field goal teams heavily with our special teams emphasis. Then we’ll be working on a lot of the first and second down base stuff, offensively and defensively.”
Improvement among keys
Getting better from the week two win will be important.
“We’ve got to continue to improve,” Houston said. “I thought the things that we did well last week was we won the turnover deal, 2-0. We’ve got to continue to do a great job with ball security and we’ve got to do a great job of forcing turnovers.
“We’ve got to do a better job of being more consistent up front, offensively, allowing our backs to have time to run, allowing Holton (Ahlers) to have time to operate. I think defensively, we’ve got to do a better job of just executing at a high level, making Campbell work for what they get.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to do a great job defending this quarterback. We can’t let him beat us with his feet and we can’t give up anything cheap in the passing game. We need to have a better week this week with our execution and a better week this week with just the way we play down in and down out consistently.”