Between its first ever win, 6-0, over Campbell in 1933, East Carolina had accumulated 454 football victories before a 49-10 conquest of the Camels on Saturday night at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The crowd of 43,036 was the largest ever to see the Camels, who managed a 10-7 lead at the close of the first quarter.
The Pirates controlled the nonconference contest over the final three quarters and ECU coach Mike Houston gave the effort a thumbs-up.
“A solid win for our program,” Houston said Tuesday. “A win that, you handle the game the way you want to handle that game. It was about the way I thought it would go. Close early. Obviously, Hajj-Malik Williams (Campbell quarterback) gave us some fits there in the first quarter. I figured he probably would.
“I thought that our execution in all three phases improved as the night went on. And yeah, I thought we played very, very well offensively. I thought we played very well special teams-wise in the kicking game. And I thought we played better as the game went on defensively.
“Certainly, we come out of there with a lot of things we can clean up, but a solid win to get to 2-1 on the season and coming into a big matchup against Navy this weekend.”
Defensive execution improves
The Pirates have been a better team defensively thus far in 2022 in the second half, allowing just 14 points after intermission in three games.
“We cleaned up,” Houston said of the defensive performance against Campbell over the last three quarters. “We cleaned up and executed better. I mean, yeah, you had a couple of those big plays there on the first couple of drives are just purely our mistakes. We knew he was going to scramble around. We worked on scramble drill all week. And in our scramble drill, you’re supposed to latch onto your receivers in the secondary and that first big pass play, we have our two safeties come running up, trying to tackle the quarterback in the back field. … Yeah, they can’t tell you why they did that, but it gives them a cheap 30-, 40-yard pass.
“Just stuff like that. The missed tackle on the touchdown where the DB attacked with the wrong leverage. Didn’t force the receiver, where he has to force him back to the pursuit. That’s the little stuff that, fundamentally, we usually don’t make those mistakes. And so got those cleaned up and able to play better down the stretch.”.
Garcia gets in
Backup quarterback Mason Garcia got some snaps against CU and settled in quickly.
“I thought he looked very comfortable,” Houston said. “We’ve really mixed in the run and the pass with him in there. He was 5 of 7 for 39 yards. But he did a good job running the football. The first play was a quarterback draw. I thought he showed some composure with the way he handled himself when he got a little bit of pressure at times. So, I think a solid performance by him.”
Running back depth
Marlon Gunn Jr. has been impressive in brief appearances at running back.
“I talked about his potential on signing day and talked about it all throughout preseason camp. … I said it the other night. He’s kind of cut from the same mold as Rahjai (Harris) and Keaton (Mitchell), from a standpoint of character, work ethic, and determination. He’s a very intelligent young man. He’s very driven, and he’s got some ability.
“You have that combination of all those things — experience is really the only thing he lacks. And so, every time we’re able to get him out there and get him some game experience and some real experience, it allows him to have some successes, which is going to give him confidence. It allows him to make some mistakes, which is going to teach him valuable lessons and make him better the next time out. And so, yeah, I’m excited about him.”
Gunn picked the Pirates over offers that included Florida State, Purdue, Texas Christian and Virginia.
“He had a lot of Power Five offers early,” Houston said. “He had a couple of Power Five offers late, after he was committed to us. … I think he really meshed with Coach (Chris) Foster (running backs coach) initially. I think that when he came on his official visit, I think he and his parents both felt like this was a place where he would fit in culturally, where people would really care about him and he’d be in a good environment, a positive environment.
“Philosophy-wise, he looks at how we have used Keaton and Rahjai and he’s a very similar back. And so, I think he sees his abilities will be used at a high level here.”
Sizing up Navy
The Pirates (2-1) start American Athletic Conference play at home against Navy (0-2) on Saturday at 6 p.m. The winless record doesn’t indicate what Houston sees of the Midshipmen on tape.
“They’re extremely dangerous,” said the ECU coach. “It’s kind of what you saw last year a little bit from Navy, where they struggled a little bit early in the season. Against Delaware, they had some uncharacteristic turnovers and just really some sloppy play offensively. Now, I’ll say this. Delaware is a very, very good team. It would not shock me to see Delaware make a deep run in the playoffs this year and maybe even be a national championship contender at the FCS level. We flipped on the film, and I’ll tell you what now, they’ve got some guys over there on defense.”
Navy dropped its AAC opener at home, 37-13, to Memphis on Sept. 10, and had a bye week to regroup.
“The Memphis team is a very good team,” Houston said. “Navy was able to stone them for a lot of the night, and Memphis kind of popped them for some big plays. So, I think that it’s a team that has had two weeks to get ready for us, that is always a hard out. I think that they’ll come in here very hungry. It’s a team that has never lost in Greenville. It’s a team that’s had a lot of success against East Carolina, and I think we’ve got our hands full Saturday night. Very experienced quarterback, veteran coaching staff. It’s going to take a special effort to get a win Saturday night.”
Navy is a tough team to prepare for because of its option offense. Houston has used the option in his career,
“We ran this offense at Lenoir-Rhyne and at The Citadel both,” Houston said. “We went to the Division 2 National Championship game running this very offense. And then we won the Southern Conference and beat the University of South Carolina running this offense. So, it’s a great offense when it’s working. It’s tough to defend and it’s a lot of fun to watch. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. If you’re on the defensive side of the ball, it’s a pain in the butt to get ready for. So, it gives Navy their chance to be highly competitive and win a lot of ball games. And that’s the reason they’ve had the history they’ve had. So, it’s why I’m so worried this week.”
Prep this week
Houston is demanding in terms of preparing in practice.
“I’m pleased with our players and where they’ve been so far early in the week,” he said. “I think they’re very focused on what we’ve got to do this week. They understand conference opener. They understand Navy. They’re excited about it. They’re excited to be back at home again. So, the focus this week is going to be, how do we simulate Navy’s offense for our defense. … It’s going to be a challenge. It’s so hard to replicate.
“And then Navy is extremely aggressive on defense and special teams. So, it’s preparing for all the looks, because they’re going to be very diverse with what they’re going to throw at us. How can we prepare our offense for that? The positive is it is similar to what we do defensively, so we should be able to simulate that decently.
“Then special teams-wise, continue to improve off last week’s performance, because we were very solid last week in the kicking game, and we’ve got to continue that this week. It could come down to that Saturday night.”
Houston talked about important factors in making a 1-0 start in the AAC.
“We’ve got to do the things that good football teams do,” Houston said. “And what I mean by that is, you’ve got to continue to win the turnover game. You’ve got to win the penalties. You’ve got to win the kicking game. Those key things right there. And then after that, it’s going to come down to, I think, two things. It’s going to come down to the point of contact — being the most physical team on the football field Saturday night. So, Navy is an extremely physical football team. We pride ourselves in being that. And so, it’s going to be kind of two very determined groups kind of butting heads midfield, so to say.
“It’s winning the point of contact all throughout the night, play in and play out. And then it’s going to come down to execution. If we can be the most physical team and we can execute at a high level in all three phases, do the things that good football teams do, then we’ll have success. If we don’t and Navy does, then they’re going to have success. I mean, I think it’s going to be that kind of ball game.”
Home field advantage
The support of Pirate fans is an element in ECU’s favor.
“It should be great weather,” Houston said. “It should be a great ball game. Our crowds have been incredible. They have been a huge factor for our players. Our student section has been as good as you could ever want. Our fans would cause problems for the opponent. I hope the fans understand how much they’re appreciated by the players and the staff and everyone.
“It makes such a difference. And so, I hope we get 51,000 Saturday night. It’d be a great atmosphere to play in and it’d be a great atmosphere for the fans also. And I hope that we can continue to build this relationship between our players and our fan base because it’s one that they both feed off of each other. So just looking forward to being back in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday night.”