East Carolina got a much-needed American Athletic Conference win, 48-28, over South Florida on Saturday to stay in contention for the league championship. With the game moving from Tampa to Boca Raton because of Hurricane Ian, there had to be some quick adjustments in preparation for the site change.
“What a great job Jake Kirkendall, my Chief of Staff, and Ryan McManus, my DFO (Director of Football Operations) did last week,” said ECU coach Mike Houston. “You plan these trips about six months out, and you spend a lot of time putting together the food and the lodging and all the buses and the flight, and there’s a lot that goes into each road trip.
“So, to have to do that in about three days, that’s a pretty quick turnaround. So, Jake did a great job of adjusting our schedules, and I think we all had a little heartburn just with the weather in the Southeast, but Allegiant did a great job of ensuring that we were completely safe, and it was actually a very smooth flight. We flew way out around the weather so that there wasn’t any kind of bumps or anything like that. So, it went about as smooth as you could ask for with the quick change.”
The Pirates flew west of the storm system that went through Florida and moved north.
ECU led 21-0 early in the second quarter and was on top, 41-7, at the half against USF. Holton Ahlers matched his school record with six touchdown passes and earned AAC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
“That’s what you want to do every week,” Houston said. “We talk about it, getting out to a fast start, but to see our offense go out and play the way they did in the first quarter and getting a couple of big stops defensively in the first quarter and just really, we kind of thought how they would defend us, they did, and we thought we’d have some matchups, and thank goodness we won those matchups. It’s great to see our offense really get on track.”
The Pirates finished with 575 yards of total offense.
The loss of running back Rahjai Harris for the season was a negative aspect of the outcome that put ECU at 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the AAC. Harris sustained a knee injury late in the game.
True freshman Marlon Gunn Jr. filled in with Keaton Mitchell out with a hip pointer.
“We decided several weeks ago that Marlon was going to play (not red shirt), and that was one of the reasons for some caution with Keaton on Saturday,” Houston said. “We feel very confident in Marlon. Keaton continues to improve. We expect to have him this Saturday, but Marlon has really improved drastically throughout the beginning and first half of the season.
“I think that’s a credit to what happens when you have a talented player that has a driven work ethic and really puts everything into improving each day. They can really improve exponentially, which he’s done. So, I feel good about those two guys. Kamarro Edmonds (transfer from UNC) has continued to come along and he’s improving daily, and I expect him to be a big part of our game plan this week.
“We feel good about that room, what we have there. My heart just breaks for Rahjai. He and I have had a close relationship for many years, and the big thing, my big focus right now is just supporting him, supporting him mentally, helping him through the rehab and recovery. He’ll make it back and he’ll be stronger when he gets back, and he’s still got a great career here ahead of him. I just hate that he’s not going to be with us for a little while.”
C.J.’s personal loss
C.J. Johnson had seven catches for 197 yards and four touchdowns at USF after the passing of his grandmother.
“She has been kind of the cornerstone of his life, and she is the one that really most of his childhood was spent with, and so someone that’s a big part of him,” Houston said. “She had always been a very positive part of supporting him here at East Carolina. And so, she had been in declining health, and so we’ve been supporting him for a couple of weeks, but it’s been a very emotional couple of weeks for C.J. and I’m proud of the way he’s handled himself.
“I think that it shows a lot of growth and maturity on his part, just the way he’s been able to manage his emotions and process everything given his loss, and we’ll continue to support him in the coming weeks. We all know that when we lose loved ones, it’s shocking at the moment and then it has lingering effects, and so to see him be able to honor her with the way he played Saturday and he really, that’s what he wanted to do, and I think it made for a pretty special day for him and his family.”
QB situation for Tulane
Quarterback Michael Pratt did not play for Tulane in a 27-24 overtime win at Houston on Friday night. Kai Horton stepped up with three TD passes.
The Pirates take on the Green Wave (4-1, 1-0 AAC) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in New Orleans (ESPNU).
“(Pratt) got banged up at the end of the game against Southern Miss and missed last week,” Houston said. “We have heard that he will be back this week, so we expect to see him, and of course he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the country, so that’s certainly a big boost for them. But I think it’s a very impressive win, to win at Houston without him. So, I think that says a lot about their team as a whole.”
The fourth-year ECU coach talked about what will be important in practice this week.
“We’ve got to focus on us, “Houston said. “We’ve got to focus on improving on the things that we didn’t do well Saturday and trying to improve on the things we did do well. It’s going to take an offensive performance that’s at that level or better this Saturday, because you’re facing one of the top defenses in the country.
“They’re ranked in the top 10 in four or five statistical categories, so we’re going to face maybe the best defense in the American Conference this Saturday. We’ll be challenged. They are very good offensively with Pratt in there. They have great skill at the wide receiver and tight end positions. They have a couple of running backs that are really high-end players, so it’s going to be a battle.
“It’s going to be a tough test. You got two good football teams, they’re squaring off, and so it’ll come down to the little stuff that the close games always come down to. So, we’ve got to do a great job of winning those individual battles there and doing a great job of playing a clean game.”
Missed conversion kicks
The point after touchdown kick borders on automatic in college football, but the Pirates missed their fourth of the season against USF. Owen Daffer is 20 for 24 for 2022.
“We’ve just got to execute better with the snap, hold, kick,” Houston said. “That’s all that is. No more than that.”
The Pirates need some continuity from their first AAC win as they take on the Green Wave.
“Offensively, we need to continue to execute at the high level we did last Saturday,” Houston said. “We had one turnover, which was at a bad time in a ball game, but only one turnover and we’ve done pretty well ball security-wise the bulk of the season. So, I think it’s going to be executing at a high level, great job with the turnovers and penalties, which that’s what we did last week, and I think just maximizing our possessions.
“Defensively, it’s going to be trying to keep those running backs from getting going and try to harass the quarterback as much as possible. Not let him sit in there and throw. I thought we were outstanding on special teams last weekend in South Florida and that was a big key to the ball game also, and I think that’s going to be something we have to win Saturday night. We’ve got to be the better team in the special teams area Saturday night.”