East Carolina looks to follow up on a 34-13 home win over Central Florida against host Brigham Young on Friday at 8 p.m. (ESPN2).
Four takeaways helped ECU down the Knights for the first time since 2015. Pirates coach Mike Houston cited the pivotal value of an early interception by Jireh Wilson.
Coming off a 70-13 win over Temple, UCF was moving toward the Murphy Center early in the American Athletic Conference matchup.
“On UCF’s first drive of the game, they’re driving deep in our territory, and they’ve got a glance route called at the boundary,” Houston said Tuesday. “Jireh Wilson does a great job anticipating that, based on the scouting report and the formation we were getting and the situation, steps in front of that route and intercepts that ball. If UCF takes the lead early in the ball game, it changes the momentum of the ball game, so I thought that was a huge play to get us started, and then we were able to go down and get the field goal after that one.”
Andrew Conrad put ECU ahead to stay, 3-0, with a 28-yard field goal with just over two minutes left in the first quarter.
The turnover monster bit the Knights again.
“In the second quarter, Malik (Fleming) had the interception on the home sideline,” Houston said. “We’re in a cover 2 to the boundary right there. So you had the safety over the top and they tried to hit the hole shot. Malik stepped in front of it, made a great play right there, got a little bit of yardage, but really set up a touchdown, which got us going there right before the half. So I thought both of those plays were big plays in order to really swing the momentum heavily in our favor in the first half.”
AAC recognizes Wilson
ECU has the AAC Defensive Player of the Week for the second straight week.
“Julius Wood, our field safety, obviously was the player of the week last week, and then Jireh Wilson, he’s our boundary safety, following that up. Wilson had the interception also, had the fumble recovery. (John Rhys) Plumlee had UCF driving again, Julius Wood strips the ball, Jireh recovers the fumble. So, two big turnovers there in the first half by Jireh. But I thought he just played a really solid game overall. He’s playing the best ball of his career right now.
Houston pointed out the offense’s role in limiting UCF to 57 fewer points than its previous outing.
“We did that because of the team,” said the ECU coach. “It wasn’t just the defense and certainly our defense played very, very well, but UCF had six snaps in the first quarter. They had the ball for 10 minutes in the first half. Our offense dominated the time of possession. We wanted to drive the football. We wanted to control the field position.
“Obviously we wanted to try to win the turnover battle and to limit the explosive plays. But it was a combination of all three. It was a combination of our special teams doing a great job with field position and the kickoff team not giving UCF great starting field position. And it’s a combination of our offense driving the football and even though we didn’t score on the first drive, the first drive was like seven minutes long.
“So UCF turns the ball over and the second drive we drive it again. We score this time. What that turns into is we got the lead but also they haven’t had the ball. And so that’s a combination of a lot of things. But I thought our team played very, very well to slow down a high powered UCF team.”
Dealing with short week
The Pirates had to regroup quickly for BYU.
“The tough thing is the kids don’t get a day off and so they’re still not recovered completely from the weekend,” Houston said. “We did a very, very short workout on Sunday. We were out there for maybe 25 minutes, watched the film from the night before, but really tried to get them off their feet as much as we could on Sunday.
“(Monday) was Tuesday to us, so it was a heavy practice. We cut back a little bit, but it still was fully padded, … heavy practice. (Tuesday) is Wednesday to us and the priority is going to be we’ve cut back as much as we can. We’re going to be in helmets (Tuesday) instead of pads. We had to send our pads out last night to get them to Utah on the equipment truck. So we’ve had to make some adjustments schedule-wise, but the priority right now is we’ve got to get our kids’ legs back underneath us before Friday night. We got a long plane flight on Thursday.
“You’re going to a place that’s going to be a very challenging environment to play in. Against a team that three weeks ago they’re ranked 12th in the country and they’re coming off of their worst loss of the season so their backs are against the wall. So we’re going to see a very talented team. It’s very motivated Friday night.”
“It’ll be a 6 p.m. kickoff mountain time, which is 8 p.m. eastern. So we’ll get a good night’s sleep on Thursday night and they’ll have a schedule very similar to what they’ve had the last two Saturdays on Friday as far as being able to get some rest. … We’ve got to make sure we’ve got our energy back, we’ve got our legs back, got to make sure we handle the travel really well because it’s going to take a special effort Friday night.”
Uniforms for BYU
After wearing throwback uniforms for a 47-42 win over Memphis in four overtimes and sporting an all-black look against UCF, the Pirates will have another uniform combination on Friday night.
“The leadership council takes care of that stuff on Sunday night,” Houston said. “We’ll be in all white with a black helmet.”
In the national eye
The Pirates will be playing on a national network at a time when most teams are getting ready for a Saturday kickoff.
“I don’t love the Friday night because most of our recruits are playing Friday night,” Houston said. “Thursday night’s more exposure for recruiting. Last Saturday night was great exposure for recruiting. So, with Friday night you have most of the country playing high school football, but it is on the national stage and much like last week.
“It’s another opportunity for our program to show what we’ve worked to build here against a national name in BYU. And so, it’s a really good opportunity for us. It’s going to be a tremendous challenge, but it’s an opportunity for us to go try and get win number six.”
Jaylen Johnson coming back
Georgia transfer Jaylen Johnson is coming back from an injury. He played briefly against UCF.
“It’s going to be a slow return for him,” Houston said. “You’ll probably anticipate him about the same amount this week. I expect by the time we get off the bye week, he’s got a chance to be back to full speed and certainly we’re going to need that.
After the BYU game, the Pirates have an open date before playing at Cincinnati on Friday, Nov. 11. That will give Johnson more time to get back to 100 percent.
“(The open date) is going to be something that’s going to help us because he was a quality player,” Houston said. “He was having a great year. I hate that he was injured, but down the stretch, anytime you can get somebody with fresh legs back, it’s going to help. And so look forward to having him in his role this week, but really look forward to getting him back in a more significant role after the bye week.”
Looking at the Cougars
Many of the Cougar players are older because of time away from the game on Morman missions.
“Three weeks ago, four weeks ago, they were ranked 12th in the country,” Houston said. “So obviously there’s a reason they were ranked that high. Their quarterback (Jaren) Hall, preseason, they were talking about him being a better NFL potential player than Zach Wilson, who’s starting quarterback for the New York Jets.
“You look across their roster, whether it’s their two receivers who are both NFL caliber players or their two offensive tackles. There’s so many of their guys that have NFL type bodies. The running back, (Christophert) Brooks was a transfer from Cal. He was Cal’s leading rusher the last two seasons. He’s their leading rusher this year. … The receivers. No. 12, (Puka) Nacua transferred from Washington. He was the Utah Gatorade Player of the Year in high school. He’s back and he’s healthy now.
“(Gunner) Romney, No. 18, is an NFL body type of guy. He’s been hurt a lot this year. We don’t know his availability for this week. (Keanu) Hill, No. 1, has stepped in his place. (Isaac) Rex, No. 83, the tight end, is (6 feet, 6 inches), 250 (pounds). Again, NFL caliber tight end.
So, you look at them, there’s a reason why they were ranked so highly preseason just with those weapons on offense. You flip over the defensive side of the ball and they’re enormous up front. No. 92, (Tyler) Beatty is (6-5, 275). Rush end, which that’s the same position Jeremy Lewis plays. I mean you look at Jeremy, Jeremy 6-2, 225-230. This kid’s 6-5, 275. So that just gives you kind of a size comparison to a similar position. They are 6-4, 6-5 across the defensive front. So, it’s a big physical talented football team. Now they didn’t play very well last Saturday at Liberty (41-14 loss). Their worst loss of the year after playing Notre Dame, very tight, playing Arkansas, very tight, beating a very good Wyoming team, beating a good Baylor team, losing to a top five Oregon team. This is a talented football team that kind of has their back against the wall. So, it’s going to be a challenge Friday night.”
BYU’s loss at Liberty
The margin of BYU’s loss at Liberty was surprising.
“I don’t know,” Houston said. “It didn’t look like the same football team. I don’t know if it was the flight across the country. I don’t know if it was just, you not really being ready to go. The game was close in the third quarter. It was 20-14, but they just did not play well down the stretch. And Liberty popped a big run, popped a big pass play, just had a couple of big plays there in the fourth quarter that widened the gap. Put the game away.”
BYU has size on defense. But what about the speed of the unit?
I think 92 (Batty) and 94 (John Nelson), the two most athletic, run, well on the defensive line. I mean I think they’re both NFL caliber guys. The two interior kids are more big, just kind of brute force guys. I think their linebackers are big, thick-necked knockers. They’re secondary. I think they run very well. I think their corners are good coverage guys. … They’re not the fastest team we’ve seen defensively, but they’re probably the biggest, most physical team we’ve seen defensively.”
The short week impacts preparation.
“I think practice focus is just the quick schedule,” Houston said. “Really getting dialed into BYU the way we were, the last couple of opponents. The combination of that, really honing in our execution, really getting dialed into that and execution with that in a very short week in combination with recovering. Because that’s going to be a big deal. We played late Saturday night. We’ve got a long trip. We’ve got to make sure we’re fresh. And so, I think those are the two big, big focuses for the next couple of days.
“Keys to the game, I think it’s going to be handling the environment. I think it’s going to be handling the physicality that we’re going to see and we’re going to see a very motivated BYU team, handling that. And that all comes back to us being ready to play mentally. I think if we can have the same type of preparation mentally that we’ve had the last several weeks and be focused and just dialed into playing together and doing the things we’ve got to do to win the ball game and being the most physical team on the field Friday night, I think that’s going to be a big key.
“Having our energy and intensity that we’ve had. If we can do all those things, we’ll play very well. And if we play very well, then it comes down to the turnovers, the execution, all those things that it comes down to every week. But I just think we’ve got to make sure that mentally we’re dialed in and ready to play the way we have the last several weeks.
Special teams play has improved in ECU’s 2-game winning streak.
“Really pleased with the way the guys executed Saturday night,” Houston said. “Obviously that was a big part of the ball game. I thought it was probably our best game in that phase this year. I think we’re playing better and better in the kicking game.”