East Carolina had a 454-310 lead in total yards and played turnover free in last Friday night’s American Athletic Conference matchup at Cincinnati.
Pirates coach Mike Houston talked about the contest on Tuesday and how ECU wound up on the short end of a 27-25 score.
“Just really pleased with the way our kids competed and played and our effort was phenomenal and the kids physicality-wise were really, really good,” Houston said. “And at the end of the day we gave up two explosive plays defensively. We gave up an explosive play in special teams and then we were not able to score there in the fourth quarter.
“But when you want to pin things down, that’s the difference between winning and losing, just not being able to finish it off. They are a championship-caliber team and they’ve won 32 in a row at home and that’s why they’re able to finish those games off and we didn’t get the job done.”
Running back Keaton Mitchell had rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown when he was knocked out of the game in the third quarter and defensive back Bryon Threats of the Bearcats was ejected for targeting.
“He will work out (Tuesday),” Houston said. “We expect him to play on Saturday.”
Receiver C.J. Johnson got a similar report after making seven catches for 123 yards and a score before getting tackled onto his head on the final play of the game. Johnson was taken to a hospital for evaluation.
“He’ll practice today,” Houston said. “Expect him to play on Saturday.”
2 p.m. start
ECU has a league game at home on Saturday against Houston at 2 p.m. The game will be shown on ESPN+.
Houston likes the kickoff time.
“It’s good,” said the Pirates coach. “It’s not too early, it allows everybody, fans and everybody to tailgate, have their morning and do all that stuff and then it allows you to play the game — late in the year, with good weather in the afternoon. It allows players, coaches, everyone to be able to see people that are in town to visit with them after the game, before the evening is done. So yeah, from a lifestyle standpoint, from a college football player or college football coach and I would think for a lot of fans, it’s a really ideal kickoff time.”
ECU will bid farewell to a senior class that includes record-setting quarterback Holton Ahlers as the Pirates play their final home game of the season.
“Where the program was when I got here in the offseason of 2019, this group was here, most of them,” Houston said “Some of them have come in since then. But this is the group that has led the turnaround in the program. They have led the turnaround in the culture of the student athletes. They have put in the work, and they deserve a tremendous amount of credit.
“And so, when you walk that group out there Saturday afternoon, you’re talking about a group that changed the direction of Pirate football. A lot of credit goes to them. They are a significant group, very important to me. I care about each of them tremendously and just want to honor them Saturday afternoon — pre-game, but also more importantly, with the way we play.”
Houston hosted a 31-24 overtime win over ECU last season. The Cougars are 6-4 this season and 4-2 in the AAC. The Pirates are also 6-4 overall with a 3-3 conference record.
“They’re red hot,” said the ECU coach of the Cougars. “They come in winning four of the last five, five of the last seven. … I’d say probably the most explosive offense in the conference. Clayton Tune is most likely the best quarterback we’ve seen all year. He’s going to be an NFL quarterback. He’s thrown for over 3,000 yards already this year. 31 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He’s playing at a very, very high level. He’s run for 500 yards. Nathaniel Dell was first team all-conference last year. He’s one of the top receivers in the country this year with over a thousand yards on 85 catches. … 13 touchdowns.
“So, a very, very explosive offense. There are other skilled players besides those guys, but a group that’s playing at a very, very high level. In their one loss in the last five games, they scored 63 points in that game (63-77, at Southern Methodist). So, they’re putting up points like crazy. And then most of these skilled guys are special teams guys as well. So, it creates an explosive and dynamic special teams group we’re facing. And so, we’ve got our hands full on Saturday.”
Practice in rain
Coach Houston planned to practice Tuesday although there was rain in the forecast.
“I can’t control the weather today, no more than I can control it on Saturday,”. Houston said. “So, we practice. If it rains Saturday, we’re going to play the game. So, I’m going to practice. This Saturday, we don’t have an alternative.”
A fundraising effort is underway which would provide an indoor practice facility for ECU football.
Practice focus, game keys
Houston emphasizes the importance of good practices and their correlation to playing well.
“We’re going to have to have a great week of preparation, obviously,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to play better. I thought we played very well last Friday night, but not good enough to win. So, we’ve got to continue to play better. We’ve got to continue to play very well up front from a physicality standpoint and execution standpoint. We need to convert and finish games better, so that’s going to require better execution. I think we’re challenged tremendously defensively this week with our opponent, what we’re facing. And so, I think it’s going to take a great effort on Saturday.
“So, I think keys to the game is going to be how well we can try to make them work for what they get. Don’t give them cheap touchdowns, don’t give them busted plays, things like that. I think we’ve got to execute at a high level offensively and not give them extra possessions and do a great job finishing drives and scoring. And then I think we’ve got to play a great game, the kicking game as far as our coverage units and our return units and our execution there. So we’ve got to continue playing the way we have for the last month plus and just do a better job of finishing ball games.”