East Carolina is in the final stages of preparation for its biggest challenge, biggest crowd and biggest payday in the history of its football program when the Pirates visit Michigan on Saturday at noon (Peacock).
The Wolverines are coming off their second straight appearance in the College Football Playoffs and are ranked No. 2 in the Coaches and Writers polls. Lou Holtz has Michigan as his No. 1 team.
Michigan Stadium’s capacity is 107,601, the largest in college football.
Coach Mike Houston commented on the magnitude of the matchup on Tuesday.
“It’s a big ball game for our team, our program.” Houston said. “It’s a national stage. Obviously, you’re playing a team that’s preseason ranked Np. 2 in the country. Arguably, they have the most talented roster on paper in the entire nation. That comes from NFL scouts. There’s no weaknesses anywhere. So, it’s a great challenge, playing in an iconic venue, ‘The Big House’ in Ann Arbor, playing in front of 110,000 people, so it’s an opportunity of a lifetime. It’s a great opportunity for us.
“Our kids are very excited for it. Now we’ve got to go up there and we’ve got to play a really clean game and we’ve got to play at a very high level, and there will be challenges with that. But our players will be ready to play and they’re excited and they know what we’ve got to do in order to go up there and get a win.”
ECU turned its full attention to the season opener following the conclusion of preseason camp on Aug. 19.
“We’ve been preparing for Michigan for about a week now,” Houston said. “We had taken a little bit of time off over the weekend, helped them get their legs back. We had a solid workout Sunday night. We’ve got our heavy practice days (Tuesday and Wednesday). We’ll sharpen things up on Thursday, hoping that we get those practices in with the … storm headed our way.
“The big emphasis is just cleaning everything up, preparing to play a very physical football game, trying to make sure we’re as fresh as possible and just get our guys in that mind space to go up there and just let it all go. Just go at them. So, that’s the plan for the week.”
ECU has not released a depth chart. Mason Garcia has been projected to start at quarterback, but Alex Flinn has competed well. Houston spoke in general terms.
“I’m very pleased with that room and we’re excited to see how they play on Saturday,” said the fifth-year ECU coach.
Houston did not rule out playing multiple quarterbacks.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, we don’t plan to. But I think that could certainly happen. We have confidence in both Mason and Alex. I’ll tell you, I’ve got confidence in (freshman) Raheim Jeter. Now he’s not ready to be the starting quarterback yet, but he’s shown himself to be vastly improved this fall, and it would not shock me to see him at some point this year.”
A rule change in college football stipulates that the game clock will not stop for first downs until the last two minutes of each half.
“You probably will not notice an impact in the game,” Houston said. “As far as what we will notice as players and coaches, the games will be a few plays shorter. It’s probably going to be about eight fewer plays in college football games this year on average as compared to last year.
“The key people that have to deal with this is the officials. They’ve got to officiate the game one way for most of the game, but then the last two minutes of each half they’ve got to officiate it the way they’ve traditionally officiated it. So, it’ll probably be a bigger challenge for them than it will be for anyone else.”
And speaking of officials …
“It’s a Big Ten officiating crew,” Houston said.
Houston was asked if the Pirates will be wearing all white on Saturday.
“No,” he said.
Rahjai Harris is expected to start at running back but a rotation is likely.
“We feel great about that room,” Houston said. “I would anticipate you’ll see at least three of them on Saturday and you could see as many as five. But we are very confident in the ability we have in that room. We’re excited about the experience we have in that room, and we think that’s one of the strengths of our team.”
Special team booters
Place kicking was a sore spot last year. Multiple candidates have been vying this year.
“We’ve had a great competition during preseason camp and have had multiple guys that have performed very, very well,” Houston said. “We have confidence in a couple of them, and those guys are going to continue competing. We feel pretty set on who is going to go out there for the first kicking opportunity on Saturday, but we’re going to allow it to play out a little bit more this week just to make sure.”
There is depth among punters as well.
“You’ve had a lot of competition during preseason camp,” Houston said. “Archer Trafford has come in and punted the ball very, very well, and I think he has pushed Luke (Larsen) to elevate his performance. Luke is punting the ball as well as he’s ever punted it right now, so it has been a challenging competition. Situationally, you could see both of them on Saturday.”
The defensive line projects as a team strength with its depth, experience and physical attributes.
“Our defensive front is a veteran group, and it’s a group that plays at a very high level and it’s a very physical group,” Houston said, “You’re going to need that against an offensive line like Michigan’s. They’ve won the Joe Moore Award for the best offensive line in the country two years in a row and probably are going to win it again this year. So, you’re facing as good as it gets.
“The great thing for us is not only do we have veteran guys that are experienced, we have a lot of depth, and so we plan on playing a lot of guys. The key for us there is going to be that we have great gap integrity, and if we can do that and limit some of the explosive plays that Michigan lived on throughout the year last year, and just slow them down, then it gives us a shot.”
Michigan coaching suspensions
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore will miss the game due to self-imposed suspensions by Michigan in response to NCAA allegations.
Houston has downplayed the significance of those pending absences.
“They’re going to coach the team all week,” Houston said. “They have an experienced play caller that’ll call the game on Saturday. We faced him before. I think you’ll see Michigan look like Michigan.”
When the matchup and it’s $1.8 million payout to the Pirates was contracted in October of 2019, the Wolverines were in the midst of a 9-4 season in Harbaugh’s fifth campaign as coach, finishing with a 9-4 record.
The Pirates were 4-8 in Houston’s first season at the helm in 2019.
Obviously, both programs have improved as ECU goes in with consecutive winning records for the first time since 2014.