East Carolina renews its football series with Appalachian State as the Pirates make their first trip to Boone since a 38-21 win in 1979. Kickoff is scheduled for Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (ESPN+).
ECU was in its third year as an independent under Coach Pat Dye in 1979. The Pirates had beaten Appalachian, 35-7, in Greenville in their last game in the Southern Conference in 1976 to win the league championship.
The 1979 matchup was the last meeting between the programs until Appalachian came to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in 2009.
In 1979, the Mountaineers played at Conrad Stadium, which was renamed for former ASU coach Kidd Brewer in 1988. The facility became the first to install artificial turf in the Carolinas in 1970. The structure’s listed elevation is 3,333 feet above sea level and it has a capacity of 30,000.
Dye’s option offense totaled 450 rushing yards before a crowd of 13,185 on Nov. 3, 1979. Anthony Collins carried 19 times for 122 yards and three touchdowns. Theodore Sutton’s 20 carries produced 134 yards with a TD. ECU went 7-3-1 in Dye’s last season in Greenville. The Pirates were coming off a tie at 24 with North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
There were 32 teams, including ECU, which were independent in 1979. There are only four today.
Among the group with no conference affiliation in that era in Division I-A, which corresponds to the Football Bowl Subdivision today, were Florida State, Pittsburgh, Tulane, Penn State, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Boston College, Memphis State (Memphis), Miami of Florida, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Cincinnati.
The Pirates were eighth among the 32 independents in win percentage in 1979.
The 2023 Pirates slipped to 0-2 last week with a 31-13 loss to visiting Marshall as the Thundering Herd scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
ECU coach Mike Houston expressed his disappointment regarding a contest that seemingly pivoted on a trick play that yielded a 75-yard score for the visitors. The Pirates were leading 13-10 when a receiver got free on a double pass for the Herd.
“Obviously disappointed in not being able to finish off the game the other night and get a win in our home opener,” Houston said. “I thought there were a lot of positives from the game and the players were ready to play. I thought we played very hard and played really well for stretches throughout the game. We put ourselves in a position in the fourth quarter with the lead and the ball to be able to put the game away.
“We had a couple of opportunities deep in Marshall territory that we were not able to take advantage of and that came back to bite us. We just did not finish the game in the last six or seven minutes the way we wanted to. We don’t have much time to dwell on it. I talked to the players on Sunday about the 24-hour rule and putting that one behind us.
“We’re fully focused now on a very good Appalachian State team coming off a double overtime loss at UNC. We’ll travel up this weekend to Boone and it’ll be a very challenging environment. It’s a tough place to play and a very good team that we’ll be facing. It’s a great opportunity for our team. The kids are excited about the matchup. I’m sure it’s going to be a great atmosphere on Saturday and the players will be excited to get back out there and we’ll be ready to go.”
ECU has played Mason Garcia and Alex Flinn at quarterback the first two games. The duo began competing for the starting job in the spring and neither has emerged as a clear cut QB1.
“No position in our program is any different than any other,” Houston said. “There’s always competition and we’re always going to do what’s best for our team and our program to give us the best opportunity to win on game day. I thought Mason did some really good things Saturday and obviously he’s got some things he’s got to get cleaned up. He played better than he did the week before.
“I thought Alex came in and did some good things. I also think there’s some things Alex has to clean up. So, both of them are pushing each other daily to improve. The biggest thing is our entire offense, and our entire team has to push itself daily to improve.
“We had a couple of drops by a couple of receivers on Saturday with well thrown balls. We had some breakdowns in protection that caused us to abort some passing plays. Mason did a great job of creating some positive yardage off those situations. And then we’ve got to throw the ball a little bit more accurately in the pocket. So, I don’t think it’s one thing that you can look at and I think everybody sees that if they watch it closely, that there’s lots of things.”
Similarities to 2021
The Mountaineers topped ECU, 33-19, in Charlotte in the season opener for the Pirates in 2021, the last time the teams played. Houston recalled an 0-2 start that season before ECU broke through with a 42-38 comeback win at Marshall.
“I think coming into the season, we knew we had a very challenging nonconference schedule, very similar to 2021,” Houston said. “I remember 2021 vividly. I remember them booing our quarterback off the field in his home stadium. I remember everybody telling me all week that I needed to bench him, and I needed to start the backup — that weren’t going to go anywhere if I didn’t do that. I remember a lot of similarities. I also know that was right decision not to and that quarterback (Holton Ahlers) is playing for the Seahawks now. I just think everybody needs to support the kids that are on the field and support the players.”
Houston is familiar with Appalachian’s tradition. He played at Mars Hill, about 70 miles from Boone.
“I think we’re playing a group that has always prided itself in the way they’ve ran the football,” Houston said. “Shawn (Clark) has done a great job up there with that program. Obviously, we faced them in 2021. They’re a hard-nosed and physical football team. They did a great job this past weekend in Chapel Hill running the football effectively.
“Their run game is different than what we’ve seen in the first two weeks and so the challenges are a little bit different. Our game plan will be a little bit different. I think they do a great job of throwing play action passes off the run game. Joey (Aguilar) came in for the opener and has done a good job of bringing some continuity to that offense. He played very well this past weekend, and you can tell he’s an experienced, veteran guy in the pocket.”
UNC ran for 319 yards in a 40-34 win over the Mountaineers last week in double overtime.
“I think every matchup is different, and every week is different,” Houston said. “I think North Carolina did a really good job this past weekend running the football. I think it every week it just depends on how they’re going to defend you. We’ll see this Saturday how they choose to come out and defend us and what that presents for us as far as opportunities for our offense.”
Houston took a Lenoir Rhyne team to play the Mountaineers earlier in his career.
“I think the last time that I played there as a coach was 2007,” Houston said. “We played them the week after they knocked off Michigan. It was a rowdy environment then and it’s a very passionate fan base. It’ll be sold out and beyond capacity on Saturday. It’ll be loud and hostile but that’s great. You love playing in those kinds of environments.
“I think they give the home team energy and I think they give the visiting team energy. It’s going to be a lot of fun to play on that stage against a really good football team and I expect it to be a highly competitive game.”
Houston was raised in Franklin in western North Carolina.
“I’ll have a lot of friends and family there. That’s about it. I’ve got a lot of friends that played there, and I know several of their coaches very well. There’s a lot of connections for my family and myself regionally but that’s about it.”
Appalachian has a 20-12 lead in the series, winning the first 10 meetings between 1932 and 1952.
Houston likes for ECU to play the Mountaineers.
“I think these games are great,” he said. “I wish that we could somehow figure out for all the FBS teams in the state of North Carolina to play. I think the two schools are very similar in that Appalachian State and East Carolina are both football schools with passionate fan bases. Our traditions may be a little different as far as the conferences that we’ve been associated with over the years, but both have had a lot of success in their respective situations.
“I think it makes sense for us to play. I know that Coach Clark and I have talked about it and I don’t know much say he and I have in it. We both think it’s a good matchup. I think the more you square off against each other, the more it could become a pretty good rivalry.”