East Carolina and Gardner-Webb have one win between them this season and that lone victory is not on the Pirates’ side of the ledger.
After three matchups with favored teams, including road trips to No. 2 Michigan and Appalachian State, the schedule appears to give the Pirates a break with a contest at home against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, Gardner-Webb, on Saturday at 6 p.m. (ESPN+).
The Runnin’ Bulldogs (1-2) will be accompanied by a sense of deja vu as they reprise a visit to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in 2019.
Mike Houston was in his first season as coach at ECU when the Pirates met G-W for the first time and the occasion became the first win in the Houston era. ECU had 365 yards rushing in a 48-9 triumph on Sept. 7, 2019.
Carroll McCray was coaching the Bulldogs at that juncture. Tre Lamb is currently in his third season guiding the G-W program.
The Bulldogs and Pirates have a common opponent, Appalachian State. ECU lost to the Mountaineers, 43-28, last week, while G-W was a Week One loser in Boone, 45-24.
The Bulldogs beat Elon, 34-27, in Week Two before getting edged last week, 27-25, at Tennessee State.
“New week and a new opportunity,” Houston said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “I’m excited to be back at home this Saturday in front of our fans in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Looking forward to Family Weekend and to the opportunity versus Gardner-Webb.
“Gardner-Webb is a very talented and older football team that has had a lot of success. This group won their conference championship (Big South) last year and they’ve played very well in ball games like this, including the opener this year against Appalachian State. I expect it to be a tremendous challenge. ”
The Bulldogs were 7-6 in 2022 with a 5-0 record in league play. They reached the second round of the FCS playoffs before falling, 54-14, at William & Mary.
ECU needs a win for the sake of confidence and momentum going into the American Athletic Conference opener at Rice in Week Five.
Pirates keep working
ECU has led in the second half of its last two losses.
“Our players have really responded well the last couple of days,” Houston said. “They’re determined to continue to push each other to work to improve. None of us are happy with the results of the first three games. They have worked each week to prepare to go into the ball game with the opportunity to win.
“I’m disappointed that we did not get things done in the second half this past week against a very good Appalachian State team to achieve that goal. I continue to be pleased with the determination of our coaching staff and our players to improve each day and improve each week. I’m excited about this upcoming week and looking forward to the challenge on Saturday.”
ECU yielded a touchdown late in the first half last week in Boone that changed momentum.
“I think when you look back at them in a loss, certainly a lot of things get magnified,” Houston said. “I think allowing the touchdown right before the half this past weekend was magnified, because going in 21-10 versus 21-16 is a big difference. We’ve got to be better on kickoff, can’t have the penalty, which gave them excellent field position to start that drive. We had to have one breakdown defensively on that drive, and we’ve got to eliminate that.
“You start looking at all those things and those things are what is keeping us from consistently playing at the level throughout a full four quarters to be able to get the win. You can address each of them individually, but the big focus has got to be what we’re doing on the practice field on Sunday, (Tuesday), (Wednesday), Thursday. My big focus as coaches is that we’ve got to continue to teach and instruct that we’re putting the players in the very best situation so that they can be successful.
“I know that the players are very motivated to be successful and right now the big focus is on us. We’ve got to keep working together, keep putting in the effort and push ourselves to improve.”
Too many flags
ECU had 11 penalties for 80 yards while App State drew three flags for 25 yards. The Pirates are striving to play cleaner.
“We obviously emphasized it on Sunday,” Houston said. “We’ve emphasized it all last week. I think the big thing for me is looking at what the penalties are. Some of them come from fundamentals and technique. When you see a holding call, a lot of times it’s because you’re getting your body out of position. You’ve got to understand that there’s a point where you’ve got to let go. There’s holding across the board on every play, but there’s holding that gets called and holding that’s part of the game. It’s just teaching players about that line right there.
“There’s some discipline penalties and we had fewer of those, only had a couple of those this past weekend. We’ve got to eliminate those. I always tell the players, the pre-snap and the post-whistle penalties, those are the ones you can’t have. The false starts and the offsides and then anything after the play is over, you can’t have those.
“That’s something that we’ve done a good job of eliminating, but we still had a couple last week. That’s out of pure effort and understanding when to do something and when not to. We had three intentional grounding penalties on Saturday and certainly the intent was there to get us out of a bad situation. There’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it. So it’s addressing all them individually and addressing them all throughout the week with everything you see on tape. We’ve got to cut down on the self-inflicted errors. That’s the big thing right now.”
Not just one thing
ECU was outrushed, 224-79, at Appalachian State, but the running game is just one element that needs to improve.
“You can look at like everything else, all three phases,” Houston said. “It’s a cumulative effect and what I mean by that is you can’t look at one position and say, ‘that’s the issue’. It’s a combination of 11 guys playing together. We talked about that last week.
“I thought we did some things better on Saturday that allowed us to create some positive plays in the run game but it’s going to take everybody continuing to improve to get to the point that we want to be at. You can say the same thing about special teams and defense. It’s going to have to be a cumulative effect of everybody working together in order to get the desired results.”
Mason Garcia started at quarterback against Michigan and Marshall. Alex Flinn got the majority of snaps last week.
“The whole deal with that position is that it does have a huge spotlight on it,” Houston said. “I go back to what we talked about, we’ve got to do a great job as an offense, functioning and playing together. Alex did a lot of really good things on Saturday; he also had some mistakes. One thing I know about Alex is that he’s going to learn from his mistakes. He’s going to be better the next time he’s in the exact same situation. He came in and watched the film on Sunday and he’s beating his head over a couple of things that happened on the field.
“Some of it is on him decision- making wise and some of it is a result of something else in the unit. I am excited about both Alex and Mason. I would expect that they’re both going to play big parts in our program and our team down the stretch this year. They will be prepared to go on Saturday, and I would expect both of them to be better the next time you see them on the field.”
Evaluating the potential successors to Holton Ahlers at quarterback has been an ongoing process.
“I don’t know that I view it as week-to-week or day-to-day as much as I view it as a culmination of the full body of work,” Houston said. “Certainly, spring and preseason gives you parameters to evaluate both quarterbacks. I think that it is evaluation of what they’re doing in the games on Saturday. I think it is evaluation of how they’re doing during the week.
“There’s a lot of variables that go into that. The one thing I will tell you is, no matter what the position is, we’re going to do whatever puts the Pirates in the best position to be successful on game day. We’ve got to do a great job as coaches of putting not only the quarterbacks, but all of our players in positions to be successful.”
Youthful defensive back Antoine Jackson is one of the highest rated signees in ECU history. He had an 8-yard pick six for a 14-10 Pirates advantage last week.
“Antoine practiced really well during the Marshall week,” Houston said. “It was by far his best week of practice since he’s gotten here. When you get here and you’re 17 years old and you’re a freshman that’s never been in a college football practice or played a college snap, there’s a litany of things you’re having to learn how to handle. You’re having to learn how to handle the heat and he’s from Miami. They claim it’s hotter here than it is down there and the reason they’re claiming that is because they’re in pads out on the field in the middle of a practice. You’ve got to learn how to handle college practice, class schedules, the dorm life. You have to learn time management. There are so many things that the freshmen have to learn how to handle that a lot of times that keeps them from just functioning.
“The thing that Coach (Jules) Montinar (cornerbacks) did is go back to Antoine and said, ‘It’s okay, you had a great week of practice. Do it again and let’s be better this week.’ He had an outstanding practice last week. It was probably a week and a half ago that I had a conversation with Antoine, and I said, ‘There will be a time where you’re going to be on that field playing for us this year and when you get out there, you can’t go out there like a 17-year-old freshman.’
“The reality is that he’s a 17-year-old freshman. You’re talking out both sides of your mouth there. I thought he did really well when he got in there. I did not think the stage was too big for him. The pick six was a good defensive call but I’ve seen that call several times this year where we didn’t make the play. I do think there’s something to the fact that the moment wasn’t too big for him, and he made the play. I would say he’s got a lot of confidence coming out of that now. How does he practice this week? How does he respond to success? Sometimes guys can’t handle success when they’re young. You’ve got to let them grow and mature and the only thing that’s going to tell the tape is going to be time, but I did think he played very well last week.”
Bulldogs with the ball
Gardner-Webb will present a challenging package on offense.
“It’s going to be difficult,” Houston said. “I think they play a great scheme. I think they have a lot of experienced guys. You watch them this year, they’ve been very good on that side of the football at times.
“As far as simulating it, I don’t think you can completely simulate it in practice. We do have a little bit of experience from facing (Central Florida) a few years back. You’ve got to be able to replicate that tempo. You’ve got to be able to replicate just all the stuff that they do because they do a lot of stuff. They have a lot of different formations, trick plays and things you don’t you don’t see. It’s going to require an extreme amount of detail preparation this week and great focus throughout the week and great focus on game day.”