East Carolina had its first victory dinner of the season on Sunday as a follow-up to a 44-0 win over visiting Gardner-Webb on Saturday.
“It was good,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston. “Kids came, families came, everybody was there. So, it was a pretty festive environment.”
The fare became familiar in the last two seasons as ECU had 15 wins.
“Steak and shrimp,” Houston said, “Ice cream bar, peanut butter pie.”
Rice is on the menu for Saturday, the university — not the cereal grain.
ECU visits the Owls for a 7 p.m. kickoff (ESPN+).
William Marsh Rice
William Marsh Rice University opened in 1912. Rice, a self-made investor. provided the financial foundation for the institution that bears his name.
Saturday marked the 123rd anniversary of Rice’s murder by his valet. An attorney who instigated the plot to kill Rice and forge his will was sentenced to death.
ECU’s shutout was significant. The Pirates had not held an opponent scoreless since blanking Duke, 38-0, on the road to start the 2000 season.
The accomplishment came against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent, but the Runnin’ Bulldogs won the Big South Conference in 2022 and had a strong nucleus returning. G-W scored 24 points in the first game of 2023 at Appalachian State.
“Great performance by our team,” Houston said. “This is a team that led App, 24-21, at the end of the third quarter up in Boone in the opener this year. … They took Liberty and Coastal to the wire last year with all their guys back this year.
“Obviously I was very concerned going into the ball game. I thought our players responded great to get a win of any kind, but to get a win like that at home in the conditions weather-wise, that we were in — just a really, really solid performance by our players.”
G-W had eight fumbles and ECU recovered five.
Almost five inches of rain from Tropical Storm Ophelia made for treacherous conditions, but the Pirates (1-3) sailed through the storm.
Emphasis on improvement
The ECU coaching staff realized continued improvement would be vital in 2023 with 57 new players in the program and some key players no longer there.
“Our record’s not where we want it to be,” Houston said. “We wanted to come out of that non-conference portion better than we did when you look at that, but I think that we have improved every week.
“We’re figuring out more and more what lineups work together. We’re figuring out more and more who can do what because you don’t know. I mean, you can practice, practice, practice, but there’s a big difference when you get out there and there’s pressure and there’s fans and there’s meaning to the snaps and just some people just handle that differently than others. If you’ve never been in that situation, you wouldn’t understand. But there’s something to just being able to perform on that stage. We’re improving each week and finding out more and more who can (perform).
Alex Flinn started for the second straight game at quarterback, but Mason Garcia got a significant number of snaps.
It was the best combined effort by the duo.’
“I think they have both played better each week and I thought they, and again, I keep referencing the weather conditions because they were so extreme,” Houston said. “I thought they both did a great job with taking care of the football, but they both did a great job running our offense. They both did a great job with decision making and it resulted in just much better kind of cohesiveness with our offensive unit all night. You could see it, anybody could see it, that we flowed better all throughout the night offensively.”
Fresh start in AAC
The start of American Athletic Conference play for the Pirates comes with ECU seeking its first win at Rice Stadium. The series is knotted 2-2 with the home team prevailing in each matchup.
“Our players, we talked about it on Sunday and it’s the conference opener,” Houston said. “It’s on the road. It’s a very good team in Rice at a place that I think ECU has had a lot of struggles in the past, so it’s going to be a tremendous challenge on Saturday, but our kids are excited about the beginning of American Conference play.
Jonathan Tyler Daniels
Rice quarterback J.T. Daniels began his college career at Southern California. He transferred to Georgia and was a backup to Steson Bennett when the Bulldogs won the College Football Playoff in 2021. He played at West Virginia last year.
The Houston Chronicle reported early Wednesday that Daniels would be available against ECU after sustaining a leg injury late in a 42-29 loss at South Florida on Saturday.
“He’s probably one of the best arms in all college football,” Houston said. “He had 432 yards passing against South Florida Saturday night before he exited the game. He threw for 401 against Houston (43-41 Owls win). He’s surrounded by some playmakers. Luke McCaffrey is maybe the best receiver we’ve seen so far this year. Certainly has tremendous bloodlines with his dad and his brothers (including Christian McCaffrey, 49ers), but some of the plays he’s making in the passing game, along with their other skill kids certainly help take advantage of J.T.’s abilities.
“Whether he’s there or not, we’re up against a huge challenge, (A.J.) Padgett the backup, what I’ve got to see of him, he started some last year. Certainly, he was who they were depending on being the start of this year, if Daniels hadn’t transferred. He’s a very capable passer, a much better runner than Daniels, so we’ll have to prepare for the read option if that’s who is there. But we got to prepare for them to have J.T. Daniels because if he’s healthy and ready to go, he certainly presents a tremendous challenge.”
Running backs abound
Houston and staff have shown confidence in an abundance of running backs. North Carolina transfer Kamarro Edmonds saw his first action for ECU last week and scored twice. Rahjai Harris also had two TDs.
“It was great to see Raj again, have another solid night and probably his best performance of the year.” Houston said. “I thought he was really running the balls with intent, tremendous physicality. So, it was really good to see.
“Javious Bond had his first touchdown as a Pirate and another great night for him. And it was great to see Kamarro Edmonds get in there and play really, really well in the second half and show some flashes of what he could be. So, I’m glad we have the depth in that room that we have because you’re going to need those guys. Marlon (Gunn Jr.) was a little dinged up and Gerald (Green) was a little dinged up, and so during the college football season, you need depth in that running back room.”
Houston credited preparation in practice for the performance against Gardner-Webb. He commented on what will be involved in preparation this week.
“The focus is to continue to improve,” he said. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We’re still in the early parts of the season, so we’ve got to make sure that each day we’re focusing on improving. We’ve got to build on what we did last week.
“Obviously we have a tremendous challenge defensively this week with Rice averaging 35 points a game coming into the game.
“We’ve got to continue to evolve offensively to put more points on the board. We were able to get in the end zone more the other night, but we’ll obviously be a different kind of challenge this week with a very good Rice defense and doing it on the road. So, we just got to focus … on being better at it than we were last week.”
Houston analyzed factors that can produce a win this week.
“You’re on the road,” he said. “The first thing is just handling the environment. It’s a massive stadium down there. They don’t quite draw as well as we do, so might not do quite the energy that we’re accustomed to based on our first four games. We were at App and at Michigan and in two games in Dowdy-Ficklen. We’re going to have to have tremendous energy on the sideline and really do a great job of bringing the intensity with us.
“We’re going to have to do a great job offensively of building on what we did last week, which was executing at a higher level, not turning the ball over, having productive drives, being able to drive the football.
“Defensively, we’ve got to be able to defend the run well, but we’ve got to be able to combat that passing attack. We got to have an answer for McCaffrey and (Dean) Connors. They’re two big-play guys. They’re on offense and then our kicking game has been very solid through the first four games. It’ll be a big factor in this game. So just continuing to improve on special teams and being prepared to perform when the moment calls itself.”