East Carolina is preparing to take the national stage as it hosts Southern Methodist on Thursday night for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff. The American Athletic Conference contest will be shown on ESPN.
“I know it’s Monday to most people,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston from TowneBank Tower at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. “It’s Wednesday to us. We’ve got Wednesday afternoon practice this afternoon. The kids have had a good week so far, so we’re excited about getting out there this afternoon and then tomorrow will be a Thursday — getting out there to sharpen everything up for us before getting ready for the game Thursday night.
“Obviously, a challenging opponent, SMU is a quality football team. They have had some quality wins so far this year and a couple of tight losses against very good opponents. Big challenge Thursday night, excited to be back in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. It’ll be exciting to get the student body as always. They are rowdy for these Thursday night games so really looking forward to the Boneyard rockin’. The players are excited about the match-up and we’ll be excited to be on the field, so looking forward to it.
The Mustangs are 3-2 overall and 1-0 in the AAC in their last season before moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference. SMU is averaging 33.8 points while yielding 18.4.
“Very athletic on all three levels,” Houston said of the Mustangs’ defense. “Up front, they’re down two really good rushers on the edge. I feel like No. 40 (Elijah Chatman) has been there for five years. He’s just a very disruptive guy inside. I think they have great length, great athleticism and run really well. It’s probably the best defense that I’ve seen them have since we’ve been playing them.”
ECU has had significant time to prepare. The Pirates haven’t played since a 24-17 loss in their league opener at Rice on Sept. 30.
There was a lot of scrimmaging on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week.
“I thought we had a positive week,” Houston said. “We were able to really focus on certain situations. Each day we kind of broke it up to address the things we wanted to, so it was kind of a little bit of SMU last week, then a lot of us last week. Over the weekend, we got fully back into SMU. I thought the guys were very energized (Sunday) afternoon, so we feel good coming out of the bye getting ready for Thursday night.”
Houston said the Pirates took a look at the components that have produced a 1-4 start.
“We looked back at all the games we’ve played so far,” he said. “Obviously, you can look at some areas where we need to play better and really identify them. We scripted out practice to where we were good on good for those different situations.
“You look at last week’s practice all three days, we really put the kids in competitive situations in doing the things we need to improve on. I thought it was a very positive week to come out of and got a lot of great, teachable film from all the things and scenarios we addressed last week.”
Senior safety Julius Wood is ECU’s leader in total tackles with 36, including 19 solo stops.
“A driven competitor,” Houston said of Wood. “If you see him out there, for a defensive back he’s got an edge and intensity to him that’s more like an inside linebacker. He’s a great teammate. He’s awesome in our locker room, but when he steps on that field he competes at a really, really high level.”You look at his play and it’s a reflection of all the work he puts in on the practice field.
“We go out there (Monday) afternoon and every rep he’s in there, it’s going to be focused. He’s going to be communicating and he’s going to play wide open. Those habits that he’s developed over the years in practice have translated into a really solid player. Excited for him and the way he’s playing and hope he continues to play at that level.”
Houston summed up the challenge of defending SMU quarterback Preston Stone, who has completed 94 of 160 passes for 1,191 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“He’s a really good athlete,” said the ECU coach. “He runs really well and throws it really well. He can really hurt you in the pocket. I think he does a good job. It’s a fast tempo. We faced Gardner-Webb earlier this year and SMU is every bit as fast or faster with how they try to snap the football.
“The running back (Jaylan Knighton) has been dynamic, and I think No. 13 (wide receiver Roderick Daniels, Jr.) has been dynamic. They try to get him the ball in a lot of different situations. Then No. 82 (R.J. Maryland), the big tight end, is a great receiving threat. I think they have weapons all across the board and the combination of the quarterback’s athleticism, the weapons, and then the tempo. We’ll be challenged Thursday night to slow them down.”
Youth has its days
Younger players in the Pirate program got more reps during the bye week.
“The big thing from last week is you had a chance to let the kids that are being redshirted be able to run our offense, run our defense and let them kind of go at each other a little bit each day,” Houston said. “The travel team guys really get excited watching those young guys get out there and play, and I thought that the young guys really responded.
“Back during preseason camp when you try to do that, they’re still trying to figure things out like how to be a college player and now you’re half a season in and they’ve got their feet a little more on the ground. For (freshman quarterback) Raheim (Jeter), those reps are so valuable for him and those young linebackers, those young D-linemen, a couple of those young offensive linemen. I’m really excited about that class and what they will be one day for the Pirates.”
Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in general and the student section in particular have the potential to impact games and outcomes.
“I think that student section down there is kind of the backbone of our program,” Houston said. “When we get a big win at home, the players go straight down there to celebrate with the band and the students. You have recruits on campus, and they always talk about how energetic our student section is, so I think we’re fortunate to have that kind of support from our student body.
“These Thursday night games when some of our fans may not be able to make it, they really bring the energy and make the stadium that much more electric, which it should be Thursday night. It’s a primetime matchup, a nationally-televised game against a really good conference opponent. They’ll be back fresh off fall break, so they’ll be rested up and ready to go. I don’t know how much professors are going to get out of them on Friday, but it should be a good scene Thursday night.”