East Carolina meets Charlotte in football for the first time on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium (ESPN+). It also marks the first time the Pirates have played an in-state opponent in an American Athletic Conference game.
Both teams are 1-5 overall and 1-2 in the AAC. ECU is a 7-point favorite.
“Excited to be back at home this weekend with a matchup against Charlotte,” said Pirates coach Mike Houston on Tuesday. “Should be great weather for the game, which is good. We’ve had a couple of rainy games here at home so far this year so it should be great weather for a great matchup. The kids are preparing right now. We should have a great practice this afternoon, and we’re looking forward to a great week.”
Sophomore quarterback Mason Garcia saw extensive action in a 31-10 home loss to Southern Methodist on Thursday, Oct. 12, completing 12 of 26 passes for 155 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He ran 12 times for 38 yards with a touchdown on a 6-yard keeper on a 4th-and-2 in the second quarter that trimmed SMU’s lead to 14-10.
“I thought Mason certainly did some positive things both in the run game and the passing game against SMU. Like I’ve said virtually every week, he continues to improve so we’re excited about that. He’s highly motivated to build off of that performance and be ready to go this Saturday.”
Garcia looked more comfortable directing the offense.
“Coach (Donnie) Kirkpatrick (offensive coordinator) and I have talked about that,” Houston said. “I think when Mason is relaxed and composed, he has done some really, really good things. I think he gets excited. He’s very motivated to be great and to help our team. Certainly, the other night coming off the bench he was very effective.”
The Pirates will celebrate Homecoming on Saturday, but Houston is wary of the occasion being a distraction.
“Homecoming is for the fans, alumni, for everybody in the area,” said the fifth-year ECU coach. “For us, our job is to go out and try to win the football game, so really the game isn’t different than any other weekend. We can certainly try to make it a great weekend for our alumni by getting a victory on the field, but we don’t need to be caught up in any of the stuff going on around anything with the game other than what happens on the field.”
Facing a 4th-and-2 at the ECU 33 with 6:29 left to play, the Pirates opted to punt with the Mustangs holding a 24-10 lead. Houston explained the decision.
“I think there is a line between being aggressive and doing what you think is best to help you win.” he said. “I think that every situation is different. We spend a lot of time preparing for those situations and you take a lot of factors into play. The play you’re referencing is seven minutes to go, fourth and two from the minus-33, so fairly deep in our own territory. We have all three timeouts, so the question there is if you go for it and get it, great, you extend the drive that you’re in.
“If you go for it and don’t get it, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball pretty firmly. That deep, you’re hoping to limit them to a field goal at that point. It’s a two-possession game right now. Another score takes it to be a three-possession game. With the way we had played defensively for the last several quarters, especially in the second half, really, they hadn’t moved the ball at all in the second half, and the last two plays we hadn’t gained a yard.
“We felt like right there with all three timeouts, our best course of victory and winning the ball game was to punt it away, use our timeouts and try to get the ball back with five plus minutes to play in better field position with a fresh set of downs. Now it didn’t work out for us. If we’re sitting here having the same discussion and it did work out for us, then it’d be a great call. But that’s the thing you deal with every time.
“It’s no different than going for it fourth and one down in the red zone instead of taking the field goal. Certainly, you converted that one and made a great decision. Now, if you don’t then it’s not such a great decision, so it’s what we deal with. We’ve looked at our stats and we’re converting about 44 percent on the year on fourth down. I know that it’s easy for someone to sit there after the game and evaluate the decision, be very critical of it, but we spend a lot of time each week preparing for those situations both analytically and in practice so there’s a lot that goes into that decision.”
Alex Flinn lost a fumble after a video review in the fourth quarter last Thursday. Houston discussed the sequence when asked if the Pirates could have snapped the ball before play was halted for a replay evaluation.
“They will not let you snap that ball,” Houston said. “We were trying to get there pretty quick. We had been huddling the whole night, so the guys went to the huddle as they always had done. That was a part of our game plan. Everybody on the headset had urgency. The kids got up there pretty quick, but they are not going to let you snap that ball.
“If you watch college football across the country, they’re going to wait until you get right up there and they’ll probably even let the ball get snapped, but they’re going to buzz it. When I’m talking to the officials on the sidelines when it’s a questionable call like that, I’m asking the officials ‘Are they looking at it?’ and what they’ll do is if he says they’re looking at it, they’re getting ready to buzz it they won’t let you snap that ball. If he says it’s already been cleared and confirmed, then they’ll let it go ahead and snap.”
Midshipmen win in Charlotte
The 49ers are coming off a 14-0 home loss to Navy on Saturday. Trexler Ivey and Jalon Jones have each seen considerable time at quarterback for Charlotte. Jones is the team’s leading rusher.
“We put stock into who’s on the field,” Houston said. “That game was 0-0 for much of the game. Charlotte did miss a lot of wide-open receivers down the field where if they connect those it’s a different game. They went with a different quarterback Saturday too, so there’s lots of things you’re evaluating because their offense does change depending on which quarterback is in. Certainly, we’ve looked at that film a good bit.
“We’ve looked at SMU, Florida, Maryland, Georgia State and South Carolina State film. We’ve looked at all of those and really evaluated who they are based on their personnel and their execution. Certainly, it was a great win by Navy and could have easily been a great win for Charlotte on Saturday with Navy really only having the two big plays.”
The Pirates work on taking care of the ball.
“We spend a good part of practice each week on ball security and traffic,” Houston said. “We have a drill that we’re going to do, offense vs defense. This is not a live team setting deal. This is in addition to that. They’re trying to punch at (the ball) repeatedly and it’s very aggressive.
“There are mechanics that we teach and that we drill each week in that setting, and then re-teach in the good-on-good setting how we want the ball secured in that exact situation. When we don’t do a great job with those mechanics, that results in a turnover, so I think it’s a teachable moment that we aren’t applying the proper fundamentals that we teach in practice.
“This is why it’s important and this is what happens when we don’t use those proper fundamentals. Obviously, we have to do a better job coaching it to ensure that they’re always used in that situation.”
State of the offense
The Pirates were in the game for longer than the final score might indicate against SMU.
“Obviously it was not good enough,” Houston said of the offense. “We were facing the best defense we’ve seen since Michigan, so we did a lot of positive things offensively. At the end of the day, the game was 14-10 in the fourth quarter and we’re driving. I think when that turnover occurred, we were on the 43-yard line and had already gained the first down, so you’re sitting there where you may be getting ready to drive down and take the lead in the fourth quarter against one of the best teams in our conference. We have to improve on that performance. We have to eliminate the turnovers in those critical situations. We’ve got to do a better job of getting points on the board.”
Houston has seen some of the program’s younger additions step up.
“I’m excited about a lot of the young players we have,” he said. “We continue to have some guys go out there and get some valuable experience in their first year as Pirates. Antoine Jackson (true freshman), yeah, he gave up the double move early in the ball game. We spent the whole bye week talking to him about having disciplined eyes because the number one thing for a secondary player is they can’t have dirty eyes. They’ve got to have great eyes in the secondary. He let it lapse right there and it cost us a touchdown, but I think it’s a valuable lesson for him. It’s painful for him to learn and for us to experience, but those are the ones you learn the best from. I can tell you stuff over and over again but when you’re living it that really reinforces it and I thought he really responded positively to that early in the ball game and came back and played very well through the balance of the game.
“I thought Isaiah Brown-Murray (freshman defensive back) had a very solid night and that’s another young corner who has really rebounded after a bit of a rocky start early in the year. He’s going to be a very solid player for us. Shavon (Revel, junior transfer from Louisburg) is in his first year of starting and he did get some playing experience in the second half of last year after he was healthy, but he’s another one. Gave up a ball there early in the game on a phenomenal catch by the SMU receiver and after that did a really fantastic job through the balance of the game.
“Now I would like to see him catch a couple of those that he made great plays on and convert those into turnovers for the Pirates. Obviously, that would be a big swing in the ball game, but I thought those guys competed very well and it was obvious that SMU really wanted to attack them. I’m glad that our guys were ready for the opportunity and responded the way they did.”
Fourth quarter disparity
ECU has been outscored, 54-8, by Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in the fourth quarter this season.
“I think there’s a lot that goes into guys being comfortable and being able to perform at a high level in those pressure situations,” Houston said. “The only way they’re going to get there is by being in those pressure situations. I think that the more we’re in those situations, the more comfortable some of our guys are going to get.
“We’ve played six games now and been in those situations a lot, so I’m hoping that starting with this weekend we’re going to play much better. It’s a combination of experience and a group gelling together just performing at a higher level. That’s our goal for this week and that’s what we’re working very hard towards.”
The 49ers have a first-year coach, former Michigan associate head coach Franis Xavier “Biff Poggi.
“We got a chance to spend some time together at the conference meetings this summer and I really enjoyed my interactions with him,” Houston said. “He has been incredibly successful over the span of his life before football in the business area and then moving over to a second career in high school and college football.
“Obviously, you’re not as successful as he has been unless you’re a pretty sharp guy and really have a great understanding of how to work with and manage people. I think he’s done a great job putting that roster together. He overhauled the roster significantly. There are 50-60 new guys on that roster, and they’ve come from a lot of different places. He brought a lot of his guys that played for him at St. Francis, and he’s put together a very talented group. I know that they’ve been close in a lot of games with a very tough schedule. He’s working hard to get things going there. I think he’s great for that program and that university and I’m looking forward to seeing him again this Saturday.”
True freshman running back Javious Bond went out in the early stages last week but is progressing.
“Javious’s injury was not significant,” Houston said. “He’s day to day right now so hoping to get him back pretty quick. Hindsight always causes you to wish, ‘Well gosh I wish I hadn’t done that’ but me, Coach (Nick) Saban (Alabama), Coach (Kirby) Smart (Georgia), coaches across the country, you’re going to put your best players on the field in situations where they’ll be impactful.
‘You see it all across college football, and with us too, that we’re going to play our best players that give us a chance to be impactful. We do look at snap counts a lot with all of our guys and whose getting snaps where. With Javious being a freshman, his first snaps were coming on special teams, and he’s been highly impactful all year. He’s been a significant guy on kickoff return and his abilities there. He’s actually our leading tackler on our kickoff team and I’ve joked around that he’d be a really good defensive back for us.
“He was a very good tackler in high school and a very good defensive back in high school. You hate to see a guy get dinged up but that is part of our sport, and you always have to be prepared for it. You’re always going to do what is best to give yourself a chance to be highly impactful and I think he has been very impactful. Probably more so on special teams than he has been anywhere else, although he was starting to show some things on offense. We look forward to getting him back in both areas here soon.”