Tulane eluded an upset bid by East Carolina on Saturday, keeping its chances for a New Year’s Six bowl alive with a 13-10 road win.
The Green Wave (8-1) moved up a notch in the College Football Playoff rankings this week to No. 23 after keeping possession for the last 7:17 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium (1-8).
Tulane, Southern Methodist and Texas-San Antonio are all 5-0 in the American Athletic Conference.
The Pirates are 0-5 in the AAC with another opportunity this week to get their first win of the season against a Football Bowl Subdivision foe on a trip to Florida Atlantic (4-5, 3-2) with a Saturday kickoff at 4 p.m. (ESPN+).
“It was disappointing to not get the win this past weekend,” said ECU coach Mike Houston at his weekly news conference. “It was a great day for college football. We had great weather, the stadium was electric from the beginning, and as I said in my postgame, I appreciate the fan support that was out here. The student body showed up and just created a great atmosphere in the stadium along with the way our team was performing.
“Very good Tulane football team, I think ranked 21st (AP and Coaches polls) in the country coming in here, and our kids went out and played their tails off. We had a shot to win the ball game in the fourth quarter. We went into the fourth tied at 10 then had the ball across midfield down, 13-10, and, unfortunately, could not get that drive down in the end zone and come away with what would have been a great home victory and a great way to celebrate with Pirate Nation.
“That’s probably the toughest thing about it. I hate that we weren’t able to give our kids and our fans that were here on Saturday the ability to celebrate a huge home win. The players have been very resilient and came back with a great attitude on Sunday.
“In looking at the film, I think we’ve got a lot of stuff we can build on. Obviously, we have a lot of stuff we need to correct.
“Excited about the matchup this week against a very talented FAU team down in Boca Raton. We played down there last year against South Florida during the hurricane, so we at least know the facility, the stadium and the locker room area and everything like that.
“The players are excited about the matchup, so I expect us to have a great practice (Tuesday) and a solid week. I expect us to go down there and play very well on Saturday.”
Owls use portal
Florida Atlantic quarterback Daniel Richardson transferred from Central Michigan.
“(Richardson) was the starter at Central Michigan, transferred to FAU and has played the bulk of the season this year,” Houston said. “He has played very well. Fairly mobile guy, athletic, throws the ball very well in the pocket. Obviously, they have one of the top receivers (LaJohntay Wester) in the country. He’s already gone for over 1,000 yards this year, so he’s got a lot of weapons around him.
“I like both of their running backs. The starter, 3 (Larry McCammon III), is a very solid player, has 700 yards rushing or so on the year. Really like the other kid (Kobe Lewis), the transfer from Purdue. He comes in, he’s a big, powerful back. Played very well in the second half against UAB last week. I think they wore UAB down and he was gashing them there in the fourth quarter, and they just weren’t able to pull that one out.
“They are a very talented offense and have played fairly well here over the last month. They didn’t play very well against UTSA but other than that one have played very well over the last month.”
Houston shared his thoughts on a fast start which led to a 10-0 first quarter lead last week.
“I think we were playing a very talented defensive team, and I think that’s the start of the challenge we had,” said the Pirates coach. “I thought we came out and played very well up front the first quarter. I thought we had running room. Our running backs were playing with a lot of energy.
“I thought Alex (Flinn) was doing a great job in the pocket. I thought we had guys making catches, making contested catches down the field where we generated a couple of big plays. Jaylen (Johnson) had a big reception and then Chase (Sowell), that reception that got the ball down to the one on the second drive was a great play right there. We were just kind of clicking on all cylinders.
“What happened after the first quarter, I think Tulane did a really good job of driving the football and, to a degree, playing a little bit of keep away from us. We got three possessions in the second half and that’s it, one in the third quarter and two in the fourth. They did a good job keeping the ball away from us and we weren’t able to extend drives and create explosive plays like we did in the first two possessions of the ball game.
“Even still, we had the chance there in the fourth quarter with the ball across midfield to do something right there to put us back in the lead. That’s where you’ve got to make those plays at that point. We just weren’t able to convert the third or fourth down right there.”
Value of practice
Houston credited ECU’s preparation for the Tulane game.
“I thought we had a great week of practice,” Houston said. “It was probably our best solid week total that we’ve had all season and I think the players were very ready to play on game day. I do think we’re starting to get better cohesion with our offensive unit, so I think it’s a lot of things.
“The players do feel like they’re improving, and I think that you can look at the performance over the last several weeks and see where that’s the fact. We’ve just got to continue to build on that, and that’s what I challenged them with Sunday. That’ll be the focus of our team meeting (Tuesday). I think they’re very motivated.
“This group cares tremendously about this program and about each other, and they want to go out and play at a level that we all desire for East Carolina football. So, I expect us to have a solid week this week and to play better this weekend than we did last Saturday.”
ECU has not played winning football in the late stages of games this season.
“We kind of went through this a little bit in 2020 where we had a lot of close losses and were learning how to win,” Houston said. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys on our roster that have won. There are a bunch of those guys on defense that have been a part of two straight bowl trips.
“You have a lot of offensive guys that are in that role for the first time. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to win the ball game in the fourth quarter for the last month. We’ve got to make it over that hump. That’s just it. You’ve got to make that play on third down to extend the drive. You’ve got to make that contested catch on fourth, or you’ve got to make that block at that crucial moment.
“Until you make those plays, you haven’t made those plays. I hope we can build on that performance. I think the kids feel more confident in themselves. A solid week of practice would set us up to play very well on Saturday. Now, we have our hands full with a team that has a lot of playmakers all over the place and has an athletic defense.
“We’re going to have to go down there and play our best game of the year in order to have a shot to win. I can promise you that’s their motivation.”
Junior defensive lineman D’Anta Johnson has three sacks this season.
“I think D’Anta is playing probably his best ball of his career right now,” Houston said. “He’s a guy that has had his big shining moments in the past, but has had a little bit of the injury bug but has always battled back.
“He’s playing his best ball right now and he certainly had a great performance this past Saturday with two sacks. He’s a big, physical kid that has a great motor. The thing I love about him is just him as a person. He is such a positive leader for us out on that practice field and in our locker room — just an enjoyable guy to be around every day. Certainly, I think he’s playing at a very high level right now.”
Third team quarterback Raheim Jeter has been viewed as a possible solution to ECU’s struggles at quarterback.
“We all have to keep in mind that he’s a true freshman.” Houston said. “He’s been getting reps with the travel squad throughout most of the year. With each week, we’re always going to do whatever is best for our program to put us in a situation to win on game day.
“If he’s part of that, then that’s what we’ll do, and if he’s not then we won’t. I continue to be pleased with his progress. We have had to intentionally hold him to a degree because we do want to protect the redshirt. He’s a young guy and you want to make sure that you have the availability of his eligibility for when he is ready, and you want to try to maximize that for as many years as you can. Very encouraged by him and we’ll see how he does in practice this week.”
Houston confirmed that defensive end Jack Powers won’t play again.
“He didn’t get that news confirmed until late yesterday, but I guess it’s okay to let everybody know.,” said the Pirates coach. “Yeah, you can’t sit here and ask yourself, ‘Why me?’ because that’s what happens when guys are in those situations. He’s a guy that pours everything into it. He’s a very positive leader in our locker room and he plays the game the way you want him to play.
“I sat down with him yesterday evening after we got confirmation of what was going on with him and just talked through his season and what he had done in his time here. Then we talked about what his next steps are, and his primary focus right now is to support his teammates and to support our program and to continue to be a strong leader.
“Then he and I and all the people around our program are going to work with him on what’s the next step in life for him. That’s what we try to do with all of our guys that are transitioning on from football. Certainly, I’m thankful for the two years we’ve had with him. He’s an outstanding young man in addition to being a positive impact player for us on the field.”
Keaton keeping on
Keaton Mitchell ran for 1,499 yards and 14 touchdowns for ECU in 2022. He had nine carries for 138 yards for Baltimore in a 37-3 win over visiting Seattle on Sunday. Mitchell had a 40-yard run for his first NFL touchdown late in the third quarter.
“It was good to see,” Houston said. “I got to catch some of the highlights when I got home Sunday night. My 14-year-old had been watching all of it. It was great to see Keaton getting a shot and doing the things we all watched Keaton do for the last several years here.
“I messaged with him (Monday) morning just about how proud I was of him, and to keep doing his thing and I know he will. I’m just excited for the opportunity he’s getting. You just hoped that he was going to get a solid shot and he’s getting that shot and he’s making the most of it. That’s all you can ask for in his position. Excited to see what he does from here on out.”
Green means go
Georgia Southern transfer Gerald Green scored his first touchdown for the Pirates last week.
“I think he brought some positive energy, just some fresh legs,” Houston said. “He was very frustrated being out for as long as he was, but he’s come back really excited and enthusiastic and playing at a very high level.
“It was great to see him get in there and get in the end zone for the first time as a Pirate and he was excited about that. I told him to feel free to do it more than once now. I think he’s brought a little bit of positive juice to that room, and I thought that he and Rahjai (Harris) both did a really nice job on Saturday.”
The silver lining of Powers’ status has been the emergence of freshman outside linebacker Samuel Dankah.
“It’s huge,” Houston said. “He’s been having a solid season, playing a lot on special teams and playing some on defense also. I know he’s hungry to get out there and play more on defense and he’ll get that opportunity.
“Jack (Powers) and Jeremy (Lewis) have been playing at a very high level, been very pleased with how they’ve been playing so Sam’s got to make sure he has the week of practice to prepare to go out there and play at that same high level. That’s always the challenge for guys when they’re young is you know you can’t have a drop off. You have to play at the same level as the guys that you’re going in there for.
“I think he’ll be able to do that, and I know that Coach (Tim) Daoust (defensive ends coach) does an excellent job with those guys. He’ll push him to be ready.”