East Carolina’s home field advantage at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is legendary. The Pirates are 201-118 since 1963 when playing within its supportive confines, a winning percentage of .632.
That compares with a road record of 152-210-3 (.416) during the same span.
But if there is a place that defies the numbers in terms of ECU’s pattern of success, it is Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis.
Recent home matchups have been more competitive at home, including a 27-23 loss in Mason Garcia’s first start at quarterback during the COVID season of 2020 and a 23-20 setback in double overtime last year.
In 2011, Dominique Davis completed an NCAA record 26 straight passes and Reggie Bullock ran three yards for the winning touchdown with 2:14 to go.
Owen Daffer kicked a 54-yard field goal as time expired in 2021 and was awarded a scholarship afterwards.
Daffer missed a tying 37-yard attempt in the second overtime against the Midshipmen in Greenville last year. Andrew Conrad won the placekicking job later in the season.
Conrad was instrumental in a 22-7 American Athletic Conference win at Florida Atlantic last week with a school record five field goals. The performance earned him AAC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.
The Pirates (2-8, 1-5 AAC) play at Navy (4-5, 3-3) on Saturday at noon (ESPN News).
As would be expected, last week’s win has had a positive effect.
“The sun is a little bit brighter this Tuesday than the past couple, so that’s good,” said ECU coach Mike Houston at his weekly news conference. “Really pleased with how our team prepared. We’ve been practicing a lot better the last three weeks. I think the Friday and Saturday preparation, the guys were really good. I knew we were ready to play. I knew we’d play well, but I think the energy, physicality, and intensity, which we talked about being a really big piece of the ball game this past weekend — I thought the players were just really dialed into that.
“I loved the way we started the game. Even when we didn’t get the 4th-and-2 on the initial drive, our defense responded right back. Then we had the big play on special teams with Julien Davis blocking a punt that gave us great field position. Gerald (Green) was able to get us in the endzone there to give us a 7-0 lead.
“Great start and really never looked back. Just very pleased special teams wise and defensively, particularly up front. I thought our kids did a good job handling (LaJohntay) Wester, who came into the game leading the nation in receiving. I think the coaches had a really good game plan for him. The players went out and executed it very well. Really pleased with the performance.
“It was good to get a win like that on the road against a team that is putting up big numbers, and at home, so just a really good win for our players. Excited to come off that. Now that’s in the rearview mirror and our focus is completely on Navy. Huge challenge up there in Annapolis. Very physical football team. They’re coming off a huge win against UAB which was not close, 31-6 win.
“They’re playing better and better. I think they’ve kind of settled on what they want to do with the quarterback position. Their line is playing very well which gives them big play potential. It’ll be tough, but it’s always tough up there. They have such tremendous tradition. It’s a special place to play, always a difficult ball game so we have a great challenge this week. The players are very excited about that.”
Confidence in Conrad
Houston did not lose faith in Conrad although he missed a pair of field goals in a 10-7 loss at home to Charlotte on Oct. 21, including a tying try from 48 yards with 34 seconds to go.
“I think one of my answers when you asked me after the Charlotte game was, ‘I have confidence in Andrew and his ability to bounce back’ because of his mentality,” Houston said. “He doesn’t flinch. He has been solid. He was solid the next day after that game, and I had confidence he would be.
“We continue to put him out there in those situations because we do have confidence in him. I think he handles himself the way you want all your players to handle themselves, so really, he’s no different than any other player that you have confidence in, in that he shows you every day what he’s going to do.
“When you talk to him, you can have feedback and conversation with him, and you’re not worried about him being fragile. He’s a tough-minded kid. That’s the perfect combination. He’s got the talent and the mentality.”
Navy is still running an option offense, which is seldom seen today, but with some tweaks.
“Well, they’re a little bit different than they have been in the past,” Houston said. “New head coach (Brian Newberry), new offensive coordinator (Grant Chesnut), Coach (Ken) Niumatalolo’s no longer there, and it’s going to be different there. Certainly, tremendous respect for him and everything he had done there, but it’s new now.
“Yeah, you still see some triple option, you still see some gun stuff, quarterback counter, power read, you see just a lot of different stuff that they’re doing offensively. And they are throwing the ball, so the challenge now is preparing for all of it. The triple option stuff is always a challenge to prepare for, but now you factor that in with everything else you’re having to prepare for and it’s a lot. We faced teams like this in the past and when they can do all of it well, it’s really challenging for your defensive players to play one thing one series and then be playing a different style the next snap.”
The Pirates will continue their quest for more offensive efficiency.
“I think we’ve just got to … maximize our possessions,” Houston said. “We can’t give any of them away. I think in this ball game, it’s going to be special teams, field position and turnovers. Those are going to be the key factors. We can’t give any of our possessions away, so we need to do a good job of ball security and decision making.
ECU was five for 17 on third down conversions at FAU.
“We’ve got to do a great job on third down,” Houston said. “We need to drive the football and take advantage of being able to convert any time we have those opportunities. We’re just going to have to maximize when we do get down in the red zone. We need to try to come away with more touchdowns when we get down there.”
The Pirates started early in their preparations for the Midshipmen.
“For the last month or so, we’ve been working on the Navy game plan on Sundays both with our defense and our scout team players,” Houston said. “I thought we had a fast start. You’re never going to be able to look just like they do, but I thought for a group of guys not running that offense, I thought they looked really good Sunday to be able to give us a decent look. (Tuesday and Wednesday) will be the big test because that’s the stuff in pads.
“You’re not playing tag against this team. It’s going to be a very physical football game, so we need to be prepared to play at a high level there, not only executing defensively but playing with that physicality.”
True freshman Antione Jackson, a highly regarded recruit, has earned his way into the lineup at cornerback.
“I think when you take a look at it and you factor in everything, he’s done really well,” Houston said. “It’s so hard for freshmen to play that first year. He’s got a good football head. He’s got knowledge. He’s a smart player for a young guy. Yeah, he’s made some mistakes, some classic freshman habits that you have to clean up, and he’s been hurt a couple of times because of that. But the great thing is, I think he learns from that.
“He’s not overly sensitive. When you correct him, he has dialogue with you and he wants to be great, so he takes coaching well. Probably the biggest thing he’s had to learn, which all freshmen have to learn, is how to take care of your body. They just have no clue what a college football season is like, so they don’t do a great job taking care of their body early on and it really catches up to them.
“That’s probably the biggest thing he’s had to learn. You’ve got to get your tail in the training room. If you weren’t playing this wouldn’t be an issue, so if you want to play you’ve got to get in there and take care of yourself. He’s been better with that the last couple of weeks, so I think overall you have to be very pleased with him right now. Last weekend was big for him, close to home, to be able to go down there and get a big win. He played well and I really think that was a good night for him.”
The Pirates withstood adversity before breaking through in Boca Raton last week.
“They were energetic Sunday, and I expect them to be energetic this afternoon,” Houston said. “They enjoyed that win down there Saturday night, and I think they’re hungry to do it again. After a bunch of close losses, that was a part of our pregame too, is I’m tired of being close. We need to get over the hump. We need to finish one of these games in the fourth quarter. It was great to be able to do that Saturday.
“Now the challenge is can we do it again this weekend. Certainly, we’ve got a different animal that we’re going against, so that’s even a greater challenge but they’ll be enthusiastic this week at practice, and I expect us to go up there and play really well.”
Former players in NFL
Several ECU players went to the NFL after the 2022 season.
“It’s great,” Houston said. “Isaiah Winstead was here for our last home game. It was great to see him. Excited about what his opportunities are in San Francisco.
“Keaton (Mitchell, Baltimore), I talked to him this weekend. He had another big weekend. He’s got a big game coming up Thursday night. Ja’Quan (McMillian, Denver) had a great weekend this past weekend, so just excited for them.
“You develop really close relationships with your players when you’re here, and it’s great to see them doing great things after leaving East Carolina University. I’ve talked to several former players today that are doing things non-football, and I’m excited for them and what they’re doing in their careers. That’s really the whole point of it. When they come here as freshmen, it’s making sure when they leave here, they’re prepared to live a very productive life and go chase their dreams. Excited for all those guys.”
Houston shared his thoughts on the defensive line as its gets ready for the pending matchup,
“They know the challenge,” Houston said. “I think that’s the great thing. They know the challenge. They know the physicality. They know they’re going to have to prepare.
“I think the other thing is they have played up there before, because you’re not just playing against Navy the football team. They march the corps in there. It’s a great setting. It’s going to be a very intense environment and at least we have some guys that have been in it before, so they’ll hopefully be a little more prepared for it.
“Certainly, I think it’s been one of the things that’s hurt us early this year is, you cannot put a value on experience. You can’t get experience until you get experience, so at least our defensive front has a lot of that.”