Games three and four of the East Carolina University football schedule include two home matchups in Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) against Norfolk State University and then a quick turnaround against an American Athletic Conference (AAC) foe in the University of Central Florida.
The Pirates’ third matchup of the 2020 season will take place Sep. 19 against the Spartans in the setting of a Saturday matchup with a kickoff time that is currently listed as TBA. Make no mistake, this will be a day game for the Pirates and will possibly be televised on ESPN 3 if fans can’t make it to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Hosting an FCS opponent that hasn’t boasted a winning season since 2011 does not bring the hype that an opponent like North Carolina A&T State University offered in 2018 or head coach Mike Houston’s championship caliber James Madison University Dukes did in 2017.
Regardless, Houston and the Pirates have yet to prove they can afford to take any opponent lightly. Early last season, the Pirates barely edged the College of William and Mary out by two scores and even after they showed great improvement and seemed to have found an identity on offense, the Pirates still had a tough time putting away the University of Connecticut in the latter stages of the year.
The Spartans’ last season allowed more points per game from opponents than they themselves could muster. Opponents averaged 29.1 points per game while NSU averaged just under that mark at 28.9, a metric you would expect from a team that finished with a losing record of 5-7. The Pirate offense that returns a healthy senior running back in Darrius Pinnix Jr. and a seasoned junior quarterback in Holton Ahlers will do numbers against NSU.
The two squads do share a common opponent from last season as both teams traveled to Old Dominion University. The Spartans met with ODU first in the first game of the season and lost 24-21. The Pirates met with the Monarchs and won 24-21 to mark their third win of the season. The similarity in results against a shared opponent can be disheartening, but the Pirates met with ODU in week five while NSU saw a less prepared ODU in week one.
ECU will not disappoint against Norfolk State and will earn its second win of the season against the Spartans in a solid three or four score blowout.
After the win over NSU in week three, the Pirates will welcome UCF to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in a Thursday night matchup on Sep. 24. Neither team has a bye week scheduled for the week before they meet so that is fortunate both.
The Knights will be playing on Friday the week before they travel to Greenville so they have a slight advantage there, but this game will still likely be a bit messy as both teams and coaching staffs will have to scramble to prepare for each other during the shortened week.
The Pirates were outclassed last season in a Thursday night matchup against Temple University and lost to the Owls 27-17. ECU has also had a tough time when taking on UCF, having only won a single game in the last five meetings with the Knights. The last time the Pirates defeated the Knights was in 2015 when ECU won by a score of 44-7. Every season since the blowout win from the Pirates has seen the opposite result.
It's an unfortunate recent history for the Pirates in both Thursday night games and matchups with the Knights, but last season’s final score against the Knights doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. The score at the end of the first half was 35-6 in favor of the Knights, but the Pirates made an outstanding push in the second to make it a 41-28 loss.
The Knights are now two full seasons removed from former head coach Scott Frost, who led them to a 13-0 season in 2017. Current head coach Josh Huepel has done a great job filling Frost’s shoes, having led the Knights to a 12-1 season in 2018 and a 10-3 season in 2019, but perhaps this season will expose some chinks in the Knights’ armor under Huepel’s guidance.
The Knights will also enter the 2020 season with some potential for quarterback controversy while the Pirates are set on Holton Ahlers and are confident in him at the position. Sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel played exceptionally well for Huepel and UCF last season, but former starting quarterback and senior McKenzie Milton is looking to make a comeback this season after a sickening knee injury nearly left him an amputee.
The questions in the quarterback room and Huepel’s downward trend, albeit a small sample size, is evidence enough to suggest that the Pirates will finally steal one in a Thursday night matchup and against the Knights. The win against UCF will be ECU’s third win of the season and last home game before going on a two game road spell.