For the final time in 2019, the East Carolina University (4-7, 1-6 AAC) football team will strap on its shoulder pads and do battle. Their opponent, the University of Tulsa (3-8, 1-6 AAC), is the only thing that stands between the Pirates and a five-win season.
“The thing that concerns you is, you look at both sides of the ball and it’s the same on both sides of the ball, they have a handful of the best players in this league,” Pirate head coach Mike Houston said.
Despite rolling into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with a 3-8 record, the Golden Hurricane have seemingly received the short-end of the scheduling stick this season. Of their 11 opponents in 2019, eight are bowl eligible while Tulsa’s first five games of the campaign saw them matchup against undefeated programs.
All told, four of Tulsa’s eight losses have come against top-25 teams. Like ECU earlier in the year against the University of Cincinnati (10-1, 7-0 AAC) and Southern Methodist University (9-2, 5-2 AAC), the Golden Hurricane have failed to be blown out by nationally ranked opponents.
In Tulsa’s three losses to ranked conference opponents this season, only 18 combined points have separated them from victories.
“I think we’ve got our hands full, Tulsa is a good football team,” Houston said. “We went over it the other day, just how talented, what a good team they are, they’ve had some tough losses. We’ve got our hands full. I think our kids are going to play really hard on Saturday. I think that we’re going to give them our best shot, we’ll see if that’s good enough.”
Ranked as having the 12th best strength of schedule by Cody Kellner’s Points Index Strength of Schedule Ratings heading into the final week of the regular season, the Golden Hurricane possess just as much big play ability as any team the Pirates have faced in 2019.
Built on the back of upperclassmen, Tulsa has seen only three true freshman step onto the field this fall, with none of them playing in more than three games.
Redshirt junior quarterback Zach Smith, who will enter Saturday with 2,948 passing yards to his credit, has racked up the 18th-most passing yards in the nation. A transfer from Baylor University (10-1, 7-1 Big 12), Smith possesses 14 passing touchdowns and ranks fifth in the American Athletic Conference, averaging 268 passing yards per game.
“Coach (Philip) Montgomery has a background being the offensive coordinator at Baylor for coach (Art) Briles when they were really rolling,” Houston said. “They run that style of offense. It’s going to be a tempo, check-with-me offense. They’re going to put their foot on the gas at certain points, they’re going to check with the sideline at other points.”
Tulsa can run that up-tempo offense because of some dynamic playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. At the top of the Golden Hurricane’s statistics sheet in the receiver column is junior wide receiver Keylon Stokes. Credited with four 100-yard games this season, Stokes has accounted for all five of Tulsa’s 50-plus yard passes this season.
Averaging nearly 88 receiving yards per game, Stokes finds himself ranked fourth in the conference in that category while at the same time slotting in at sixth in receptions per game (5.3) and fourth in all-purpose yards per game (126).
“Keylon Stokes is one of the better receivers we’ve seen all year,” Houston said. “The rest of their (Tulsa) personnel is very good, the rest of their personnel are solid players in this league. But when you talk about having guys that are some of the best players we’ve seen at their respective positions all year, it worries you with their big play ability, especially with that tempo offense.”
On the ground, Tulsa’s amount of talent does not decrease. With a tandem of junior running backs in Shamari Brooks and Corey Taylor II, the Golden Hurricane have one of the better one-two punches in the league.
Combined, Brooks and Taylor have 1,238 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, accounting for nearly 94% of Tulsa’s yards on the ground this season. Career-wise, that duo has racked up 3,921 combined rushing yards and 44 touchdowns, including 16 100-yard performances on the ground.
Sitting at 844 yards for the campaign, Brooks is undoubtedly the bell-cow for Montgomery’s offense. His six touchdowns pace the team while his three 100-plus yard rushing games this season helped him move into ninth on the program’s all-time rushing list with 2,498 career yards.
To compliment what they do on offense, Tulsa’s defense centers around a handful of top-tier players.
From his defensive end position, senior Trevis Gipson has recorded 15 tackles for loss and eight sacks. That first number places him 17th in the nation and pushes his career total to 25.5 tackles for loss.
“Our focus just goes now for the coaches - the anxiety of wow have you seen this No. 15 they got? They got an unbelievable defensive lineman, all my things are turned toward how are we going to block him,” offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “They’re a team like us in that they’re better than their record. Their defense worries us a lot, that steals my joy right now.”
Certainly, Gipson’s play has influenced the way teams game plan as he remains a force to be reckoned with on the field.
Aside from his tackles for loss, Gipson is currently 10th on NCAA’s active player list with eight career forced fumbles, a product of his many quarterback hits over the years. To go along with that, senior middle linebacker Cooper Edmiston is one tackle short of 100 for the season while sophomore linebacker Zavan Collins has racked up 88 tackles thus far in 2019, the second most on the roster.
For Edmiston and 15 other Tulsa players, as well as 16 ECU seniors, Saturday will mark the final game of their respective collegiate careers. While Tulsa has already conducted their Senior Day festivities, the final game of the 2019 season at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium will provide the Pirates an opportunity to send their seniors off on a good note.
“These young men have been through a lot in their careers here,” Houston said of his senior class. “The one thing that stood out to me was when I talked to them last December, this group was adamant about they wanted to leave the program in better shape than they found it and they did not want to leave the program in the way that it was last December.”
WIth a fourth win under their belts following last weeks 31-24 victory over the University of Connecticut (2-9, 0-7 AAC), ECU’s senior class achieved its highest single-season win total after a trio of 3-9 campaigns.
More than just a win total, however, a noticeable culture shift has taken place in Greenville, one that has seen the players, no matter their class, buy-in to ensure the best on-field product possible.
“Sure, we had goals that we’re not going to achieve this year, but we still have some goals that we can achieve,” Houston said. “The big thing for me is paying tribute to these young men and the positive impact they have been, not only on this year’s team, but on this program and they’ve been great ambassadors for this university.”
The Pirates plan to honor their 16 seniors with a pregame ceremony ahead of Saturday’s noon kickoff with the Golden Hurricane inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.