As the old adage goes, defense wins championships. In January, Clemson University (11-0, 8-0 ACC) capped off a perfect 15-0 season with a 44-16 rout of the University of Alabama (9-1, 6-1 SEC) to win the College Football Playoff National Championship.
In giving up those 16 points, the Tigers finished the 2018 campaign allowing just 13.1 points per game to opposing offenses, a number that paced the country. Further down on that list, East Carolina University (3-7, 0-6 AAC) slotted in at 121st out of the 130 FBS school by allowing 37.3 points every time out.
That number was accompanied by nearly 440 yards of offense given up and saw the Pirates finish the 2018 season ranked 122nd in the country in passing yards allowed (270.1 per game).
A 58-3 drubbing at the hands of North Carolina State University (4-6, 1-5 ACC) ensured the Pirates would rack up a third straight 3-9 season, as they lost seven of their final eight games.
With a new coach at the helm and five of its top-10 tacklers from a season ago gone, 2019 has always been viewed as something of a rebuilding year for ECU’s program.
Don’t waste time talking or complaining about what you don’t have; it will only be interpreted as a lack of commitment to the situation. Instead maximize the limitations and expose the need for improvements. Set goals and make gains...#LivingLifeinHD #AllGasNoBreaks— 'Big John' (@ECUBigJohn) November 18, 2019
Even so, two losses to nationally ranked opponents by a combined 11 points has begun vaulting the Pirates back into the national spotlight. Over 1,000 yards passing by sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers in the Pirates’ last two games, as well as a school-record six passing touchdowns against Southern Methodist University (9-1, 5-1 AAC), allowed ECU to rack up a combined 94 points.
Unfortunately for Pirate Nation that offensive effort, which included two 200-yard receiving games by underclassmen wide receivers, was in vain. While ECU scored nearly 100 points, its defense yielded 105 combined points, including 59 against the Mustangs in Dallas, Texas.
“Certainly, our coaches, our players, everyone wants to get the wins, that’s the key to the whole thing,” head coach Mike Houston said. “Offense, defense, it’s a team thing, everything is a team thing. All three phases have to work together, that’s one thing that we’ve made tremendous strides with is unifying our locker room and unifying the guys on our roster.”
After giving up well over 1,000 yards over the course of their last two games, not only do the Pirates sport a 3-7 record, but they also feature a defensive unit that has regressed instead of progressed this season.
Against the Mustangs, the Pirates yielded 222 rushing yards as part of the 636 total SMU hung on the afternoon. For the Pirates’ defense, that represented the fifth time an opponent had gained at least 200 yards on the ground this season, with NC State and the University of Central Florida (7-3, 4-2 AAC) falling just short of that plateau.
On the season, ECU’s defensive unit is giving up just over 206 rushing yards per contest, a mark that ranks 114th out of 130 FBS teams. With 2,061 total yards from their backs, opposing teams are gaining nearly five yards per carry against the Pirates, an uptick of more than half a yard compared to last season.
Tasked with stopping the run, ECU’s defensive line and linebacker corps has simply failed to get the job done. Junior linebacker Aaron Ramseur, the Pirates’ third leading tackler from a season ago, began 2019 buried in the depth chart. Even so, he had finally worked his way back into the rotation, drawing his first start of the season at middle linebacker against UCF.
Ramseur, however, was lost to injury only one game later, tearing his ACL against the University of South Florida (4-6, 2-4 AAC), leaving the Pirates’ linebacker corps in relatively inexperienced hands. Of the six players listed on the two-deep depth chart against SMU, sophomores Xavier Smith, Myles Berry, Delvontae Harris and Gerard Stringer as well as junior Warren Saba combined for only 48 tackles in 2018.
Despite junior linebacker Bruce Bivens continuing to place his name atop ECU’s tackle sheet week-to-week, the Pirates’ defense has struggled to find its footing.
With their lackluster effort against the rush, the Pirates have also struggled to keep opponents out of the end zone once they enter the red zone. Tied for 124th in the nation, ECU has allowed a red zone conversion rate of 92.1% (35-for-38) to opposing teams in 2019 and currently ranks 91st in third down conversion defense at 42.3% (60-for-142).
With their rush defense lacking compared to last season, the Pirates have actually stepped up in defending the pass. Ranked 122nd in the nation after allowing 270.1 passing yards per game last season, ECU has cut that number to 237.5 yards, good enough for 79th in the country. Still, opposing teams have racked up 234 first downs on the Pirates, and are still averaging close to 445 yards per contest.
Helping the Pirates cut down on the passing attack has been true freshman cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian. Having started every game thus far for coach Houston, McMillian is tied for fifth in the conference with 11 passes defended and is tied for fourth in the American Athletic Conference with three interceptions.
With the assistance from those picks, the Pirates have forced a takeaway in nine straight games after an interception against the Mustangs. That streak represents the longest since ECU managed at least one takeaway in 10 straight games during the 2013 campaign.
Even with that effort, combined with nine sacks from senior defensive end Kendall Futrell, the Pirates are still searching for consistency on the defensive side of the football 10 games into the season.
“I think it’s a group that’s continuing to work to try to improve every single day,” Houston said. “Continuing to try to get the point to be more consistent and performance at a much higher level.”
Without allowing the University of Cincinnati (9-1, 6-0 AAC) to drive the field in the waning minutes three weeks ago to kick a game winning field goal or the presence of critical mistakes against the Mustangs, the Pirates could very well find themselves sitting at 5-5 with two wins over quality opponents.
Instead, these next two contests, beginning with a matchup against the University of Connecticut (2-8, 0-6 AAC) on Saturday and concluding with a game against the University of Tulsa (3-7, 1-5 AAC) on Nov. 30, will provide ECU the chance to carry some momentum into 2020. Slated to be 13.5 favorites on the road against the Huskies this week, the Pirates will continue their search for an elusive fourth win that the program has failed to accomplish since 2015.
Kickoff between the Huskies and Pirates is scheduled for noon on Saturday.