The East Carolina University (3-3, 0-2 AAC) football team entered its open date having already matched its 2018 win total just six games into this season. A rare win on the road over Old Dominion University (1-5, 0-2 C-USA) in Norfolk, Virginia during week five and a 10-point loss at the hands of Temple University has displayed the steps taken forward by the Pirates under first-year head coach Mike Houston.
“People can look at the score from the last couple of years and look at our score tonight (Oct. 3 against Temple) and say that the program is improving and that’s all fine and good, but you play the game to win,” Houston said following the loss to Temple. “That’s what we’re setting out to do and we’ve got to do things better if we’re going to win those ball games.”
Winning, at least to this point in the season, has come relatively easy for ECU. A blowout 48-9 win against Gardner-Webb University (3-3, 1-0 Big South) gave the Pirates their first of the 2019 campaign, while a 19-7 victory over the College of William & Mary was largely fueled by junior kicker Jake Verity. Add in the Pirates’ success over the Monarchs, and the program began its season 3-2 for the first time since 2015.
On the flip side, when ECU has faltered, it has been on the wrong end of some lopsided scores. A 34-6 loss in Raleigh, North Carolina to North Carolina State University (4-2, 1-1 ACC) welcomed the Pirates to the 2019 season while a 42-10 loss at the hands of the United States Naval Academy (4-1, 2-1 AAC) allowed junior quarterback Malcolm Perry to set a handful of personal records.
“Each week you learn something about your team. I think that we learned a lot against NC State, I thought we learned something against Navy, I thought we learned something against ODU and William & Mary,” Houston said. “I thought that we learned something last Thursday night (against Temple), I’m not just talking about the coaching staff, I think all of Pirate Nation learned something.”
Both good and bad, Houston is right when he says much has been learned about his football team so far this season. Statistically, the Pirates have one of the better defensive lines in the American Athletic Conference through the first half of 2019. Senior defensive lineman Kendall Futrell currently leads the conference in sacks (six) and tackles for loss (10). Additionally, senior defensive lineman Alex Turner ranks ninth in the conference with three sacks while both he and junior defensive lineman Chance Purvis are inside the top-15 in tackles for loss.
With a strong front and the emergence of freshman defensive back Ja’Quan McMillian on the back-end, ECU has been kept in ball games on the play of its defense. While the Pirates’ offense came through when it mattered against ODU, the same cannot be said against the Owls of Temple and for much of the year.
Through six games, ECU’s offense is averaging 20.7 points per contest, ranking it 11th out of the 12 teams in the AAC. To blame for that lack of scoring, the Pirates are racking up just 202.7 passing yards per game and 363.5 total yards every contest. While that second number may not sound bad, the Pirates have been anything but consistent on the offensive side of the football, amassing 574 yards against the Runnin’ Bulldogs just to be held under 270 yards against NC State and Navy.
To find some semblance of consistency would put the Pirates in good shape for the tough slate of second half games they will play. Beginning on Oct. 19 in Orlando, Houston’s squad must face the No. 5 scoring offense in the country in the form of the University of Central Florida (4-2, 1-1 AAC). Scoring nearly 45 points per game, the Knights pace the American Conference in total offense (544.3 yards per game) and pass offense (329.5 yards per game).
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Knights are 10th in the nation in yards per pass completion, averaging nearly 16 yards per catch, while still placing inside the top-30 in the country in rushing offense (214.8 yards per game).
“Now we’re going on the road against the two-time defending conference champion who has as much talent as anybody,” Houston said. “It’s a night game, it’s their homecoming. I’m excited about the opportunity and I can’t wait to see how we respond. Again, we’re going to find out exactly where we stack up against some of the better teams in this league.”
Once again, UCF was picked to win the AAC prior to the season, but its two losses (one in conference play), has put those chances at risk.
Instead, two nationally ranked teams, both of which the Pirates have yet to play this season, have overtaken the Knights as favorites in the American. Southern Methodist University (6-0, 2-0 AAC) and the University of Cincinnati (5-1, 2-0 AAC) are ranked 19th and 21st respectively in the latest Associated Press poll.
Two weeks after traveling to Orlando, the Pirates are slated to face Cincinnati at home before flying out to Texas to battle SMU. Similar to UCF, the Mustangs have one of the most powerful offenses in the country, scoring 44.2 points per game to rank sixth in the nation. With nearly 500 yards of total offense per contest, SMU is inside the top-35 in both rushing and passing offense halfway through this campaign.
“I knew what this league was when I got into it,” Houston said. “This league is ranked ahead of several power five conferences as far as strength in a variety of polls out there. All I know is, it’s a big boy league and every single week is going to be just like that (referencing the loss to Temple). So we better strap it up and be ready to roll.”
In the three seasons prior to Houston’s arrival in Greenville, the Pirates posted a 4-20 record in conference play, with three of those wins coming against the University of Connecticut (1-5, 0-3 AAC). Only one of those seasons saw ECU play ranked opponents within its conference, and ironically, that was ECU’s best season during that portion of the team’s schedule.
Already on the books as 33.5-point underdogs on the road, ESPN is giving the Pirates just a 2.7% chance to win against the Knights. After a homecoming match-up with the University of South Florida (3-3, 1-1) on Oct. 26, ECU plunges into a gauntlet of back-to-back games against nationally ranked opponents. In those games, ESPN gives the Pirates a combined 13.1% chance of winning, made up of a 6.1% shot at beating Cincinnati and a 7% chance of taking down SMU.
“This program is not going to be like this forever, we’re going to get it turned. We’ve got good young players, we’ve got a great recruiting class that we believe in that hopefully we’re going to sign in December,” Houston said. “We’re going to grow them up, we’re going to develop them, we’re going to learn how to play the game the right way. We’ve got a great fan base and we’re determined to give them a product on the field that they can stand behind.”
The Pirates will be back in action on Saturday in Orlando against UCF with kickoff between the Pirates and Knights slated for 7 p.m.