ECU football players on the sideline at NC State.

The East Carolina University football team will look to even its record on Saturday in Dowdy-Ficklen stadium against Gardner-Webb University.

In what will be the first meeting between the Pirates and GWU, ECU will look to rid itself of a 28 point loss to North Carolina State University on Aug. 31. The Pirates could only log 41 yards on the ground against the Wolfpack, making the run game an important emphasis for head coach Mike Houston ahead of the upcoming contest.

“Our offensive line has to continue to develop schematically. When I say that, I mean assignment-wise, they have to be on the same page,” Houston said during Tuesday’s press conference. “Their fundamentals have to continue to improve. We’ve got to get more of a downhill approach to our fundamentals and get out of playing so sideways like we did on Saturday.”

Even with the lack of a consistent running attack, there were positives to take away from the 34-6 loss against NCSU. That centered around a strong 12-play opening drive by the offense that signaled, to Houston, the right amount of confidence and motivation ahead of gametime. Still, strides will need to be taken week-to-week for the team to reach their goals in 2019.

“It’s a great test (playing against NC State), a great evaluation for us because it shows us exactly where our strengths and weaknesses are,” Houston said. “It gives us something to really work with the kids on correcting our mistakes. We should see drastic improvement from week one to week two and that has been my experience in the past.”

Gardner-Webb is tasked with keeping ECU in-check, both offensively and defensively. In their opener, the Bulldogs failed in that regard, allowing Charlotte University to score 49 points and rack up 508 yards of total offense.

More than 300 of those yards were allowed on the ground as senior defensive back Devin Mines and sophomore linebacker Quniton Jones combined for three interceptions. Those interceptions, along with seven tackles (two of loss of yardage), helped Mines earn Big South Defensive Player of the Week.

Freshman wide receiver Devron Harper earned Big South Freshman of the Week honors after logging 202 yards on six kick returns, 99 of which came on a kickoff touchdown. That score gave Gardner-Webb back-to-back games where it had returned a kickoff for a touchdown extending back to last season.

Offensively, Houston anticipates the Runnin’ Bulldogs to live up to their nickname and center their offense around the run game on Saturday.

“I think you’ll see them, no matter what the personnel group they have in the ballgame, you’ll see them in a lot of two back formations,” Houston said. “Certainly, the senior running back (Jayln) Cagle has had some big moments for them over the years. They ran for 160 yards or so on Saturday. He has solid ability. I think that you at what their game plan looked like on Saturday. I think you’ll see something similar this week.”

In their opener, the Bulldogs ran the football 35 times for 173 yards versus just 17 pass attempts, signifying a reliance on running the football.

When the Bulldogs do pass the football, they have weapons to be effective. Despite only 60 yards through the air against Charlotte, redshirt sophomore quarterback Jordan Smith has some big targets to catch passes.

“They have three receivers that are 6’4” and 210 pounds plus,” Houston said. “I’m sure they’re going to try to run the ball effectively and take big shots down the field with those receivers.”

Sophomore wide receiver Izaiah Gathings, redshirt junior James Ellis II and graduate student Chuma Awanna are slated to start against the Pirates, giving the Bulldogs big, experienced talent at every pass-catching position.

Defensively, Houston expects to see similar fronts to what he saw in Raleigh last week. “We saw a three-down front last week, but it’s a little bit different with a little bit more variety to it than what we saw last week, Houston said. “Still, they’re going to move around and stunt and they’re going to challenge us. So, we’re going to have to be really sound with communication up front and how we pick things up.”

ECU will go into the contest favorites by at least four touchdowns. Still, this game will not be glossed over by the coaches or players. That’s because the Pirates have dropped their last two games against FCS opponents. In 2017, ECU lost to a Houston-led James Madison squad 34-14 and followed that up by losing to North Carolina A&T State University last year.

“They’ve got every bit of an opportunity to win as we do. Last time I checked; this program hadn’t had a lot of success against FCS opponents here recently,” Houston said. “So, we better be focused on winning the ballgame.”

The biggest thing Houston is looking to clean up with his team ahead of Saturday does not necessarily revolve around “X’s” and “O’s,” but rather around mindsets of individual players and the effort level in-game.

“We’ve got to play harder, with more intensity and we’ve got to lay with more physicality,” Houston said. “We’ve got to develop confidence in what we’re doing and we’ve got to develop better unity in how we do it.”

The Pirates will attempt to implement those critiques on Saturday when they open their home schedule in Dowdy-Ficklen stadium against the Bulldogs at 6 p.m.

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