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There will be no bowl game for East Carolina this year, but that doesn’t mean the Pirates don’t have plenty to play for on Saturday in their season finale.
Not only will ECU be trying to close out the campaign with positive momentum and a two-game winning streak, but it will be attempting to win for its seniors. The Pirates will honor 16 players who will be playing their final game in the purple and gold inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Kickoff is set for noon and the game will be televised on ESPNU.
ECU first-year coach Mike Houston didn’t recruit this year’s senior class, but the group has been instrumental to buying in and helping establish the foundation for future success as the current coaching staff looks to build the program back to what it once was.
“These young men have been through a lot in their careers here, but the one thing that stands out to me is that when I talked to them last December, they were adamant about leaving the program in better shape than they found it,” Houston said. “They wanted to see the program change. We have goals that we won’t achieve this year, but there are still some that we can achieve.”
While it may not seem like much for those outside the program, a potential fifth win would represent a major step forward for the Pirates. East Carolina captured a key victory last week when it knocked off Connecticut in thrilling fashion, 31-24, on the road. The triumph marked ECU’s fourth win of the season at 4-7, more than any win total Scottie Montgomery achieved the previous three seasons. A victory over Tulsa on Saturday would represent a significant two-win increase compared to last year’s 3-9 mark.
Unfortunately, win or lose, the Pirate senior class will move on having never experienced a winning season or a bowl game, but a win in the home finale would be memorable.
“I’m really excited about it,” senior defensive end Kendall Futrell said. “It’s been a long journey here at ECU. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’m ready to play my last game here. It’s going to be bittersweet. It’s going to be sad. I’m going to miss it when it’s over, but I’m ready to play.”
Futrell is one of 15 seniors set to dress out for their final game. Redshirt junior offensive lineman Jack Doyle has also elected to forego his senior season of eligibility at ECU and move on. Along with Futrell, other significant senior names include wide receiver Deondre Farrier, cornerback Colby Gore, offensive linemen Fernando Frye and Branden Pena, and defensive linemen Jalen Price and Alex Turner.
Houston said each senior will have the opportunity to step forward and say a few words to the team Friday night, just before the team goes to bed, in preparation for Saturday’s game.
“The big thing for me is paying tribute to these young men and the positive impact they have had on not only this year’s team but the program,” Houston said. “They have been great ambassadors for this university. Some of them have been standouts on the field and others that have been standouts behind the scenes on the scout team and behind the front lines.
“Of course, it becomes more emotional the longer you spend time with them but when you stand next to the guys with some of the things we have shared the last 11 months, you are just very proud of them.”
D-LINE LEAVES SPOTS TO FILL
Of all the positions ECU is saying goodbye to within its senior class, no spot will take a bigger hit than the defensive front.
Futrell, Price and Turner will open their 12th consecutive game this season on Saturday along the Pirates’ defensive line. Futrell lines up at defensive end, while Price and Turner are the team’s starting defensive tackles. That trio has been responsible for the majority of the starts the last few years after coming in together with the 2016 recruiting class.
“We have an amazing bond,” Futrell said. “I remember when we came in together. A lot of guys, but especially me, Jalen and Alex playing defensive line, we just built a brotherhood of family. Those are some guys I’m going to cherish forever, for the rest of my life. They are brothers to me.”
Futrell and Turner have been the backbone of the production along the defensive line this season. Futrell, a former South Central High School standout, has a team-high 15 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Turner has tallied 11 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Price has been strong against the run and has amassed 30 tackles.
Redshirt junior defensive end Chance Purvis will be the only returning starter next season and he’s been productive as well with 12 tackles for loss.
“They’ve all been dinged up throughout the year at various times, but they’ve kept practicing and playing,” Houston said of the starting defensive front staying the same all season. “That says a lot about the character of those four men. Three of them are seniors. Certainly, I wish I had gotten the job two years ago to have experienced depth behind them because you do want more of a rotation than we have played this season. At the same time, however, those four have done an outstanding job this year.”
HOME FOR THANKSGIVING
Traveling on Thanksgiving weekend is never easy for a college football team and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane drew the short-end of the stick this season.
After ECU played last season away from home after the holiday, it gets a home Saturday game this year. The Pirates ate lunch together as a team on Thursday before getting the rest of the day off. The players and staff returned to work Friday for a normal day’s work.
Tulsa, meanwhile, spent Thursday in Oklahoma celebrating Thanksgiving together before traveling east early Friday. The Golden Hurricane not only had to deal with the distraction of the holiday, but it is also prepping for its earliest kickoff of the season having not had a noon start time to this point.
“(Thanksgiving) always provides challenges for sure,” Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery said. “We laid out what we’ve done in the past and looked at some different opportunities to change and get better. We move our practices up a little bit.
“I think there are some advantages this week to playing at home as opposed to on the road, especially with an early kickoff. The travel part of it adds a little bit to it and you’ve just got to do a good job of preparing your kids and getting ready.”
Houston, who’s been a part of several Thanksgiving weekend games both at home and on road, admitted there’s a slight advantage to being able to play inside the friendly confines of the Pirates’ own stadium this time of year, but the lack of classes can allow teams to make up some of the difference in travel time.
“The good thing about that is waking up Friday and doing the walkthrough without having to worry about classes and things like that,” Houston said, “so I think there are some pluses about this week being a travel week because it’s not as compact as usual. However, the home team definitely has the advantage this time of year.”
Tulsa scouting report
The Golden Hurricane’s 3-8 overall record won’t scare anyone, but the Pirates’ coaching staff says it’s nowhere close to indicating how good Tulsa really is on the field.
Houston noted all-conference caliber players like Baylor quarterback transfer Zach Smith, running back Shamari Brooks, future NFL draft pick defensive end Trevis Gipson, and cornerback Reggie Robinson are all individual players you normally don’t see on bad teams.
Tulsa had both SMU and Memphis on the ropes earlier this year in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t finish either game on its way to frustrating losses. The Golden Hurricane did manage to upset UCF earlier in November for its biggest win of the season.
“You take Tulsa and stick them into one of the non ‘Power 5’ conferences and they’re probably an 8, 9, 10-win team,” Houston said. “But this is a tough conference. You’re going to face some of the best teams in the country each week. It’s hard to win ball games. Certainly they’ve been close a ton. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Coach Montgomery’s done putting this roster together and the football team that’s coming in here Saturday.”
Gipson, listed at 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, has eight of the team’s 14 sacks this season despite consistent double teams.
“He presents as big a problem, if not more, than anyone we’ve played all year,” ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “And we’ve played some really good defensive linemen. I’m worried about him. We’re definitely game-planning for him, there’s no question. I wish we could play 12 or 13 guys so we could double- or triple-team him.”