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Given its 0-3 start in American Athletic Conference play, East Carolina likely won’t come close to winning the league in Mike Houston’s first year at the helm of the Pirate ship.
But that doesn’t mean the program still can’t make major strides with some success down the stretch.
One of those opportunities presents itself at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at 3:45 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 26, when AAC East Division foe South Florida rolls into town. The Bulls, just like the Pirates, have suffered through a bit of an up-and-down year with a 3-4 overall record. But USF is still considered one of the conference’s most talented teams, and it has beaten ECU each of the past four years.
The Pirates’ only win in the all-time series against USF came in their first year in the American in 2014 under Ruffin McNeill, when ECU won in Tampa, 31-20. The Bulls have defeated ECU eight out of nine tries overall, dating back to their first meeting in Conference USA in 2002.
But an ECU victory this Saturday would notch not only its first league win of the Houston era, but it would put the Pirates in position to surpass a team like USF in the division standings. East Carolina only managed four league wins in three seasons under Scottie Montgomery, three of which came over Connecticut. ECU never finished better than fifth in the East over that time span.
“A win on Saturday would certainly do a lot for the confidence and the program taking that next step,” Houston said Tuesday at his press conference. “At the same time, South Florida is sitting there saying the same thing. One of us is going to leave here with a loss, that’s just the facts and the reality. Hopefully we can work hard and find a way to get a win by one. Should be a great game.”
Last season, the Pirates came close to knocking off the Bulls, but were unable to complete the upset. Despite outgaining USF in Tampa 412-296, ECU fell as USF running back Jordan Cronkrite broke free on an 80-yard rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter to give the Bulls a 20-13 win.
USF went on to start last season 7-0, but lost its final six games under head coach Charlie Strong. Combined with four losses in the first seven games this season, South Florida has dropped 10 of its last 13 overall outings.
“I’d say in the past when we couldn’t pull off the wins, it was the little mistakes and the one person not fitting their gap,” senior defensive tackle Alex Turner said. “Most of the time, it was the big plays. Those just kind of hurt us in the past.”
Saturday’s game marks a potential defining point in the Pirates’ season. It’s also homecoming, which means a big crowd will likely be on hand.
“It’s the biggest game of the year. It’s the only one we’ve got this week,” Houston said. “That’s the case every week. They all count the same. Is it a big game? Yeah, it’s a big game. It’s at home, it’s homecoming, it’s a conference opponent. There’s a lot at stake for both teams. Biggest game of the year.”
NO QUIT AT UCF
The first half of this past Saturday’s 41-28 loss at UCF looked all too familiar to Pirate fans.
But the second half provided something they haven’t seen in a while.
Down 35-6 at halftime, ECU fought back with a relentless effort in the second half at UCF in Orlando, shutting down the Knights offense after halftime and providing big plays on offense and special teams to get itself back in the game. East Carolina, which was a 33-point underdog to the two-time defending AAC champion Knights, outscored UCF 22-6 in the second half and put a scare into the Knights, threatening to cut the lead to one score multiple times in the third quarter.
Eventually, it was just another loss on the scoreboard for ECU, but the second half showed what the Pirates are capable of when they play with confidence, fire and intensity.
“The biggest adjustment was between the ears with the players and regrouping them,” Houston said. “That’s the biggest thing we needed to adjust at halftime was getting confidence back into the level that we play. They’re doing positive things on the practice field. It’s not perfect, but the effort is there, the physicality is there and when you look at the second half, you’re continuing to see us take steps forward. With the physicality and the way, we play, we did more things correctly in the second half.”
Despite losing two close games already this season, UCF has won 19 games in a row at home and has been to New Year’s Day bowl games the last two seasons. The Knights are still largely considered the fastest and most talented team in the league. But the Pirates’ second-half performance has them confident they can compete with pretty much everyone in the AAC moving forward.
“I think you can can just take all the good things and positive things from that second half and see how we really came together,” Turner said. “We put together a successful amount of drives on both sides. Our offense came out and was driving down the field. Our defense was forcing a lot of 3-and-outs. You can see what we can be and the future of what ECU football can be. I think that’s a great confidence builder for the whole entire team.”
USF SCOUTING REPORT
South Florida enters Saturday’s game looking to bounce back from a disappointing 35-3 loss at Navy this past weekend.
The setback against the Midshipmen snapped a two-game winning streak for USF that featured a 48-22 win over Connecticut and a 27-23 victory at home over BYU. The Bulls have also lost to Wisconsin (49-0), Georgia Tech (14-10) and SMU (48-21) this season. Their third triumph came in the third week of the season, 55-16, over South Carolina State.
The offense has been inconsistent to this point, but is led by Cronkrite at running back. The former Florida transfer has carried the ball 96 times for 459 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Mitchell Wilcox leads all receivers with 13 grabs for 241 yards and four touchdowns.
Defensively, the Bulls rank second nationally with 18 takeaways. They’ve forced at least one turnover in every game and also rank third in tackles for loss per game (9.1 TFL). Oklahoma State graduate transfer linebacker Patrick Macon leads the team with 55 tackles.
The Bulls are scoring 23.4 points per game and allowing 29.6 per outing.
BULLS BANGED UP AT QB
One of the questions surrounding this weekend’s game is the status of USF starting redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan McCloud.
The dual-threat speedster has started the last five games, but has been limited by wrist and shoulder injuries to his throwing arm the last few weeks. McCloud took over the starting job from Alabama transfer Blake Barnett, who’s out for the season after surgery, in week 3.
Backup quarterback and walk-on transfer Kirk Rygol could be pressed into action this week if McCloud doesn’t play, but Strong said on Monday if the freshman is healthy, he will start Saturday at East Carolina.
“McCloud is a really impressive athlete,” Houston said. “A dual-threat guy that runs really well and throws the ball with good accuracy and good arm strength. I know he’s had some bumps and bruises, but I would expect him to start.”