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Most observers realized East Carolina would have some talent deficiencies in certain areas heading into the first year of the Mike Houston era.
But the belief surrounding the program was the offense would be able to move the ball and score points, while the defense might struggle at times.
Through three games, both sides of the ball have had their fair share of struggles, but nothing has been more alarming than the offense’s lack of production thus far. Taking away the Gardner-Webb game — the Runnin’ Bulldogs participate in the FCS and are the weakest opponent on ECU’s schedule — the Pirates (1-2) have mustered only one touchdown in two games versus FBS competition at N.C. State and at Navy, losing by a total of 76-16.
East Carolina was held to just a pair of field goals in the season opener at N.C. State and didn’t score a touchdown until it was 42-3 in the fourth quarter at Navy last Saturday. Houston termed the Navy setback as a “total team loss” immediately following the game. ECU went three-and-out on its first two possessions and punted the ball twice in a row less than 30 yards to set up Navy with short fields that quickly allowed the score to become 14-0.
ECU was limited to just 222 offensive yards against the Midshipmen, a number that was even lower than the 269-yard output at N.C. State. The Pirates racked up 574 yards of offense against Gardner-Webb and could put up big numbers again this weekend against another FCS foe in William & Mary, but it’s no secret the offense has to be more efficient and play a cleaner brand of football under offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick and his scheme moving forward.
“I think definitely we did not play the way we want to play on Saturday,” Houston said. “Part of that is a credit to the Navy players and coaches and the job that they did. We’ve got to be more effective in driving the football, and we’ve got to get the ball in the end zone. Those are obvious statements that I just made, but I don’t think any of us are pleased with how we played offensively on Saturday.”
Quarterback Holton Ahlers has looked uncomfortable throwing the football three games into the season. He’s completing 56% of his passes for 501 yards, one touchdown and three picks. He hasn’t surpassed the 200-yard passing mark in any game. Last season, Ahlers threw for more than 400 yards in each of his first two starts and finished the year with a 12-to-3 touchdown ratio.
“I think Holton, much like our team, is young and developing,” Houston said. “Certainly he has a lot of potential and he’s driven to be a great player. He wants to be good. He works very hard at it, and he’s continuing to improve week-to-week. I think you’ll see him get better and better as the season goes on.”
PINNIX NURSING INJURY
Part of ECU’s offensive struggles in this past weekend’s game could have been due to the absence of its top back.
Junior running back Darius Pinnix, who posted career-highs in carries (21) and yards (134) versus Gardner-Webb, surprisingly missed the Navy game with an undisclosed injury. Pinnix didn’t practice all week, but he still made the trip to Annapolis, only to sit out the game.
Pinnix was seen on the sidelines in a sweatshirt and a jersey, but wasn’t wearing any sort of brace that would indicate an injury to his extremities. Houston declined to go into specifics on Pinnix’s injury earlier this week, just saying “he’s working to get back.”
In Pinnix’s absence, ECU leaned on senior Hussein Howe and true freshman Demetrius Mauney against Navy, but the running game never got cranked up. Houston said he’s looking forward to challenging Howe, Mauney and redshirt freshman Tay Williams going forward as it looks like they will all get an opportunity as well.
“We have a lot of talented guys in that room,” Houston said. “We’ve got to keep bringing Demetrius along. Hussein is the oldest player in that room, so I expect some veteran leadership from him. Tay, we’re trying to challenge him and continue to bring him along. That’s a kid that I’ve got a little bit of hope for. He was buried under the doghouse back in the spring and he’s grown up and matured. He’s starting to work better and starting to develop some positive habits so I hope he can come along and give us some hope there as well.”
On the surface, there may not be much for a defense to learn from a 42-10 loss to a triple option team, especially given it won’t see that style of offense again the rest of the season.
But Houston assured the media earlier this week there was still plenty to take away from the ball game. While Houston rewatched the game multiple times to break down what went wrong, he also challenged his team to assess the plays on the field individually.
“We were very deliberate with how we wanted them to evaluate themselves,” Houston said. “Are they doing the things they’re coached to do? Are they aligned correctly? How is their effort? Are they giving great effort on every play? And then are they competing? Which is different from giving effort. Giving great effort is a minimum expectation. Competing means are they making the play they have to make in order for us to be successful? Are they making the combative breaking up the pass? Are they making the tackle that is there for them to make within the scheme of the play? Those are the things we really looked to evaluate individually and collectively from that film.”
Houston said he was pleased with the response from players in putting the loss behind them and moving forward.
“I thought the older players did a good job with it just from their feedback because so many of them would catch me at various times throughout the day on Sunday and make the comment to me, ‘I’m better than this. I can play better. I’m going to challenge myself this week,’” Houston said. “So, I think that shows positive attitudes on their part. I think those things show that they want to be good.”
WILLIAM & MARY PREVIEW
Despite a 48-9 win over Gardner-Webb the last time his team faced FCS competition, Houston expects things to come anything but easy on Saturday versus William & Mary.
The Tribe is led by first-year head coach Mike London, who previously won a national championship at the FCS level at Richmond earlier in his career. London also coached the University of Virginia.
William & Mary is 2-1 with wins over Lafayette and Colgate. The Tribe lost its only FBS game of the year at Virginia, 52-17, in week 2. True freshman quarterback Hollis Mathis has elevated the offense, leading the team in rushing three weeks into the season.
“The casual fan better wake up. I can promise you this is a good football team coming in here,” Houston said. “Anybody that would think otherwise is obviously, very much, not a very knowledgeable fan. They’re 2-1 on the year with two quality wins. Yeah, they didn’t play very well at Virginia, but Virginia is a pretty good football team.
“We need our fans here. We need Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium the way it was two weeks ago and more. Because that’s a difference-maker for us. People that are passionate about this program, they need to show up and show it. Our kids are going to be ready to play on Saturday and they’re going to play with a lot of effort and a lot of intensity. But it is going to be a very competitive football game and it is one we’re going to have to fight our tails off in order to have a chance to win.”
Kickoff on Saturday is set for 6 p.m. from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The game will be shown on ESPN3.