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It was just two years ago Cincinnati came to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium under a new head coach in Luke Fickell and fell in embarrassing fashion to an East Carolina team coached by Scottie Montgomery, 48-20.
That victory served as Montgomery’s only win over an American Athletic Conference program not named Connecticut over his three years in Greenville, where he compiled a 4-20 mark against league competition overall.
The loss for Cincinnati served as an eventual turning point for the program. The Bearcats went 4-8 and 2-6 in AAC action in the first year of the Fickell era in 2017. Since that result, Cincinnati has completed a miraculous turnaround, going 11-2 last season and 6-1 thus far this year.
Fickell told the media earlier this week ahead of the Bearcats’ first trip back to Greenville since 2017 that the setback in Greenville that year served as motivation.
“That wasn’t just any loss,” said Fickell, previously the interim head coach and defensive coordinator at Ohio State. “That was probably a true low point if anything for me.”
ECU head coach Mike Houston is currently in the midst of his own frustrating first year as he attempts to rebuild the Pirates program. Houston experienced a great deal of success at each of his previous three head coaching stops, including a 37-6 overall record in his three seasons at James Madison before taking the East Carolina job.
But last weekend’s 45-20 loss to South Florida was perhaps a bit of a reality check for the Pirates (3-5, 0-4 AAC) and their fans as there’s still much work to be done to catch up to the rest of the American. While a turnaround may not happen as quickly in Greenville as it did for Fickell in Cincinnati, Houston said there’s “no doubt” he sees some similarities between the two coaching staffs and programs, especially given the Bearcats’ physical nature of how they play.
That’s something Houston and his staff hope to implement at East Carolina in time.
“I think Luke has done a great job with the program,” Houston said. “You can see a definitive plan and a certain style of play. Obviously, they’re going to run a different defensive scheme than we run right now. They run a different offensive scheme than we’re running right now. Still, the style of play is how you want to play.
“They’re sound fundamentally and all of their players are very aggressive. He’s created that culture there. It is very much a look at how we want to play here. It didn’t happen there overnight. He’s had to work very hard at it since he got the job. It is something that we’re very dedicated to and are working towards right now.”
Despite struggling in his first year with the Bearcats, Fickell kept the majority of his coaching staff in place and didn’t force the issue with lots of personnel turnover on the roster. Instead, he continued to implement their scheme and Cincinnati took off as a program last season.
The Bearcats are ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press poll entering Saturday’s 7 p.m. kickoff in Greenville against the Pirates.
“I don’t know if all of a sudden we got this win and all the momentum and energy changed. It’s a really tough process,” Fickell said. “I think it first comes down to knowing and understanding, and believing in the kids that are around you, and the people that are around you. You can’t turn things or change things or get things going in the right direction by yourself. I don’t know how you would do it.
“I thought for us, and our program, an offseason was really big for us. It wasn’t spring ball, we didn’t have a bowl practice, things like that, but it was more making sure us a coaching staff really found out and got to know everyone in our program a lot better.”
CINCINNATI SCOUTING REPORT
The Bearcats leveled ECU in Ohio last season, 56-6, in Montgomery’s final game as the Pirates’ coach, and they return much of the same personnel from last year’s successful team.
To no surprise, given Fickell’s defensive background, Cincinnati is built around a strong defense and good running game. The Bearcats are averaging 28.6 points per game and allowing just 20.4 ppg. Sophomore running back Michael Warren leads the team with 498 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry for an offense racking up 173.4 yards per game on the ground.
Sophomore quarterback Desmond Ridder is a second-year starter who operates at an efficient level. Ridder is 106-of-175 through the air for 1,399 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder also gets heavily involved in the running game. He’s gained 314 yards on 72 attempts this season. Ridder was named the AAC Rookie of the Year for his performance as a freshman last season.
“I think Ridder is one of the better quarterbacks we face this year,” Houston said. “He does a good job of ball distribution, accurate throws, has good arm strength. Has good height in the pocket so he can see. He’s a much better runner than he probably gets credit for. I think he’s a legitimate threat in the run game as well as on the quarterback scrambles. He is the unquestioned leader of that offense.”
Defensively, the Bearcats rank near the top of the country in turnovers forced. They have recovered eight fumbles as a team and have intercepted 11 passes. Safety Ja’Von Hicks is responsible for seven of the turnovers (four interceptions and three fumble recoveries) on his own.
Cincinnati’s only loss of the season came in week 2 at undefeated Ohio State, 42-0. The Bearcats have topped UCLA, UCF, Houston and Tulsa for their notable wins.
RAMSEUR LOST WITH TORN ACL
It wasn’t just a rough day from a performance perspective for ECU’s defense in this past weekend’s 45-20 loss to South Florida.
The Pirates not only surrendered a season-worst 347 rushing yards to the Bulls, but they also lost redshirt junior linebacker Aaron Ramseur for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
Ramseur had played in eight games this season with one start, making 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. The linebacker was just starting to come into his own within defensive coordinator Bob Trott’s scheme, getting his first start at UCF and tallying a season-high 14 tackles in the loss.
But Saturday’s injury means Ramseur will likely miss spring practice and have to rehab hard next summer to prepare for his senior season in 2020.
“His family was here this weekend,” Houston said. “They’ve been very supportive with him. We’ll help him through that rehab and be excited to have him back next year. But that was a tough blow. He had played very well against Central Florida and was really starting to come around, so it’s disappointing for all of us to see his season come to an end.”
The first two active years of Ramseur’s career were the most productive of his time in the purple and gold. After redshirting in 2016, Ramseur ranked as the defense’s fourth leading tackler as a redshirt freshman with 57 stops in 12 games (six starts). Ramseur followed that up with 66 tackles last season in 11 games (10 starts).
AHLERS BOTTLED UP BY BULLS
Sophomore starting quarterback Holton Ahlers has always been known for his running ability, but the D.H. Conley High product didn’t get the chance to showcase that much in the loss to South Florida.
Ahlers set career lows in rushing attempts (five) and rushing yards (minus-3) among his 13 games as ECU’s starting quarterback this past weekend.
Through eight games this season, Ahlers still ranks second on the team in carries (81), averaging 10.1 rushing attempts per game. His 403 rushing yards gained still manages to lead the team just ahead of Demetrius Mauney’s 398, though Ahlers’ net total is dropped to 256 given all the sacks he’s taken.
Houston credited USF’s aggressive defense, but also indicated the quarterback may have missed a few reads in the offense as the game progressed, too.
“I think a lot of it was what they were doing,” Houston said. “I do think there were some opportunities there in the zone run game. A lot of stuff in our offense is you have so many different reads that the quarterback is asked to do. Maybe there were a couple there that he didn’t take advantage of. But I thought USF did a really good job. They pressured us a lot and made him make some quick decisions. I thought they had a really good scheme for us.”
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.