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East Carolina has faced some good teams this season, but the test head coach Mike Houston’s squad will face this Saturday night in Orlando, Florida, will likely be its stiffest yet.
The Pirates (3-3), who have already fallen to N.C. State, Navy and a now-ranked Temple team this year, take on two-time defending American Athletic Conference champion UCF at Spectrum Stadium this Saturday at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.
The Knights are just 4-2, a record that pales in comparison to their last two undefeated regular seasons that resulted in major New Year’s Day bowl game appearances, but both losses came in hard-fought fashion on the road to good teams in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. And UCF still has aspirations of winning the American Athletic Conference, especially with a roster that’s seen as the most talented and fastest in the league.
“I think they’re probably the best team that we’ve played to this point,” Houston said.
Houston, who constructed a dominant program at James Madison at the FCS level the past three seasons, sees similarities when he turns on the UCF tape. JMU went 37-6 with two national championship appearances during Houston’s time with the Dukes.
UCF has won 29 of its last 32 games since the start of the 2017 season.
“I equate them very much to what we were up there at the FCS level,” Houston said. “You look at them, it’s not that you can say if we stop this guy, we’ve got a shot. They’ve got weapons at every skill position on offense. The offensive line returns three all-conference players this year along with two other experienced players. The backfield, they’re going to play multiple backs, all of them have home run capabilities. So, we’ve got to do a good job of defending their scheme and deciding what we want to take away and how we want to try to take it away.”
The Knights are averaging 44.8 points and 544.3 yards of offense per game. The defense is allowing 20.7 points and 327.5 yards per game.
True freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel is surrounded by elite talent. He’s completed 99-of-166 passes for 1,635 yards, 15 touchdowns and five picks. Running backs Greg McCrae (394 rushing yards, five touchdowns) and Adrian Killins (333 rushing yards, four touchdowns) are both threats to take the ball to the house, as is do-everything skill player Otis Anderson.
Wide receiver Gabriel Davis is a physical presence at 6-foot-3, 210-plus pounds. He’s averaging 17.6 yards per catch, leading the team with 38 grabs for 669 yards and eight scores. Tre Nixon has added 25 grabs for 366 yards and three scores. He’s averaging 14.6 yards per reception.
“They’re a good team,” ECU senior defensive end Kendall Futrell said. “They’re very physical. They run the ball well. We’ve got to prepare well and I think we will be ready.”
The Pirates, 0-2 in the American Athletic Conference, are decided underdogs. As of Wednesday, they were listed as a 33.5-point underdog to the Knights, 1-1 in conference games.
ECU hung with Temple, now ranked No. 25 in this week’s Amway Coaches Poll, in a recent 27-17 loss at home.
“I honestly didn’t know that,” Futrell said of the big point spread for Saturday’s game. “I think it is (a slap in the face). I think we’ve shown we’re a better team than that. We’ve just got to go out there and prove it.”
Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers made his first career start as a true freshman against the Knights last season at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium when UCF was ranked in the top 10 nationally. The Pirates actually hung with the Knights for three and a half quarters. Trailing 23-10 and on the doorstep of making it a one-score game in the fourth quarter, Ahlers fumbled near the goal line and UCF returned the turnover 94 yards for a game-changing touchdown.
The Knights went on to win 37-10 in a game that was much closer than the score indicated. Houston, who was at James Madison last season, shrugged off the notion the Pirates can pull much motivation from that game.
“I’ve said it many times up here, every year is a new year and every team is a new team,” Houston said. “We haven’t really factored that into any of the previous games.”
LATEST ON PINNIX
Given the fact ECU hasn’t had its starting running back, Darius Pinnix since the second week of the regular season, it’s a common occurrence at Houston’s weekly press conferences for the media to ask about his status.
Pinnix, who’s been dealing with an undisclosed neck injury, has missed the past four games. The junior running back ranks third on the team with 157 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He’s the only running back to find the end zone this season. Freshmen Demetrius Mauney and Tay Williams, and sophomore Trace Christian have been splitting time in Pinnix’s stead. Senior Hussein Howe transferred after four games.
Houston said Pinnix would have further testing done this week leading into the UCF game. But despite some talk outside the team of Pinnix redshirting and saving an extra year of eligibility given the injury, Houston wasn’t ready to address that possibility on Tuesday.
“The biggest thing we want to do, and Darius and I have talked about this, is we want to make sure we get him healthy first,” Houston said. “Until we get him healthy, there’s no need to make any decisions.”
DEPTH CHART CHANGES
Houston said the team had a productive off week, and the time off seemed to lead to some potential personnel changes offensively to fix a unit that’s struggling to put up yards and points.
Mauney, who leads the team in rushing but hasn’t officially started a game this season, was elevated ahead of Christian and Williams as the starting running back on this week’s depth chart. True freshman C.J. Johnson has been pencilled in as the starting “X” receiver, while former walk-on and speedster Jonathan Johnson has been added to the depth chart as a backup at “Z” receiver behind Blake Proehl.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Snead has been pushed ahead of senior Deondre Farrier at slot receiver. Sophomore Matt Morgan is being challenged by redshirt freshman Noah Henderson at right tackle. Morgan has started all six games to this point.
Former Havelock High School standout and true freshman Nishad Strother has also been added to the depth chart as a backup right guard. The Pirates spent the open week giving their younger players more practice repetitions and Houston said Tuesday the Pirates could sprinkle in some of the freshmen in games to give them experience the second half of the season, while also preserving their redshirts.
“We’re preparing for that and we used part of last week to prepare for that,” Houston said. “I think we would only be wise if we can get more guys playing. Some of the guys that we are making an effort to redshirt, we are starting to try to work them in. We’re not going to play anybody unless they’re ready to play. But if you can play some guys on special teams or spot play them on offense or defense and give yourself more depth, I think that’s something you need to try to do for your program and for your players that are playing.”
Stephen Igoe is the publisher of the East Carolina 247Sports website Hoist The Colours. Check out more of his work at eastcarolina.247sports.com.