Two games are left in the 2019 season for East Carolina University’s (3-7, 0-6 AAC) football team. Two games to find that elusive fourth win, something that has evaded the Pirates since 2015, and to prove their last pair of contests was not a fluke.
“You can’t do anything until you get the fourth (win),” head coach Mike Houston said. “That’s kind of been our deal the past couple of weeks. I think it’s an important deal for our kids. If you ask those guys how important it is, they’ll tell you. It’s a big deal for us.”
While four wins in a 12-game season may not seem like much, it would represent an improvement in a program under new leadership after a trio of lackluster campaigns. Kickoff between the Huskies and Pirates is slated for noon.
In the Pirates’ way for that fourth victory of the season is the University of Connecticut (2-8, 0-6 AAC). Winless in conference play up until this point, the Huskies and Pirates are the only two programs in the American Athletic Conference with that distinction.
For the Huskies, a mixture of struggles on the defensive side of the football and inconsistent play at the quarterback position has greatly contributed to their eight losses this year.
Ranked 113th out of 130 FBS programs, UConn will enter Saturday’s matchup allowing nearly 452 yards of offense to opposing teams per game. While inside the top-60 at stopping the passing attack, UConn is one of the few teams worse than ECU at preventing the run, ranking 124th in rushing defense (228.6 yards allowed per game).
Even so, the Huskies are improved on that side of the ball compared to last season. In 2018, UConn recorded only 11 sacks and as many takeaways. Only 10 games into this year, however, UConn is sitting on 18 sacks and 12 takeaways.
At the top of the board in sacks for the Huskies is sophomore defensive lineman Lwal Uguak with four while fellow sophomore defensive lineman paces the team with 5.5 tackles for loss this season.
With the fourth fewest amount of seniors and graduate transfers on their roster (11), 43% of the Huskies’ roster is made up of either freshmen or redshirt freshmen, ranking them as the 25th youngest team in the country.
One of those true freshmen, quarterback Jack Zergiotis, is the Huskies’ leading passer. While UConn has used a trio of quarterbacks pretty regularly, Zergiotis has cracked the 1,000-yard passing mark, racking up 1,114 yards through the air on the back of a 55.9% completion rate.
Zergiotis, while he has started seven games this season and each of the last four, has been sharing time with graduate quarterback Mike Beaudry.
Beaudry began the season atop the Huskies’ depth chart at quarterback but has started only two games since, mopping up in blowouts in each of the last two contests.
“I think whoever’s under center is playing well, they can really give you problems and they’re a good offensive football team,” Houston said. “I think we’re really going to have to do a good job of tackling to slow down the running back and I would expect all three quarterbacks to be healthy this week, which means we’ve got to be ready to defend a very good offense.”
Averaging just under 200 yards through the air per contest, the Huskies’ true threat comes on the ground. With a dynamic duo of running backs in junior Kevin Mensah and graduate Art Thompkins, UConn has averaged over 137 rushing yards every time out in 2019.
That mark itself ranks 96th in the FBS but Mensah ranks 30th on the individual charts with 918 yards on the ground. On 200 carries, Mensah is averaging 4.6 yards per rush and 91.8 yards every game. His nine rushing touchdowns are tied for 36th in the country while his nine career 100-plus yard games is tied for sixth in program history dating back to 1968.
“We talked about this last night in the coaches’ office. If you just flip on the film, watch them and don’t worry about anything else other than the film, you look and it’s a really good football team,” Houston said. “I think offensively, the thing that stands out is a big, strong offensive line. Mensah is on his way to 1,000 yards rushing this year. The backup, Thompkins, has been a good changeup and has been very productive.”
Thompkins, who has more yards (443) than ECU’s leading rusher as UConn’s backup, rushes for nearly five yards every carry despite being the smallest back listed on the Huskies’ depth chart. As UConn’s primary kick returner, however, Thompkins paces the team with 1,387 all-purpose yards, a number that includes 244 receiving yards and 700 kick return yards.
Running behind the Huskies’ aforementioned offensive line, Mensah and Thompkins have helped the program net 1,374 yards on the ground this season as they have combined for 11 touchdowns.
Without some experienced members of the offensive line, however, that may have not been possible.
Redshirt senior offensive tackle Matt Peart has started all 46 games of his collegiate career and represents 25% of a quartet of Huskie offensive linemen to start every game this season. In fact, UConn is one of only 11 FBS programs to return four starters to its offensive line from the 2018 campaign.
While that experience is helpful in opening up running lanes, it has failed to help the Huskies produce points on the board as UConn will enter Saturday averaging 18.6 points per game while simultaneously allowing 40.6 points per game.
Despite breaking the 300-yard mark on offense in half their games this season, the Huskies are allowing teams to score at a 93% clip once they enter the red zone, with 86% of those being touchdowns.
That could potentially spell good news for a Pirates team that often struggles to punch the ball into the end zone inside the 20-yard line. In their last two games, however, scoring has not been a problem as the Pirates racked up 94 points against two nationally ranked opponents.
“Probably the only negative of the bye week when it came was just how our team was playing and trending,” Houston said. “We had an excellent bye week. I thought the players, I could not have asked them to be better mentally and have better effort. Very energetic practices and I thought we accomplished a lot last week.”
Sitting on only three wins, however, ECU is still looking for its fourth win of the season. With a win on Saturday, the Pirates would secure multiple road wins for the first time since 2015. In addition, a win against the Huskies would give ECU its first road conference win since 2017 when the Pirates defeated the Huskies 41-38 in East Hartford.
Unlike their counterparts on Saturday, the Pirates have had little problems scoring points this season, especially in conference play. Entering the weekend, ECU has posted an average of 28.2 points per game in conference tilts, averaging nearly 440 yards of offense in the process.
“In just like the last game versus SMU, the game plan going in is to run our offense and run it effectively,” Houston said. “When you look at the last game, I thought we did a much better job of running the football. There’s lots of stuff at the line of scrimmage that’s really dictated by what you’re seeing on the other side of the ball. I think certainly our offense has been running more efficiently because we’ve been making better decisions.”
Whether or not the Pirates’ recent offensive outburst will carry into Saturday remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Saturday will mark the final time UConn and ECU face-off as conference rivals as the Huskies vacate the AAC in 2020.
With each team still looking to get its first conference win of the season, the Pirates will attempt to break a five-game losing streak following an open date. The Huskies, on the other hand, will be searching for a senior day win in their final home game as an AAC school.
“I think we’re going to get their (UConn) best shot because it’s the next game for them,” Houston said. “I think both of us are looking at it as a big game for our programs. We both are hungry for that win this Saturday. I don’t know how much all of that other stuff has to do win it. I think they just want to win on Saturday.”