Fresh off a 32-point road loss at the hands of the United States Naval Academy, the East Carolina University football team returns home on Saturday. Its opponent will be the College of William & Mary (2-1, 0-0 CAA), representing the second FCS school the Pirates have faced in 2019.
The Tribe play in the Colonial Athletic Association, the same conference that ECU head coach Mike Houston participated in while helming the James Madison University football program. Now three games into his FBS tenure with the Pirates, Houston is looking at a changed William & Mary team with first-year head coach Mike London on the sideline.
“They play very hard, very physical and they will be sound. Offensively, the thing that they had been missing the last two years had been the quarterback,” Houston said. “They’ve had inconsistent quarterback play the last two years after being a very solid team in 2016.”
The quarterback that Houston is referencing is freshman Hollis Mathis. A true dual-threat quarterback, Mathis leads the Tribe in both passing yards (255) and rushing yards (199) through three games.
For his efforts, Mathis has garnered CAA Rookie of the Week honors twice this season and currently ranks seventh in the CAA with 66.3 rushing yards per game.
“He’s a dynamic playmaker. He’s been very impressive in all three games so far this season,” Houston said. “He’s got the ability to make the big play in the run game and he’s got a big arm. He’s been very, very impressive.”
In the Tribe’s offensive scheme, Mathis is particularly dangerous given his ability to run the football effectively. William & Mary employs what is called the “go-go” offense, a formation that features a lot of two-back sets in the backfield and an up-tempo attack.
“They are a tempo offense so we’re going to have to be prepared for that. They’re going to move at a very fast pace at times, so we’ve really got to be on it defensively,” Houston said. “We’ve got to be communicating. We’ve got to be able to really focus on that side of the ball because you’ve got to be able to give them different looks even though they’re going really fast.”
Mathis is not exclusively a runner, however, as evidenced by his passing totals. Combined with back-up senior quarterback Kilton Anderson, the Tribe is averaging nearly 18 yards per pass completion, good enough for fourth in the nation. On the receiver side of that coin, sophomore wide receiver Zach Burdick ranks second in the nation, averaging better than 34 yards per reception.
“We’re going to have to do a great job of not giving up any big plays in the passing game,” Houston said. “At the same time, we’ve got to do a great job against the run and doing a great job of controlling Mathis in the pocket.”
Coupled with its big-play offense is a pretty stout defensive unit that has some experienced names listed at the top of the depth chart. Seven of the 11 starters on defense for William & Mary are seniors while three of its four team captains come from that same side of the football.
Senior nose tackle Bill Murray is one of those captains and ranks second in the CAA with 2.5 sacks. Linebacker Nate Atkins is a four-year starter on defense and just the 12th Tribe football player to be a two-time team captain.
As a unit, the Tribe’s defense has forced 10 turnovers this season, tying them for first in the nation while at the same time ranking 14th in the country with 2.67 sacks per contest.
“They are really solid defensively with guys that we have played against at JMU the last three years,” Houston said. “He’s got guys that are multiple year starters on that side of the football.”
As far as ECU’s offense goes, it has been up-and-down during the early portions of the season. Sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers has completed just 56% of his passes so far this season while throwing for only one touchdown. In the run game, the Pirates amassed 365 yards in week two against Gardner-Webb University, but fell flat in weeks one and three against FBS competition.
Junior running back Darius Pinnix Jr. will miss his second straight game on Saturday due to injury and will be replaced by a combination of senior Hussein Howe and freshman Demetrius Mauney.
“We have a lot of talented guys in that room. We’ve got to keep bringing Demetrius along. Hussein is the oldest player in that room, so I expect some veteran leadership from him,” Houston said.
ECU will be looking to bounce back from its lopsided loss against Navy last week as it opens as the favorite at home against the Tribe. While Willam & Mary resides in the FCS, Houston and the Pirates can not overlook a solid football team with playmakers on both sides of the ball.
“The casual fan better wake up. I can promise you this is a good football team coming in here,” Houston said. “They’re 2-1 on the year with two quality wins.” Obviously, the Pirates will have home field advantage on Saturday, but that means nothing if the stadium is not packed and loud.
“People that are passionate about this program, they need to show up and show it,” Houston said. “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.”
The Pirates and the Tribe will kickoff at 6 p.m. this Saturday inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.