Late game heroics by senior cornerback Colby Gore on Saturday against the University of Connecticut (2-9, 0-7 AAC) sealed the season’s fourth win for the East Carolina University (4-7, 1-6 AAC) football team. For the first time since 2015, the Pirates have jumped over the 3-9 hurdle, a true testament to the work put in by the coaching staff and players since Mike Houston’s hiring last December.
“It speaks to just the progress we’ve made,” Houston said during the weekly AAC coaches’ teleconference. “If we would have played that game Saturday back in late August or early September, I don’t know that we would have won it because of the adversity we saw. These players, their mindset and their attitudes are so positive and they have confidence in what they’re doing and they have confidence in each other.”
Gore’s interception at the goal line on Saturday, his first of the year, capped off a wild final half-quarter of action that nearly saw the Pirates cough up the victory.
Leading 24-17 with under 10 minutes left in the game, ECU had the Huskies backed up inside their own 10-yard line. Sending pressure to attempt to sack the quarterback, ECU’s defense instead yielded a 94-yard touchdown pass, one that drew the game into a 24-24 tie.
“There were some times in that ball game where I felt like we were getting ready to put the game away,” Houston said. “There was also a couple times in that ball game where I thought we were getting ready to lose it.”
One of those moments, perhaps the biggest, came just after that UConn touchdown. Three plays into a potentially go-ahead scoring drive, sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers tossed his second interception of the day, allowing the Huskies to take the football inside Pirate territory.
Having already given up 24 points to a team that entered play averaging just over 18 points per game, ECU’s defense held strong. Despite forcing only one three-and-out all game, the Pirates limited UConn to two positive yards of offense following Ahlers’ interception.
Backed into a fourth and long situation, the Huskies decided to take what would have been a go-ahead 50-yard field goal. The kick was short and hooked to the left, propping the door open for ECU to seize back the momentum.
With that opportunity, Ahlers and company engineered a nine-play, 68-yard drive, culminating in what would be the game-winning touchdown.
“Our players never wavered,” Houston said. “They never hung their head, they stuck together, their resiliency was just incredible and the sidelines with the energy and the attention to coaching and just the support of each other was probably as good as it has been all year. I think that certainly goes into the way our team responded. Early in the year, I don’t know if we would have won that ball game.”
Certainly, it took a complete effort from both sides of the football to pull-off a tough road win in East Hartford. Moreover, as Houston alludes to, that final drive coupled with their goal line stand as the clock drained, showcased something that was not present in ECU’s program when he took over.
What was missing, in large part, was a bounce-back factor. Against North Carolina State University (4-7, 1-6 ACC) in the team’s season opener, the Pirates were thrashed from the beginning of the game until the end, eventually losing 34-6. Since then, practice and off-field preparation has provided the Pirates an opportunity to rectify a lackluster attitude that has hung around this program for the last handful of seasons.
“They’re doing the thing we’re asking them to do on a daily basis,” Houston said. “What they see is, when they do things correctly in practice, then they go out and do them on game day. Conversely, when they do things poorly in practice, they’re seeing those things show up poorly on game day. So really it’s the commitment to the process and trying to do things right everyday. They’re just gaining more and more confidence in their preparation and this process that we’re in the middle of as we try to rebuild this program.”
That confidence, something that has been increasing weekly, is the driving factor behind some near upsets of nationally ranked opponents. In back-to-back weeks, the Pirates came within a combined 11 points of knocking off the University of Cincinnati (10-1, 7-0 AAC) and Southern Methodist University (9-2, 5-2 AAC).
In those games, the Pirates, particularly Ahlers, oozed with a confidence that could be seen on every snap and pass attempt. Nevertheless, it was two late-game mistakes, one by Ahlers and the other by redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Snead that ultimately hampered the Pirates’ chances at defeating their ranked opponents.
Still, however, ECU’s offensive unit has racked up at least 500 yards in three straight games after 509 yards against the Huskies on Saturday. Those have shown up in the form of 125 combined points over the last month (three games), averaging out to better than 41 points per contest.
“If anyone is paying attention at all, they realize just how well our team has been playing for the past month,” Houston said. “For the kids, it validates the process, it validates their buy-in and their commitment to each other.”
As the clock struck four zeros on Saturday, the Pirates had checked off a number of boxes that had been left empty for a number of years. It was their first road conference win since 2017 (also against UConn) as well as their first conference win of the 2019 campaign. In addition, it represented ECU’s first season with multiple road wins since 2015, the final year the Pirates won more than three games.
On the back of junior running back Darius Pinnix’s career-high 27 rushing attempts and two touchdowns, as well as Snead’s second straight game with at least 16 receptions and 120 receiving yards, the Pirates were free to let loose with celebrations in the locker room.
From singing the fight song to offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick’s postgame dance moves, even the celebrations signaled a change in the program.
Last road trip was lit 🔥 pic.twitter.com/SaCxSdbEw8— ECU Football (@ECUPiratesFB) November 23, 2019
“When you look at those videos, there’s nothing in that moment that’s fake,” Houston said. “You see the way the players celebrate with each other, the way they celebrate with their coaches, the way the coaches celebrate with the players, that’s what we’ve tried so hard to create. That was not here Dec. 3 (2018) and the players have worked so hard to create that atmosphere in our locker room.”
As the last three games have shown, creating that positive atmosphere and doing all the little things right in practice and holding players accountable for their actions has kicked off a step in the right direction for ECU’s football program.
At the end of the day, that is what Houston and his coaching staff is getting paid to do and despite a 4-7 record, this last month has gone a long way in opening minds about what this team can accomplish.
“We have a really good locker room right now and I think that’s the most important first step when you’re building a program is making sure your culture is right,” Houston said.
The Pirates will be back in action on Saturday in Dowdy-Ficklen when they play host to the University of Tulsa (3-8, 1-6 AAC). Kickoff is slated for noon.