The 2-2 ECU Pirates travel to Norfolk, Va to take on 1-2 Old Dominion at 6 p.m. on Saturday, televised on ESPN+. Here are some of the biggest Pirate storylines heading into their Week 4 matchup.
One thing noted leading up to this game is that it has many layers depending on if the Pirates win or lose. If they win, they snap a 10-game road losing streak, and they reach the magical 3-win mark. It’s magical because the Pirates have finished 3-9 each of the last three seasons. Reaching three wins now, with games against UConn and Tulsa remaining, ECU could improve their win-loss record by 2-3 wins potentially in Houston’s first season. On top of all of that, ECU has not had a winning record since they began the 2016 season 2-1 under Montgomery but could reach 3-2 with a win Saturday.
“If we win this Saturday then that would be 3-2, and we had three wins the past three years. That would be huge for us, especially on the road because we haven’t won a road game in a while. If we get that, it would be huge for us and big momentum,” wide receiver Tyler Snead told The Daily Reflector this week.
Redshirt junior quarterback Reid Herring and senior running back Hussein Howe both entered the transfer portal and are no longer part of the team, head coach Mike Houston confirmed on Tuesday. This storyline has two different subplots to it:
1A. This now puts more pressure on starter Holton Ahlers. The only scholarship backups are freshman Bryan Gagg and Alex Flinn. That doesn’t change too much about how the Pirates operate, but it does make the margin for error thinner. No longer do you have a veteran backup QB, so it becomes imperative that Ahlers stay healthy and plays more productive in the coming weeks. Remember people were just beginning to rumor about Ahlers’ security as the starting QB. Also, it was Herring who was the starter when the two teams played a year ago.
“I’m disappointed in his decision. I support his decision,” ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick told Hoist the Colours this week. “It’s put us in a bind a little bit in that we would be very inexperienced at quarterback if something happened to Holton. Right now, Bryan Gagg has taken most of the reps with the twos, and then Zach Gwynn, who was running the scout team and was just doing a great job down there, we’ve brought him up and tried to accelerate him a little bit and get him into what’s going on
I’m really nervous that something could happen to Holton and we’d really have to limit what we can do, just because they’re so inexperienced and there would be a lot of pressure on them. Now, they’re both great competitors and they’re here for a reason.”
1B. Howe leaving provides the opportunity for guys behind him in the depth chart to take advantage, just as Trace Christian and Tay Williams did last week. Darius Pinnix remains out with injury. Houston has said that performance in practice will determine who gets the bulk of the carries on Saturday. Remember ODU is 21st in the nation In opponent rushing yards per game.
ECU isn’t just playing ODU but also it’s first-year defensive coordinator David Blackwell (and linebacker/safety coach Daric Riley). Blackwell was ECU’s defensive coordinator last season and served as acting head coach in the season finale after Scottie Montgomery was fired. The defense did have some success under Blackwell but it wasn’t enough to save Montgomery’s job. Here are some achievements by the defense on his watch a year ago.
- ECU ranked 3rd nationally in TFLs (8.8 pg), 9th in most “three-and-outs” (4.92) and 22nd in sacks (2.8 pg)
- ECU set a single-season school record for TFLs (105.0) and turned in ECU’s fifth-highest sack total (34.0)
- DE Nate Harvey was selected as the AAC Defensive Player-of-the-Year after setting ECU and AAC single-season records for TLFs (25.5) while matching a league standard for single-season sacks (14.5).
Now, Blackwell, has the ODU defense rolling as well. ODU stayed competitive against Virginia Tech and Virginia in consecutive weeks thanks to the defense. They rank 21st in the nation I’m opponent rushing yards per game with 89.7 yards per game. Blackwell is familiar with most of the ECU personnel. Not only that but ECU offensive line coach Steve Shankweiler recruited Blackwell and coached him.
“I kinda liken it to playing in the backyard with your brother as a kid. You love each other but you want to whip each other’s butts. That’s kinda how it is,” Blackwell told Hoist the Colours this week.
“Saturday night, I’m sure he’s going to try to whip our rear-ends because he’s a competitor. But I do know he’s someone that does care about this program here probably every other Saturday night, and he’s someone I have a lot of respect for not only the jobs he’s done at different places he’s been but also just the way he does his business,” Houston told Hoist the Colours this week.
Too many penalties:
Houston bemoaned this week the number of penalties that have hampered the Pirates thus far. ECU committed nine penalties for 83 yards in their win over W&M alone. That was following up their loss at Navy when the Pirates committed six penalties for 55 yards, and seven penalties in their win over Gardner-Webb and so on. ECU is averaging 6.75 penalties per game through four weeks. It is a big reason ECU has managed just two touchdowns against FBS teams. The Pirates had a rushing touchdown called back against Navy due to illegal procedure, and they had an offensive pass interference in the red zone against W&M that made it a first-and-20, and that drive ended in a field goal.
“The big thing is the false starts, the pre-snap stuff. A lot of that is just concentration,” Houston told Hoist the Colours this week. “We’re really just trying to put them in as many pressure situations as we can because the pressure is when you may lose focus on the cadence or do something with the formation or alignment. We’ve done a little bit more good-on-good this week, and with that, the intensity is ramped up and the speed is ramped up, and that’s where it puts a lot of pressure on them. And then just the overall emphasis on it. If you get a penalty in the ball game, you pay the piper the next practice out. There’s an accountability part to that also. The biggest accountability is their commitment to each other. They know we can’t have those penalties, they know they hurt us. So I think the guys are trying to do a really good job of eliminating those.”
The Jake Verity Show:
ECU defeated ODU 37-35 in Greenville last season thanks to a game-winning kick from Verity. What could possibly be a better time to play the Monarchs again, as Verity is coming off of his best game of the season. He went 4-of-5 on kicks in ECU’s win over W&M, and his only miss came on a 55-yarder. That earned him American Athletic Conference special teams player-of-the-week honors.
End of an era:
On Monday, ECU sent out a release confirming that ECU and Virginia Tech had canceled the remainder of the football series contract. The Pirates and the Hokies were set to play every year from 2020-2025.
Photo at the top courtesy of ecupirates.com