When head football coach Mike Houston joined the Zoom meeting with reporters after Friday’s scrimmage, his offensive and defensive units were in two completely different places.

ECU’s first scrimmage last Saturday saw the defense dominate with seven turnovers. That produced a lot of smack talk out of that unit directed at the offense all week. After listening to that, the offense responded on Friday with a dazzling performance.

“The defensive kids are down there doing up-downs in the end zone right now and they’re all pissed off,” Houston said. “They’re mad, coach Harrell is mad. Coach Harrell is mad at them, they’re mad at coach Harrell right now. They’re all pissed off. The offense — they’re throwing a big party. I told the defensive kids, I said ‘now after all the crap you talked all week, you’re going to have to listen to it for the next week, so just go ahead and eat crow.’ I’m happy, nobody got hurt. It was great competition. The offensive skill kids played the way I expected them to play today. That was the thing I’m pleased with is just seeing us execute.”

Just one touchdown during last week’s scrimmage was turned into four on Friday. Junior quarterback Holton Ahlers notched 16-straight completions and finished a sparkling 17-for-20 through the air with three touchdowns and an interception.

Two of those touchdowns went C.J. Johnson’s way, as the former high school teammates hooked up for scores of 12 and 38 yards. Tyler Snead caught Ahlers’ other touchdown, a 10-yard score, as all of ECU’s six scholarship quarterbacks went a combined 20-for-33 passing.

“The offense today, I think, gave up one sack, and that was in the second half of the scrimmage,” Houston said. “Had no turnovers and multiple explosive plays. Executed at a very high level, very good on third down today.”

Explosive gains came from more than just the passing game on Friday, however. ECU ran the football 48 times on the day, with freshman running back Keaton Mitchell turning in a 94-yard touchdown gallop and showing off his speed in the process.

“Had some explosive runs today,” Houston said. “Keaton Mitchell had a huge day. The one thing he showed today is exactly what we knew coming in. If he gets to the second level, they’re going to have a hard time catching him with his speed.”

For the success of both the run and pass game, Houston credited his offensive line with improving from scrimmage-to-scrimmage.

While Friday was largely an offensively dominated practice, that does not mean ECU’s defense completely laid down. Linebacker Bruce Bivens logged the unit’s only sack on Friday, while JUCO transfer Shawn Dourseau was responsible for Ahlers’ lone interception.

“Played with great intensity, played very physical,” Houston said of his defense. “The thing that disappoints me is, we did have some breakdowns and a lot of it’s discipline. We had some penalties, again, discipline. We gave up a couple big plays because of discipline. I think that’s the big negative from today. It’s not that they weren’t giving great effort, I thought that the effort was very, very good.”

Given the nature of ECU’s youth on defense, busted coverages and mixed up assignments will be part of the growing pains the Pirates must go through. Last week, the raw talent of the defensive was on full display, but after the offense adjusted, the defense struggled to keep up.

Nevertheless, Houston said on Thursday that he was anticipating a “highly competitive” practice between his two units. While the results were slightly one-sided, both units can at least say they competed hard against one another.

On special teams, the Pirates incorporated more elements than they did last week, adding kick-off and kick-off return to the 81-play scrimmage.

“Incorporated in kick-off and kick-off return, which is good to see that,” Houston said. “A lot more work with the punt unit and the punt return unit. So just a really solid day. It’s going to be great film to watch because of the high level of intensity and competitive nature of the scrimmage. It’s going to be a great teaching film and learning film for everybody.”

Kicker Jake Verity connected on three field goals from 25, 23 and 47 yards out to continue his strong showing this preseason.

While the defense struggled to keep the offense off the board, this scrimmage will be used as a teaching moment for that young unit. Many of the Pirates’ 60 new players are on that side of the football, including a slew of inexperienced defensive linemen.

Nevertheless the result, Houston loved the intensity level on that side of the football on Friday almost as much as he enjoyed an afternoon free of lightning in Eastern North Carolina.

“We thought we were going to have a hard time getting this in today, and it’s probably the best weather day we’ve had in a week and a half,” Houston said. “What a great day, great day for football. The kids did not disappoint with their energy and intensity today.”

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