Both conferences are pushing forward with plans to play this fall, a date has been finalized and both programs are participating in preseason practices in preparation for a Sept. 12 matchup inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

When ECU does welcome Marshall to Greenville in a little less than a month, it will officially signal the end of one of the weirdest and most challenging off-seasons for Pirate Nation. Back when Marshall was first added to the Pirates’ schedule, this year’s game was set for Sept. 5, or the traditional Week 1 of the college football schedule.

With 2020 being the 50th year anniversary of the tragic plane crash involving Marshall’s football team, however, ECU submitted a waiver to get the game bumped up to Week 0 so more national media attention could be placed on the pregame and in-game ceremonies that are in the works.

As the schedule currently stands, 20 other games are set to take place around college football on Sept. 12, meaning the chances for the contest to land on a primetime slot are drastically impacted. Nevertheless, with two Power 5 conferences and numerous other leagues and programs canceling their seasons in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, just getting the green light to play the game feels like a win.

“Obviously there’s been a lot of excitement around that game just because of the history,” Houston said on Friday. “The 50-year anniversary of the tragic plane crash, remembering those that lost their lives that day. But I think on the other side of it, I think right now we’re just excited to have the possibility of football this fall. It was the last thing we talked about out there on the field, Sept. 12, we have a date. The kids, again, you look at the job they’re doing with protecting themselves during this pandemic. If you’d have told me a month ago that we would where we are with the testing, I don’t know that I would have believed you.

“But that is a credit to them, and that’s what I told them. It’s a credit to you and your desire to make this thing go of how you’re protecting ourselves, protecting each other. I just think that Sept. 12 is just an excitement because it’s the possibility of us being able to play.”

Two scrimmages already under their belt, the Pirates seem to hold a slight advantage in time on the field this preseason over Marshall. As Houston alluded to above, a buy-in from his players has resulted in a very low amount of positive COVID-19 tests, allowing the team to forge ahead with practices and workouts uninterrupted.

Now that the game has been moved off the Aug. 29 date, however, Houston and his staff can take a more conservative approach to practices leading up to the game.

“We’re where we are practice-wise, we’ve got to be smarter from here on out,” Houston said. “We got to allow ourselves time to get ready. At the same time, we’ve also got to be smart with the players. We’re so young, we need the work, but we also have to be fresh going into that game. The good thing is, we’re on a schedule now where we’re taking multiple days off a week. The practices this week were very short, so it’s not a typical preseason training camp where you’re doing the 24 periods, six days a week, all day long. It is a much more relaxed schedule.”

After his team’s effort and intensity on Friday in their second scrimmage in as many weeks, Houston said he feels comfortable going light this weekend ahead of Monday’s NCAA-mandated day off.

Saturday was reserved for some light conditioning work, while Sunday will be used for film study and a light workout.

“Sunday will be a very light workout, watch the film (of the scrimmage),” Houston said. “Monday’s the day off. You feel like you can do that when they push themselves the way they have the last couple of days.”

At this stage in the preseason, Houston said much of the game plan for Marshall has already been installed and is ready to go. That got done during the early stages of workouts and walk-throughs so the Pirates could turn their attention toward preparing their young football team.

“Really right now, though, we’re not working on Marshall as much as we’re working on ourselves,” Houston said. “It’s just been so long since we’ve been able to do anything with these players, so you’re very much in a mode of working on ourselves, evaluating talent, evaluating the incoming class, evaluating the new players, evaluating how much the players may have improved from last year. When we get to about two weeks out from that kick-off, we’ll be all Marshall, but right now, we’re really trying to focus on us.”

By Houston’s count, there are 60 new players on ECU’s roster since this time last year. On defense, the Pirates are trying to find replacements for all four defensive line starters from 2019, and are also on the hunt for some help in the secondary.

Recruiting in bulk and landing some high-caliber transfers, Houston has put his team in the best position possible to find success in 2020. Still, his defense will be young and inexperienced, a bad combination for an American Athletic Conference program with the likes of UCF, SMU and Cincinnati on its schedule.

While Houston said the Pirates will not slip back into game week mode until two weeks out from kick-off, he has studied Marshall and the personnel.

Isaiah Green, the Thundering Herd’s starting quarterback each of the last two seasons, entered his name into the transfer portal in mid-July. In the last few days, however, Green removed his name, but has not been added back to Marshall’s online roster, suggesting his departure from the team may be permanent.

A huge blow for Marshall considering Green scored 20 total touchdowns and passed for over 2,400 yards last season, his absence will just give head coach John “Doc” Holliday even more of an excuse to run the football this season.

“They have a very talented running back coming back,” Houston said of Marshall. “Very solid offensive line and a lot of talent at the wide receiver position. I’m sure they’ll have somebody there at that (quarterback) position, but it’s not like whoever it is — it’s not like they have to carry the entire load. They have a lot of talent around. I would think the thing they need is a game manager.”

Marshall is projected to start five seniors on its offensive line in 2020, and will return the fourth most starts among that position group in the country (126). Behind them will run the 2019 Conference-USA MVP in running back Brenden Knox. Returning for his junior season, Knox netted 1,387 yards on the ground in 2019, and found the end zone 11 times.

His effort allowed the Thundering Herd to rack up at least 116 rushing yards in all of their 13 games as Marshall ran the ball a total of 532 times.

Set to face one of the best running backs in the Group of 5 right out of the gate, Blake Harrell’s defense will be immediately put to the test. Thus far in camp, Houston has reported solid improvement from his defense, but growing pains are still expected during the season.

Even so, the speculation surrounding a date for the game has been laid to rest, and the official countdown can begin for the return of Pirate football this fall.

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