We have known the date of ECU’s season-opener for a couple weeks now. Monday, however, we learned the Pirates will kick-off against a nationally ranked UCF squad in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at noon on Sept. 26 with the game streaming on ESPN+.

A disappointment to some who thought ECU’s opener would warrant a national audience due to the Knights’ placement in the AP Poll, the 26th will represent the Pirates’ first game produced in-house under the American Athletic Conference’s new agreement with ESPN.

For games not picked up by a linear network, broadcast duties fall to a team hired by ECU with the bill ultimately footed by the AAC. While that will be a unique experience for Athletic Director Jon Gilbert and his staff to navigate, seeing the stands void of fans figure to make game day that much stranger.

“Certainly is going to be different, it’s going to be foregin, it’s going to be strange,” head football coach Mike Houston said in regards to the lack of fans for the opener. “It’s going to be something that we’ve never experienced before. I think especially when you factor in our fan base, our student body. It’s one of the things I think is the strength of our program; the passionate fans, the student section on game day, and certainly that’s a factor that helps us.”

ECU has struggled to fill Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium the last handful of years, but the athletic department sold north of 10,000 season tickets this off-season, just to see those fans, and any other form of spectator, barred from the contest by Governor Roy Cooper’s Phase 2.5 order.

Without the thousands of fans that no doubt planned to attend ECU’s season-opener, Houston said his team will be forced to adjust. That means bringing their own energy on the sideline and feeding off excitement and enthusiasm generated by teammates and the coaching staff. It is a similar process to what the Pirates have done with their trio of scrimmages inside Dowdy-Ficklen this summer and throughout practices this off-season.

“I think not having that is going to be something we’ll have to adjust to,” Houston said after ECU’s scrimmage on Friday. “It’s very much like what we had today. There might have been a handful of people out there watching this afternoon, but the stadium was mostly empty. That’s what it’s going to be like on game day.”

With kick-off a little less than 12 days away, Houston has taken his team’s focus and shifted it to game planning for UCF. After consuming film of Friday’s scrimmage and holding a limited contact practice on Sunday, the Pirates shifted into heavy install for the Knights.

As for the remainder of this week, Houston said he wants to treat it like a game week as much as possible by walking his young football team through all the protocols and procedures associated with playing a game on Saturday.

“We’ve got 54 brand new players in our program this year — they have no idea what our game week’s are like,” Houston said. “So we’re going to try to take them through Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; this is what game week is like. Friday we’re going to have a mock game simulation, we do that every year basically a week out. We’re going to go through locker room setup, pregame.”

A challenge to get everyone on the same page during a normal preseason, this year has been anything but normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Pirates are trending healthier everyday after experiencing a cluster of cases that prompted a 12-day pause in late August, steps will need to be taken to ensure that positive trend holds.

What exactly that looks like during the season remains to be seen, but we do know it will involve masks and social distancing on the sidelines, as well as in the locker rooms. Now with some guidance in their back pocket following meetings with the conference office, ECU can use this week to prepare its players for how facilities will look and operate so they will not be surprised during actual game weeks in-season.

“This stuff, it’s going to be new for everybody because this is COVID-19 locker room setup, COVID-19 pregame warmup,” Houston said. “Just how we do everything — sidelines, halftime — all that stuff. Try to take our kids through everything that we’re going to have when we get to game day the following Saturday.”

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