Signature wins can shape programs and coaching careers and come in all different forms. ECU’s 33-30 win over NC State in 2016 and 41-19 victory over North Carolina in 2018 serve as good examples of big-time wins for a program that has not eclipsed the five-win mark since 2015.

On Sept. 26, however, the Pirates have an opportunity to capture one of those elusive program-shifting victories when they welcome No. 14 ranked UCF to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to kick-off the 2020 season.

“That first big win that kind of validates what you’re doing,’ head coach Mike Houston said on Tuesday. “It’ll come in time. I don’t know when it’s going to come, I’d love for it to be the 26th and I think we’re going to play well against Central Florida. I think it’s going to be a great game.”

Houston, who won a FCS Championship at James Madison in 2016, is no stranger to pulling off upsets and pocketing signature wins. In 2015, a Houston-led Citadel squad took down Wofford, one of its biggest rivals. Later that same season, however, the Citadel traveled to South Carolina and knocked off the Gamecocks on the SEC Network by a score of 23-22 to give the Bulldogs their first victory over an FCS opponent since 1992.

A year later, Houston was winning a FCS title with James Madison, and took his Bulldogs to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and beat the Pirates 34-14 in 2017 en route to another FCS Championship Game appearance.

“I just think back to my second year at the Citadel,” Houston said. “When I got there, everybody told us, ‘don’t set your expectations too high, you can’t win championships here. You want to be competitive, go out and win your fair share, but don’t put your expectations too high.’ The kids believed that when we got there. That second year when we knocked off Wofford — first time that the Citadel had beaten them in like 20 years — we knocked off Wofford at home. That game was the signature win, and we rattled off many more that year, but that was the win that did it. You always remember that one win.”

The Pirates came close to picking up a signature win of their own in 2019, Houston’s first year in Greenville, North Carolina. Up multiple scores against a nationally ranked Cincinnati team in the fourth quarter, quarterback Holton Ahlers threw a pick-six, paving the way for an eventual 46-43 Bearcat victory.

Just a week later, ECU found itself in a back-and-forth contest with No. 23 SMU on the road. Big days from Tyler Snead and Ahlers, however, were not enough in a high-scoring loss late in the season.

In nearly two years with the Pirates, Houston has worked hard to shift the culture and attitude within the football program. He has added a certain level of discipline that was not always evident in previous years, and perhaps most importantly, he has recruited well and infused the roster with plenty of young talent.

With an established locker room culture in place and the feeling of family permeating throughout the facilities and practice fields, Houston said it is only a matter of time until change shows up on game day and the Pirates begin closing out big-time ball games.

“When that time comes, really what it does is that’s usually when you see a switch that has flipped within your players,” Houston said. “The Cincinnati game last year is a great example. For three and a half quarters, we played a phenomenal ball game, but we didn’t finish it. When that switch flips, you start finishing those games, you start closing out the Cincinnati game, closing out the SMU game.”

The 26th will represent ECU’s first nationally ranked opponent since they traveled to SMU in 2019. While it will be a challenge to knock-off a Knights team that will have a game already under its belt, Houston and his players are motivated to turn the Pirates’ fortunes around and thrust themselves firmly back into the national spotlight.

That begins with Mike Houston’s first signature win as a Pirate.

“It’s coming, I don’t know when,” Houston said. “Hopefully it’s next Saturday.”

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