As ECU defensive coordinateur Blake Harrell put it, “nothing like opening up with a top-13 team.” That is what the Pirates are tasked with on Saturday when they welcome UCF to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to officially end one of the longest off-season’s in ECU football history.
Not since 1947 have the Pirates opened their season as late as Sept. 26, but they do sport a 7-2 record on the date since 1953.
On Saturday, ECU will need every bit their Sept. 26 luck behind them against a powerhouse UCF team guided by Josh Heupel. With a convincing 49-21 win over Georgia Tech last weekend, UCF improved to 36-4 in its last 40 games, a mark that covers the Knights’ 41-28 victory over ECU in 2019.
“Obviously we have a great opponent coming in here Saturday,” ECU head coach Mike Houston said. “UCF is one of the top teams in the country. We saw witness of that this past weekend when they took on a much-improved Georgia Tech team who I watched against Florida State the weekend before in their win down in Tallahassee. UCF was very impressive in their blowout win this past Saturday in Atlanta, putting up 660 yards and scoring 49 points. Tough opponent coming in here, but it’s good to start off with what has been the best team in the AAC over the past three seasons.”
UCF is one of the best teams in the country at scoring points in bunches. Since Aug. 31, 2017, the Knights have racked up at least 30 points in 38 of their last 39 games. They have scored 24 points in 40 straight contests and 50 points in 12 of their last 39 games.
Last season and into this one, that offensive attack has been tailored around UCF’s sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel. Against the Pirates last season, Gabriel tossed for 365 yards and two touchdowns, but set a career-high with 417 yards through the air a week ago.
“They have several weapons,” Harrell said. “The quarterback is really good. I think he’s the guy right now that kind of makes it go and can get the ball in everybody’s hands.”
Both Marlon Williams and Jaylon Robinson eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark in the Knights’ opener, while their top returning pass-catcher from a season ago, Tre Nixon, missed the entire second half with an injury.
Still, UCF possesses a wealth of talent, including one of the best returning running back rooms by production in the country.
“Obviously their talent and speed and athleticism across the board in all three phases is going to be a challenge,” Houston said. “You watch them from the opening kick-off Saturday against Georgia Tech — and like I said, I think Georgia Tech has an improved roster — the speed differential was drastic. I think it’s something we experienced last year down in Orlando, so we have a good feel for it from that game.”
Last season, the Pirates experienced first-hand what is perhaps UCF’s biggest weapon on offense: tempo. At halftime, ECU was down 35-6 after the Knights scored 21 points in the first quarter alone. While the Pirates did come back with 22 points in the second half, the deficit proved to be too great in an eventual loss.
Heading into this year’s matchup, the Pirates messaging revolves heavily around staying in the fight.
“We got to withstand the first quarter,” Harrell said. “Last year — it didn’t show up as much last week — last year they led the nation in scoring offense in the first quarter. Second and third quarter, I think they were 100th and the fourth quarter they were 118th in the nation in scoring offense. Last week that didn’t necessarily hold true, but that’s kind of what we’ve talked to our kids about. ‘Hey, you got to stay in the fight for four quarters. You got to hang in there and keep it close and keep fighting.’ Part of that for us is play a lot of guys, keep rotating in and out and just keep them fresh.”
Houston said he has been equating this week’s game to a boxing match with Mike Tyson. You know you are going to come out and get punched in the face early, but it is about weathering that storm and hanging around until the latter portions of the contest that will matter most.
With such a young football team, especially on the defensive side of the ball, Houston wants to see his players come out and make a stand in the first half and keep the game close. That, he said, will help with the confidence of some players who will be participating in their first collegiate football game this weekend.
“We’ve got to go out, we’ve got to compete and go at them from the get-go and not get behind like we did last year,” Houston said. “I thought Georgia Tech did a decent job of that last week. They had three drives in the first quarter that all got down in the red zone. The disappointing thing for them was only coming away with seven points. I think if we can get a fast start offensively and just keep a really competitive game, I think that’ll help our kids’ confidence.”
Along the defensive line is where ECU’s youth and inexperience figures to show up the most. Aside from graduate transfer Chris Willis and senior Hozey Haji-Badri, the Pirates are largely void of experience along their defensive front.
What ECU does have up front is depth and they plan to use plenty of it on Saturday against UCF.
“I think we’re going to dress — we may dress more — but I think in our travel party I think there’s like 12-14 within there,” Harrell said. “I say we’ll at least play 12. Six on the edges and probably six in the middle. I would say at least two-deep, probably three-deep at times and just keep those guys fresh as much as possible.”
Rotating guys provides unique challenges on Saturday. At times, UCF loves to get into an up-tempo offensive attack where they will rip off five or six plays as quickly as the ball is spotted and they get lined up. For a team like the Pirates that wants to play a lot of guys, finding the right time to substitute and get the right personnel on the field is going to be difficult.
“When they do substitute, we obviously got to take advantage of that and substitute,” Harrell said. “If we happen to see a deep ball down the field, we’ve kind of been practicing some opportunities where a play-side corner, a play-side safety may roll in or roll out, just to kind of stay fresh there. By series as well. Just kind of keep those guys fresh and get them to the fourth quarter and see what happens from there.”
This week during practice, ECU’s scout team will be tasked with simulating that up-tempo offense, something Houston said they began prepping for last week.
While UCF is heavily favored, Saturday will provide ECU’s coaching staff with an early look at the progression of their team from year-to-year. Starting the season with the preseason favorite to win the American Athletic Conference that already has a game under its belt is not ideal, but at least it will be the return of another season of football in Eastern North Carolina.
“We get a chance to start off with them at home, so it’s an exciting matchup for our players,” Houston said. “They’re excited about it, they’re excited about being at home for the opener. Can’t wait to get out on the field. I expect us to have a good week of practice this week. I expect us to come out fired up and ready to go on Saturday, 12:05 kick-off. It’ll be good to be back to some Pirate football.”
Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium is closed to the public on Saturday, but the game will be televised nationally on ABC, beginning at noon.