Running the football is always going to be part of ECU’s DNA as long as Mike Houston is standing on the sideline. Last year, Houston’s first in Greenville, the Pirates often had to abandon the run game late in contests due to the score, and just the overall ineffectiveness of the ground attack.

Down multiple scores late against UCF on Saturday, however, the Pirates seemed to turn toward a much-improved run game. After rushing the football 23 times in the first half, ECU kept the ball on the ground 31 times in the final 30 minutes of their season-opener despite being down big.

Over a 54-carry body of work on Saturday, ECU’s running back room showcased why Houston believes it is four- or five-deep with talent, racking up 244 yards and a touchdown on a 4.5 yards per carry clip. Twenty of those carries were soaked up by true freshmen Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris, while Arkansas transfer Chase Hayden was called on nine times.

“They’re talented,” quarterback Holton Ahlers said postgame. “I’ve known that since the day they got here that they were talented. Each game, each snap is experience for them that they’re going to be better. They’re going to be great backs here, they already are pretty good.”

Mitchell led the Pirates in the production department, using his eight carries to rack up 66 yards. The freshman also caught two passes for 18 yards. Harris broke a long run late that would have resulted in a touchdown had it not been called back on one the Pirates’ 11 penalties. Nevertheless, both he and Hayden finished with 42 yards on the ground each on a combined 21 carries. Hayden also caught a pass for 31 yards in his Pirate debut.

Pinnix, the lone returning running back that saw action on Saturday, accounted for two touchdowns, one in the receiving department as well as a three-yard ground score with 8:09 left in the fourth quarter. His 17-yard touchdown on a screen pass from Ahlers represented ECU’s first touchdown of the 2020 season and was also Pinnix’s first collegiate receiving score.

“We’re always going to play several (running backs),” Houston said after the game. “I just think that allows you to have fresh guys in the fourth quarter. They better take care of the football or they’re not going to be out there, I don’t like that. We can’t have ball security issues. Really encouraged with the young backs and the way they played late in the game when they got their opportunity there in the second half. I thought Pinnix ran with a lot of toughness today. We got to evaluate the film and see everything, but certainly I really like our running back room.”

Without some mistakes, ECU very well could have eclipsed the 300-yard rushing mark. A handful of Pinnix’s runs were called back, including a nine-yard rush in the second quarter that would have converted a critical third down. Following the penalty, ECU was unable to pick-up the conversion, leaving just enough time on the clock for UCF to score again before the half.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Saturday’s game for the Pirates was the three fumbles lost and four total on the afternoon. On consecutive possessions in the first quarter, ECU fumbled the ball away, with Ahlers, Pinnix and Hayden all committing the critical error. It was the first time in nearly two years that ECU had suffered that many fumbles, while the Pirates’ four total turnovers on Saturday were their most since Nov. 23, 2018.

“We got to improve, that’s it,” Houston said. “I think that the kids showed that they’re going to play hard. The kids showed that they’re going to play with some physicality and intensity and energy, that’s a big key, but we got to eliminate the mistakes. I was hoping that we wouldn’t have those in the first game. Reality is, and I know this and I’ve coached in a lot of first games, you usually go through that. You don’t have the turnovers, you don’t have the penalties and it’s a different game, but we did. We got to fix them.”

With such an unorthodox preseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ECU, and many other teams around the country, did not get to focus on fundamentals as much as they would have liked. In the season’s first couple games that is showing up and leading to important mistakes in big moments.

On Saturday, UCF and ECU combined for 30 penalties and 244 penalty yards with the Pirates accounting for 105 of those yards.

With a roster chalked full of young and inexperienced personnel, the Pirates will make their fair share of mistakes early this season. For many that saw action in ECU’s backfield on Saturday, it was either their first collegiate experience or their first time touching the ball in a competitive game in purple and gold. As the season wears on, and many of the new Pirates get experience under their belts, expect to see the number of mis-ques dwindle.

“Every snap is an experience,” Houston said. “You see veteran ball clubs — and certainly I’ve had a bunch of them — you see veteran ball clubs, they don’t make those mistakes. Veteran ball clubs don’t turn the ball over in critical situations, veteran ball clubs don’t have those critical penalties. That comes from experience, so every snap these young kids play is experience. Every snap that they play they’re going to improve.

“So glad we played today, I can’t wait to we play again. It’s really kind of rejuvenating to be as excited to go play again because I know that we’re going to continue to improve. Their attitudes have been so positive. If we can keep them there, then they are going to continue to improve, they’re going to continue to get better.”

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