Another week brings another challenge for ECU’s football program. A shortened 2020 season for the Pirates kicked off with the tough task of playing the best team in the American Athletic Conference in UCF. From a face-paced, high octane offense in the Knights, ECU moves on to a Georgia State program on the rise under head coach Shawn Elliot.

“Challenging game this week,” ECU head coach Mike Houston said. “Georgia State — very, very impressive on film. I’ve known Shawn Elliot for a long time going all the way back to when he was an assistant coach at Appalachian and I was an assistant coach at Lenoir-Rhyne. Our paths have crossed numerous times over the years. So knowing him and his personality, when I flip on the film, I see a team that looks like a team that the coach has been there for a while, been able to build the roster. I think they play kind of his style.”

Houston and his coordinators have crossed paths with Elliot and his staff. In 2015, Houston and now-ECU defensive coordinator Blake Harrell guided a Citadel team that defeated an Elliot-led South Carolina program. Harrell also faced Georgia State offensive coordinator Brad Glenn in the Southern Conference when the pair coached at The Citadel and Western Carolina, respectively.

“Their OC was in the Southern Conference with us, I faced him I think five different times, and he’s changed over the years,” Harrell said. “When he was in the SoCon, he was probably a little bit pass heavy, probably 60-40 pass. Now, we have him broke down more like 70-30 run, depending on the down and distance, those types of things.”

Glenn’s shift in play calling may very well have to do with his personnel at Georgia State. Last year, Tra Barnett rushed for over 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns as the Panthers broke every meaningful offensive record in their program’s short history. Quarterback Dan Ellington threw for north of 2,400 yards and Georgia State went bowling in 2019, their third appearance since 2015.

This year, however, both Barnett and Ellington are gone, giving way to junior running back Destin Coates and redshirt freshman signal caller Cornelious Brown. In the debut of that new duo, the Panthers took then-nationally ranked Louisiana to the brink, eventually losing 34-31 in overtime.

Coates turned in one of the best single-game rushing performances in Georgia State history in the loss, racking up 150 yards on the ground and adding another 21 through the air. Brown made his first career start and went 22-for-39 for 196 yards and a touchdown. With his legs, the 6’5” quarterback rushed for 64 yards and a score on 15 carries.

“Tall, rangy, very athletic quarterback,” Houston said. “Brad Glenn, the OC, was also an Appalachian State guy, he was at Western Carolina when I was at The Citadel. They have the style of stand-up athletes there on offense that Brad likes. Dual-threat quarterback, going to give us a lot of problems in the run game and the pass game. Coates is a very talented running back, older kid. Runs with some power, has speed. I thought that they worked Louisiana-Lafayette over pretty good for about 3.5 quarters, and Lafayette broke a couple long plays in the fourth to send it to overtime and was able to win it in overtime.”

Saturday will serve as the first time these two programs have met. In fact, it will be the first time since ECU’s Peach Bowl win in 1992 that the Pirates will travel to Atlanta with the purpose of playing football. Some 28 years after that fateful New Year’s Day, the Pirates will be loading a young and inexperienced team on the plane to make the trek south.

In last Saturday’s loss to UCF, the Pirates played 25 different student-athletes on the defensive side of the ball. Of those, 19 either took their first snaps as Pirates or played the first significant snaps of their career (more than 10 or 15). While that unit held up for a quarter and a half against a top-15 attack in UCF, extra Knight possessions off ECU turnovers proved too much as the Pirates allowed 41 unanswered points in a 51-28 loss.

From week-to-week, however, one thing remains the same for the Pirates defensively; stop the run. From there, work on shutting down the option game Georgia State loves to employ and force them into obvious throwing situations with their young quarterback.

“Our goal is still the same; stop the run first, make them throw the football, especially with a young quarterback,” Harrell said. “You’re talking about a redshirt freshman who started his first true start two weeks ago when they played Louisiana. Played really well, but he’s still a young guy and still early in his career. He’s going to throw the RPO. I say they’re a zone read option football team that’s going to throw the RPO off of it, and on third down going to have a drop back passing game.”

Defensively, the Panthers are returning three or their top-four tacklers from a season ago. Linebackers Trajan Stephens-McQueen and Victor Heyward led the way for Georgia State in tackles a season ago and combined for 10 against Louisiana with two interceptions.

Senior nose guard Dontae Wilson forced two tackles for loss in the Panthers’ first game after stuffing the stat sheet with 47 tackles (seven for a loss), three sacks and two forced fumbles in 2019.

“It’s a slant and angle defense, which means they’re always moving up front,” ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said about Georgia State. “They play way back off the ball. If you really watch football and you don’t just watch the ball, and you really watch the game, you’ll notice most defensive lines are right up on the football, as close to the football as they can get. They want to get that quick start. Their d-line is literally a yard off the ball. It’s like 20 years ago type deal. I know when I coached the defensive ends at Appalachian State back in the late-80s, this is the way you played. More of a read front, everybody was slanting and angling as well.”

Against UCF, the Pirates often kept tight ends and running backs close to the line of scrimmage to help in the pass blocking game. As the game wore on, the Knights adjusted and began bringing pressure up the middle of the offensive line instead of around the edges. That seemed to be more effective at flushing Holton Ahlers out of the pocket and forcing him into uncomfortable situations.

Georgia State, while their defensive scheme is similar to ECU’s according to Kirkpatrick, they can bring pressure in a variety of ways and from many different places.

“There’s so many twists, there’s so many different linebacker blitzes…many different ways to bring four guys and five guys,” Kirkpatrick said. “It confuses you, it gets you to play kind of an ugly game. You can’t get rhythm. You’ll get big plays because you’ll catch them in a movement, but then they’ll catch you. You have to be careful about having a lot of lost yardage plays and they play really, really hard.”

One of the big storylines to watch this week will be how ECU’s young football team performs in its first road game of the season. According to Houston, it will be the first time many of his new players have ever been on a plane. Couple that with all the COVID-19 protocols and it can begin to get overwhelming for the younger guys on the roster.

Still, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Pirates a 44.2% chance of winning on Saturday and is favoring Georgia State by 1.5 points at home.

“Talented opponent on the road,” Houston said. “Going to be a great challenge. Will be a great test for our squad and I look forward to us having a good week of practice and being ready to play on Saturday.”

The Pirates and Panthers are scheduled to kick-off on Saturday at noon in Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta. The game will be televised on ESPNU.

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