ECU had been waiting for its defense to turn a corner under new defensive coordinator Blake Harrell. Through two games, the Pirates ranked last in the country in scoring defense, yielding 50 points per game. While that was largely to be expected given ECU’s first two opponents of the year and the abbreviated and interrupted off-season, it was not a sustainable model for success.

On Saturday night, playing in their second consecutive road game, the Pirates looked much more relaxed on the field following what head coach Mike Houston described as the team’s best week of preparation thus far. Through a half, however, ECU was actually out-gained by USF despite holding a two touchdown advantage.

After giving up nearly 300 yards of total offense in the initial 30 minutes of game action, the Pirates’ defense seemed to settle in as Harrell ramped up the pressure and got after USF quarterback Jordan McCloud. What resulted was just 101 yards of offense for the Bulls in the second half that included only six non-penalty first downs.

“Just execution,” ECU linebacker Aaron Ramseur said regarding the defense’s better play. “I felt like just executing the plays, perfecting everything, just the little details that count in a big game. This was a big game for us and it worked out well. Just perfection and practice, making everything count when it comes down to it.”

Entering the game, ECU had yet to record a sack and had really struggled to get much penetration into the backfield despite consistently bringing pressure. That pressure likely to be a staple of Harrell’s defense, getting home when you bring extra guys is vital in not giving up big plays or giving the quarterback too much time in the pocket.

With freshman Elijah Morris making his first start at defensive tackle and Chris Willis and Rick D’Abreu continuing to get experience up front in purple and gold, ECU’s defensive line seemed to get a good push all night long. That resulted in just 92 rushing yards for the Bulls despite 34 carries after they entered play averaging better than 160 yards on the ground per game.

“I thought they played very well,” Houston said about his defensive line. “Those defensive coaches — coach Harrell has done a great job with them. We play at a high level, we have a ton of energy, we have a ton of intensity, we’re becoming more and more physical every week, and it all starts with that front. I’ll tell you, you give Roy Tesh a couple years with that front right there and that’s going to be a nasty bunch, they’re going to be a hard-nosed bunch.”

Playing well was one thing the Pirates wanted to accomplish after two weeks of substandard results, but doing it on the road made it that much more meaningful. With some help from their linebacker corps, the Pirates racked up five sacks on the evening, five more than they entered the game with. Ramseur, Jireh Wilson and Xavier Smith combined for four of those sacks and eight of ECU’s 13 total tackles for loss on Saturday.

“I don’t know that I expected us to come out here and get a 20 victory on the road against a team that, quite frankly, East Carolina has struggled against over the years,” Houston said. “I’m very proud of all three phases, offense, defense, special teams. Obviously we got some things we got to correct, some things we got to improve on, but we did so many things well this week that we’ve been struggling with. So that was really good to see.”

With Navy looming on Saturday and road games against Tulsa and Cincinnati still on the docket, the Pirates’ defense needed the confidence boost that their first win of the season provided. As Harrell continues to gain familiarity with his personnel and the personnel continues to get comfortable in the scheme, performances like last Saturday, particularly the second half, should show up more and more.

“It just gives us that juice for the next game,” Ramseur said. “This is what we needed. Now, everybody is already talking about Navy in the locker room, like we got to focus on Navy, we got to get Navy, moving on to the next game, try to make winning addictive. That’s kind of what we want to do. If we can get this win today, what not next week?”

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