In the nearly two years Mike Houston has helmed ECU’s football program, the locker room, as well as the players, have undergone many changes. A losing team with a losing attitude at first, Houston’s first full season in purple and gold was dedicated to cleaning up the culture, reshaping the team’s mindset and refocusing his players on the goals set forth by the program.

Four games into the 2020 season, and despite all that has transpired with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on college football, the growth players have experienced from good habits put in place by Houston are beginning to take hold on the football field.

“Just positive growth, there’s so many levels where you talk about that,” Houston said. “You have so many new players to the program, you have so many freshmen. You combine those guys with the returners that we have. You didn’t have the spring and summer and so you had a lot of just jelling all these individuals together and getting them schemately on the same page and jelling them as an offense, a defense, a special teams unit and as a program.

“I think just positive growth in all areas, whether it be on the field, off the field, individually, physically, off the field collectively as far as culture goes, locker room dynamics. I think just positive growth is what we’ve seen a lot of and that positive growth has been reflected in our play and our confidence on the field.”

ECU began showing flashes of a directional shift when it took a nationally ranked Cincinnati team to the brink last year. For three and a half quarters, the Pirates matched the Bearcats, and even held a two-score advantage down the stretch. A pick-six and game-winning field goal by Cincinnati later, however, and ECU was left with the feeling that one got away.

Just a week later against SMU, that feeling returned in a game that saw Tyler Snead rack up over 200 receiving yards and a combined 100 points scored between the two teams. All told, in two games against nationally ranked competition, the Pirates lost by a combined 11 points. Each time, there were a dozen small mistakes — usually by young players on the roster — that impeded the Pirates from finishing the game with an upper hand.

On Saturday against Navy, ECU was once again in prime position to pick up its first signature win under Houston. Trailing by seven points in the fourth quarter, but inside Navy’s red zone, the Pirates reeled off back-to-back negative plays after picking up an important fourth and two conversion. Those plays forced ECU to settle for a field goal on what would be the home team’s final possession of a 27-23 loss.

“The things that I want to see us do in the second half of the season — I think the most obvious is — I want to see us win those games like that game this past Saturday, like the Cincinnati and SMU games last year,” Houston said. “I want to see us continue to compete at a high level and learn how to close out those games against quality opponents. There’s a lot that goes into that. There’s a lot of individual things — whether it’s within specific position groups, or specific units — where you also want to see some things improve. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last two days as a staff talking about those things. The big thing is just getting over that hump. We feel like we’re right there.”

With such a young football team that features over 50 new faces, learning how to win will be an important step in the Pirates’ rebuilding efforts. Against USF, many of those new Pirates got their first taste of winning at the collegiate level after turning in their best week of preparation, according to Houston.

A year removed from dropping a 42-10 blowout at the hands of Navy, ECU hit the field completely different in just about every aspect. More hard-nosed, physical and equipped with a different mindset compared to a season ago, the Pirates once again pushed an American Athletic Conference rival to the brink of defeat.

“There’s no comparison to anything a year ago,” Houston said. “It’s night and day from a discipline, execution standpoint. Toughness, physicality, playing hard, it’s night and day. You had a couple of those fullback runs that maybe you had one mistake here or one mistake there, but there wasn’t much. I thought that the kids did a great job with the game plan the defensive staff put together.”

If Houston has his way in Greenville, the way ECU played on Saturday will be looked back on as having been a stepping stone to something much larger. With five games still on the schedule in 2020, the room for growth and development for this team is off the charts. The next step is, of course, winning football games, and a lot of them.

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