On Friday night, the Pirates have a chance to do something they have not accomplished since 2013 in Conference USA; win three consecutive road league games. Since joining the American Athletic Conference, ECU has also yet to win back-to-back road conference games in the same season.
After defeating USF in convincing fashion earlier this month, however, the Pirates can improve their road league ledger to 2-0 with a win over the Golden Hurricane under the Friday night lights.
“We’re facing one of the better teams — if not possibly the best team — on our schedule,” ECU head football coach Mike Houston said. “I think just a very solid team from top to bottom, they’re strong in all three phases. Most of the guys are the group that played against us last year. It’s a team that is made up of fourth- and fifth-year players that have been in the program for multiple years. Very experienced, very big, very athletic, good football team. Going to be a great matchup for us.”
ECU rolls into its fifth game of the season following a bye week and a hard-fought loss at the hands of Navy. Without their junior quarterback, the Pirates out-gained Navy offensively, but could not get a critical fourth down stop late in the fourth quarter to piece together a potential game-winning drive.
After knocking on the door of 400 yards against the Midshipmen, ECU is likely to face a much stiffer defense in Tulsa. While the Golden Hurricane has yet to play a home game this season, they have faced the No. 11 team in the country twice (Oklahoma State and UCF), knocking off the Knights 34-26 and holding the Cowboys to just 16 points.
In the middle of a defense that will enter Saturday in the top-20 nationally in scoring defense and pass efficiency defense is junior linebacker Zaven Collins. An All-American candidate after earning second-team All-AAC honors in 2019, Collins has already pulled down Bednarik National Defensive Player of the Week honors following four tackles for loss against Oklahoma State in the season-opener.
Collins has 22 tackles thus far in 2020, but has already matched his eight tackles for loss from last season. To go along with that, the 6’4” 260-pound linebacker has notched three sacks, two interceptions (one returned for touchdown), one forced fumble and a safety through three games.
“I think he’s one of the best linebackers in our league and probably a guy that you’re going to see playing on Sunday,” Houston said of Collins. “Just from the game at the end of the season last year I thought he was just a quality player then, but I think he’s improved over the off-season. Big, can run — he had the interception returned for a touchdown on Friday night. He’s just a very active player, really plays downhill. When he triggers, he triggers very fast on the run and really gets downhill quickly. We’re going to have to do a good job of trying to take care of him Friday night.”
Collins is one of four defensive starters to return from last year’s Tulsa squad that thumped ECU 49-24 on Senior Day in Greenville. The Golden Hurricane also returned seven players that have made at least one career start. While Collins is the most experienced defensive player for Tulsa, having made 25 career starts, cornerbacks Allie Green IV and Akayleb Evans combine for 36 starts and stand 6’3” and 6’2”, respectively.
The most experienced players in Tulsa’s secondary, that duo is a big reason why opponents are averaging just 217 passing yards per game against the Golden Hurricane this season. Long, lanky and good in pass coverage, Green and Evans have combined for 20 tackles, one forced fumble and an interception thus far.
Of the six players listed on Tulsa’s depth chart at cornerback, four are at least 6’2”, with the others cracking six-feet. At the safety position, Tulsa features Lamar Mullins at 6’3” and Kendarin Ray at 6’4”.
“Their guys are going to be in your face and they’re big enough and they’re physical enough,” ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “They’re tall, they are long-armed and they don’t care. They may get an interference on one play, they’ll be right back at you the next play. Our kids are really going to have to concentrate on their technique, that’s what you got to do. You got to use release moves. You can’t just come off the line of scrimmage, you’ve got to be a good technician, you got to use your release moves. We got to help them some. We got to use motions, we got to move them around a little bit. You got to find some legal rubs in there to get them off man coverage.”
Last year, the Pirates were able to break through for 308 passing yards against Tulsa, but could only muster three first half points. The Golden Hurricane’s offense responded with 28 unanswered points through roughly two and half quarters on their way to racking up 669 yards, the most allowed by ECU in 2019.
From that game last year, very little has changed for Tulsa offensively. Before losing Shamari Brooks and his 2,700 career rushing yards to a torn ACL ahead of the season-opener, Tulsa was returning 100% of its rushing attack and total offensive yards.
Quarterback Zach Smith is also back for Tulsa, as is top wide receiver Keylon Stokes and Brooks’ top partner in the running back room in Corey Taylor II.
“They’re certainly a good offense,” ECU defensive coordinator Blake Harrell said. “Experienced quarterback who does a really nice job running the offense and putting the ball in the receivers’ hands. Huge up front, good running backs. Certainly a challenge for us. For us, I think we got to stop the run on what I call the normal downs, first and second down, and get them in third down situations, third and five, third and ten plus. The longer the better for us.”
Smith is in his second season as Tulsa’s starting quarterback after starting 10 games for Baylor. While he has posted nearly 4,000 yards through the air and 24 touchdowns in 15 games since transferring, Smith has yet to crack the 300-yard mark in 2020 after doing so five times in 2019.
With 14 catches and 216 receiving yards, Stokes is nearing the 2,000-yard plateau for his career and has seen Sam Crawford Jr. and Josh Johnson each catch at least 11 balls for 150-plus yards through three games this season. A byproduct of spreading the ball around like that means Tulsa has yet to record a 100-yard receiver in 2020.
“On first and second down, they’re very balanced,” Harrell said. “The quarterback is an RPO guy. If you bring a pressure, he’s going to throw it right where you brought the pressure from. You got to do a good job disguising those things, changing the looks up for him, whether it be different fronts, different coverages. They can certainly run the football, they proved that last week.”
Even with the absence of Brooks in the running back stable, Tulsa has put together some solid production with a three-headed tandem of Deneric Prince, Taylor and T.K. Wilkerson. With 109 yards and two touchdowns against USF last week, Prince paces the team with 232 yards on the ground.
As a trio, Prince, Taylor and Wilkerson have rushed for a combined 468 yards on 92 carries (5.1 yards per carry) through three games, equating to 156 yards per game from that grouping. Overall, Tulsa is good for 168 rushing yards per game this season behind an offensive line that features four, 300-pound starters.
With that size comes physicality, something the Pirates are preparing for after experiencing plenty of it in the blowout loss a season ago.
“As we tell our kids all week, and even during the bye week last week, the team that’s more physical, plays with better effort, better energy, better execution, is going to be the team that has a chance to win the ball game in the fourth quarter,” Harrell said. “I know that sounds kind of like a repeat from week-to-week but it’s very consistent from week-to-week.”
Tulsa is averaging seven plays of 20-plus yards this season with six of those ending in touchdowns. ECU has already surrendered 28 such plays and has only begun to play more soundly defensively over the last three halves spanning two games.
After playing a very physical and assignment-oriented game against Navy, the Pirates spent their bye week and subsequent week of preparation relearning some of the basics for defending a non-triple-option football team.
Mixing up coverages and keeping Tulsa’s big offensive line off-balance with pressures and different looks will be critical in effecting the rhythm and timing of Smith in the pocket. Matching the physicality ECU will receive on the offense side of the ball will be equally as important to make sure the necessary big plays are available when the Pirates want to take a shot down the field.
“I don’t think our team really compares in any way to last year’s team,” Houston said. “I think we all know that — from just a competitive standpoint and for a lot of reasons. The one thing that stood out to me during that matchup last year was just how big physically Tulsa was on both sides of the ball. Big receivers, big DBs, big defensive front, big offensive front, it’s just a large football team. Same guys are back, so you do know what to expect right there. That’s the reason I think our ability to play fast and play a very physical game Friday night is going to be very important.”
The Pirates have the personnel to accomplish that on Friday, but just how much success ECU has on both sides of the football will once again boil down to their ability to execute on a consistent basis.
“I think we’ve got to continue to build on our last two games out,” Houston said. “In both of those games we executed at a much higher level than we did earlier in the season. We had very few MA’s up front on the offensive line against Navy and against South Florida. Because of that execution, we were very productive in the run game and the quarterbacks had a lot more time in the pocket.”
ECU and Tulsa are scheduled to kick-off inside H.A. Chapman Stadium on Friday at 9 p.m. eastern time. The game will be televised on ESPN2.