Mike Houston is no stranger to playing in cold weather. In three seasons at James Madison, Houston guided his team deep into FCS playoffs that were held in December and January.
Since taking the job at ECU, however, those cold weather opportunities have been few and far between with the mild and oftentimes humid conditions in eastern North Carolina. A late-October trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma to face the Golden Hurricane in a night game, though, has the Pirates facing some colder weather.
Weather.com has the temperature at the 8 p.m. central kick-off at 53 degrees. By around halftime, that number is predicted to drop to around 50 degrees and continue falling to 48 by 11 p.m. There is a 5% chance of rain from 9 p.m. on and a very light 5 MPH wind predicted.
“It’s perfect,” Houston said on Wednesday. “It’s 47 degrees, that’s balmy. It’s not like it’s going to be 22 or 15. We’ve had late-season games before, we’d tee-off and it’s in the 10’s. There’s going to be virtually no wind. It’s going to be great football weather. I talked to our kids about preparing for that, I’ll talk to them a little bit more tomorrow. I know we’ve had some very comfortable weather this week. To me, you think of Friday night football, late-season football, that’s the way it’s played. It’s played in those kind of conditions and the teams that kind handle that, those are the ones that thrive.”
In Houston’s nearly two years in Greenville, a certain shift has taken place in the Pirates’ locker room. The culture has experienced a turnaround and Houston has begun building a football team that loves practicing and plays with physicality and a purpose.
Part of that toughness he wants his program to have includes the mental toughness to play through less than normal conditions. While Friday night will not feature a kick-off in the 20’s, it will likely be the coldest weather ECU has faced so far this season.
“That really fits the core thing when we talk about building our program,” Houston said. “We’re building a physical football team. We’ve come so far, we have a long way to go, but we’re building a team that’s going to be able to play well in that environment. I think it’s a great time to have that kind of a game.”
The Pirates wanted to play Tulsa last weekend after building momentum with the way they played against Navy. After getting blown out by the Midshipmen in 2019, ECU responded by out-gaining their competition on Oct. 17 and whittling Navy’s lead to just one score in the fourth quarter.
Without some negative plays in the red zone, the Pirates were well on their way to tying the contest with their back-up quarterback in the game and five total players out with COVID-19-related issues.
While the bye week offered the opportunity to get some players back healthy, Houston hopes the time off did not interrupt his team’s momentum after executing at a high level two weeks ago against Navy.
“I got a lot of optimism going into Friday just because of how the kids have worked,” Houston said. “I think we continue to improve. I think certainly getting some of the guys back that were out is going to boost our entire roster. I think just continuing to develop both sides — we’re going to continue to play better and that’s the goal Friday night. We’ve kind of laid out our plan consistently throughout the week of the things I think we need to do Friday night in order to win the ball game.”
Keeping Tulsa from consistently running the football while at the same time getting their own running game going will be a big key for the Pirates on Friday. Following his positive COVID-19 test and subsequent quarantine, Holton Ahlers returned to practice on Saturday and worked back into form throughout the week.
The Pirates need more than 224 yards per game out of their junior signal-caller and need the offensive line to be more consistent in pass and run blocking. Moving the football against a solid Tulsa defense will be a challenge for offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick and the Pirates, but a week off has ECU motivated to get back on the field.
“We finished our practice today with a two-minute drill and put Jake Verity in a situation to win the ball game,” Houston said. “We want to give ourselves that opportunity Friday night. It’s going to be a four-quarter battle and we’re going to have to fight our tails off. Our group is confident and they’re ready to go out there and fight.”