The Pirates are playing their best football of the season right now. While it may not be completely up to the standards Mike Houston envisions for the program at the end of this rebuild, ECU has lost the two games by a combined eight points after putting themselves in prime position to win each.

Those last two games, and ECU’s lone win of the season against USF, have marked something of a turning point in the on-field play of the program that Houston predicted was coming.

“I think you saw at the beginning of the year with no spring practice, no summer, a new defensive scheme and a mostly new defensive staff, you saw some struggles,” Houston said. “You’ve seen as the season has gone on, particularly in the last month, we’ve played better and better every single week.”

After giving up 50 points and over 550 yards of total offense per game through their first two contests, it was hard to imagine the Pirates playing worse on the defensive side of the football. Against stiff competition in UCF and Georgia State, ECU allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete passes at a 66.7% clip and rack up an average of 323 yards per game.

Lacking a stable rotation along the offensive line, ECU allowed 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks per game early in the season. To counter that, Blake Harrell’s defense failed to log a sack in its first two games of 2020 and averaged just three tackles for loss in that time span.

Even without D’Ante Smith and Noah Henderson along the offensive line, the Pirates seemingly have settled on a starting group that includes Nishad Strother, Avery Jones, Fernando Frye, Sean Bailey and Bailey Malovic. That grouping has started the last four games together at the same positions and have responded with increased protection of ECU’s quarterback.

In the last three games, the Pirates are allowing just 5.6 tackles for loss and one sack per game, a drastic decrease from earlier in the campaign. The run game has improved behind the more cohesive unit and can also be attributed to the standout play from freshman running back Rahjai Harris as the Pirates are averaging north of 200 yards on the ground per game over their last three.

Defensively, ECU is allowing just over 28 points per game in roughly the last month, while scoring an average of 32.3. After allowing seven passing touchdowns through two games, the Pirates have given up only two such scores while holding opposing offenses to less than 400 yards per contest, on average.

“The players have seen drastic improvement in their play week in and week out and you can directly attribute it to the improved performance in practice, improved preparation,” Houston said. “Offensively the last couple of walk-throughs that we had on Thursday and Friday of last week, you had zero MA’s. So you have no mistakes in hour-long walk-throughs. That tells you that the players are dialed in, that they are really focused.”

Coming off a missed Navy game and a subsequent bye week, junior quarterback Holton Ahlers turned in his best performance of the year against Tulsa on Friday night. A lone interception being the only mistake on his ledger, Ahlers passed for a season-high 330 yards and three touchdowns after completing 76% of his throws.

Defensively, ECU held Tulsa to just over 100 yards of offense in the first half and a 3-for-14 day overall on third down. The unit also broke through for three sacks and forced a trio of turnovers en route to putting the Pirates in a great position to win the ball game late.

Given Houston’s perspective, he is not surprised to see his team playing this way. For him success on the field begins with hard work in practice and that is exactly what the Pirates have been putting in this season. Even before all that work began showing up on the field, Houston could see success coming in improvements made every day on the fields behind Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

“The result is you have these heavy work days of Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and then you have those dialed in walk-throughs and it results in playing at a very high level on the field,” Houston said. “When you talk about determination, listen, there’s determination in the players that’s been there since the beginning of fall camp and there’s been significant improvement every single week since the beginning of fall camp. They have tremendous belief in the preparation because they’re seeing themselves play better and better on the field each week.”

Following a less than ideal outcome last week after some questionable officiating, ECU has responded with continued hard work in practice. That is what it will take to beat a solid Tulane that plays better than what the record suggests.

With the off-day on Tuesday this week to give student-athletes and coaches an opportunity to vote in the general election, the Pirates took advantage of their long weekend to get ready for the Green Wave.

“Very energetic practice coming off a solid Sunday practice,” Houston said on Tuesday. “I thought the kids practiced very, very well, a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, really good physicality. It was a really good Tuesday practice on a Monday. It gets us a touch ahead of schedule by the time we get to Wednesday because it gives us all day today to really look at that practice yesterday and also to continue looking at the Tulane stuff and all of our breakdowns and situations there…Good start to the week, excited about the matchup this weekend.”

The Pirates will look to continue carrying their good practices into game day on Saturday when they kick-off with Tulane at noon from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The game will only be opened to 7% capacity, but can be streamed on ESPN+.

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