A second American Athletic Conference win this season would give ECU its most since 2017 and keep the purple and gold from falling to 1-5 for just the second time since 2004.
Willie Fritz and Tulane stand in the way of that and represent a program that has been built to embody what Mike Houston wants at ECU.
“I know coach Fritz very, very well, have a tremendous amount of respect for him,” Houston said. “He and I had similar paths to our current positions. We met along the way when I was at The Citadel and I know the traits of his teams and the way he runs his program. He believes in a lot of the same things I do. His team is going to be a hard-nosed, tough bunch. They’re going to play with physicality, they’re going to have some discipline.”
Houston is 0-1 against Fritz in his head coaching tenure following a 48-13 loss to Georgia Southern in 2015 while at The Citadel. Fritz also has an undefeated record against the Pirates having beat them in back-to-back years of 2017 and 2018.
This year, Fritz is bringing one of the most experienced defensive lines in the country with him to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The starting combination of D’Andre Williams, Patrick Johnson, Cam Sample and Jeffery Johnson have a combined 124 career starts under their belt. That group accounted for 167 tackles in 2019 and is a big reason why the Green Wave will enter Saturday inside the top-ten nationally in tackles for loss per game at 8.9.
“Defensively they got eight starters back from last year’s team, so they’ve got some experience,” ECU offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said. “Got a lot of respect for a couple of their guys, too. The two defensive ends, you better have a game plan for them. The one linebacker, who did not play last week, can really cause some tough times out there. They’re used to winning, they were a bowl team last year.”
Tulane is fresh off back-to-back 7-6 seasons and won its sixth bowl game in program history in 2019. The Green Wave returned 14 total starters from that team, including eight on the defensive side of the ball and six offensively. With a sizable class of seniors and graduate students, not to mention their 25 juniors, Tulane fields nine players who have made more than 20 career starts.
“I think we matchup well,” Kirkpatrick said. “The one thing is, we haven’t played them, and I haven’t played (against) any of these kids because it’s been a long time since I played Tulane. I know that Holton was telling me about how they played down there and some stuff. He’s played against a couple of these kids. Sometimes film is a little deceiving, you’re not 100% sure…This will be a little bit of a feeling it out type deal. I think right now we’re just concentrating a little bit more on us.”
ECU is fresh off posting a season-high in passing yards and racking up north of 400 yards of total offense. While last Friday night’s outcome was less than ideal, the Pirates showcased why it is safe to believe they are playing their best football of the season thus far.
Going up against an experienced defense on Saturday will test that notion as the Green Wave will be just a week removed from holding Temple to 222 yards and zero touchdowns in a blow out victory. That performance marked the first since Fritz took over in 2016 that Tulane had held an AAC opponent without a touchdown.
“You look at them defensively. Veteran group, plays very well together…They’re going to be a physical bunch, they’re going to play hard, they’re going to play with discipline, they’re going to compete,” Houston said.
Offensively, Tulane failed to miss a beat despite switching quarterbacks early in the season. True freshman Michael Pratt took over for redshirt senior Keon Howard after two games, becoming just the seventh freshman quarterback to start a game for the Green Wave since 1975.
Against Temple, Pratt became the first true freshman Tulane signal-caller to start a game and earn a victory since 1985. Since grabbing the job, Pratt has tossed nine touchdowns against just three interceptions and racked up nearly 900 yards through the air.
“Now you’ve seen him grow as a starter and play better and better each week,” Houston said. “Now you see him play very well against Temple. He’s a guy that can beat you with his legs, he’s an above average runner. He has really good size, throws the deep ball very, very well and has improved as a passer each week. I think you’re seeing improved play there at the quarterback position which helps because they’re very good at the skill positions, at the wide receiver position.”
Pratt is currently tied for third nationally among freshmen with those nine passing touchdowns, but leads all true freshmen in that category. To complement his skills throwing the football, Pratt also possesses the ability to run the ball. In each of the last four games, the freshman has carried the ball at least 10 times, including a 12-carry, 56-yard effort a week ago against Temple.
Despite his 60 carries, Pratt’s rushing numbers do not jump off the page. That is because he has been sacked 17 times for over 100 yards in just five games played. When he is able to break containment, however, Pratt has the tools to make a defense pay with his legs.
“He’s a name that we’re going to know for a long time,” ECU defensive coordinator Blake Harrell said. “He’s a kid that’s gutsy with the ball. When I say gutsy, if it’s not there, he’s going to take off and scramble and he’s not going to slide. He’s going to pick up some yards with his feet. He’s making good decisions, really hasn’t made a whole lot of bad decisions for a freshman quarterback and he throws a nice ball. He’s a kid that a year from now is going to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league.”
Having a quarterback that can run fits perfectly into what Tulane wants to do offensively. In 2019, the Green Wave was one of the top rushing teams in the country and has racked up at least 200 yards on the ground in 13 of their last 20 games dating back to the start of 2019.
For most perspective, Tulane has picked up at least 100 yards rushing in 59 of its last 60 games and already owns six 100-plus yard efforts and four 200-plus yard games in 2020.
Tyjae Spears started the season off eclipsing the 100-yard barrier twice, but was ruled out for the season after tearing his ACL three games into the campaign. In his stead, Stephon Huderson and Cameron Carroll emerged as Tulane’s top running backs, both racking up north of 400 yards this season. Amare Jones is third on the roster with 274 rushing yards after picking up 92 on 12 carries against Temple.
Thirteen total touchdowns have been scored between those three running backs as Tulane will enter Saturday averaging better than 224 rushing yards per game in 2020.
“The thing that stands out to me is just their run game,” Harrell said. “They’re averaging 225 a game on the ground, I think that’s second in the league. Their running backs are probably their best overall position and they got a group of them back there. Twenty (Carroll) , No. 5 (Huderson), No. 11 (Jones), all three are special in their own way. Twenty is a bigger kid, not quite as big as the kid from Tulsa, but still 220-225 pounds. So we got to make sure we do a great job tackling him. No. 11, he’ll play in the backfield, he’ll play out wide, he’ll come in motion, catch the jet, so we got to make sure we know where he’s at, at all times.”
ECU features its own stellar running attack behind true freshman Rahjai Harris. Averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 89.6 yards per contest, Harris would become the first Pirate running back since Leonard Henry in 2001 to post four consecutive 100-plus yard games with such an effort on Saturday. Already Harris’ 448 yards through five games is the third-most in program history and tops for a freshman.
Getting the running game going against a team that is solid against it will be key for the Pirates on Saturday. Executing at a high level is something ECU has done well over the last month and will need to continue as the schedule stiffens late in the year.
Matching what Tulane brings to the table with intensity and physicality is what Houston is looking for from his team on Saturday afternoon. If the Pirates can do that, they have a good shot at defending a Green Wave team that has made ECU a five-point home underdog.
“You better continue to play very well together and better continue to do the things that good football teams do, we got to continue to strive to be the most physical team on the field,” Houston said. “We’ve got to continue to strive to play with tremendous energy, which you’re seeing every game, you see it at practice. We’ve got to continue to do a great job with ball security and we’ve got to try to force turnovers and extra possessions defensively. We’ve got to execute at a very high level, minimal MA’s, minimal busts, make our opponents work to defeat us and make them work to get anything going offensively. I think we’ve got to be strong on special teams.
“All that sounds very cliche, but the thing is you’re playing a team that does all those things. They’re a good football team. You see teams that have great players and certainly Tulane has great players, but they play together very, very well. I think you’re going to see two teams go at it this Saturday that have all those traits, so it should be a great ball game.”
ECU and Tulane are scheduled to kick-off at noon on Saturday from Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. The game can be streamed on ESPN+.