ECU enters Friday night’s game fresh off posting its lowest single-game rushing total under Mike Houston. On 29 attempts against Tulane’s stout defensive front, the Pirates managed just 35 yards on the ground, eclipsing their previous single-game worst of 41 in the 2019 season-opener.

ECU’s top-two leading rushers, Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell, were held to just over two yards per carry as that duo failed to execute a run longer than 12 yards. While Tulane’s veteran defensive line played a large role in stuffing ECU’s rushing attack, offensive coordinator Donnie Kirkpatrick said earlier this week that Harris has been dealing with some minor bumps and bruises.

Nothing out of the ordinary for freshmen adapting to playing at the collegiate level, Houston equated Harris’ and Mitchell’s experience to getting hit by a Mack Truck earlier this year. Nevertheless, both responded well this week in practice, according to Houston, as they continue to develop their bodies for football at this level.

“They both looked sharp today,” Houston said after practice on Wednesday. “It’s something that I think the common person that never played college football cannot grasp. For the guys that are first-year players, they are playing a college football season for the first time in their life. There is no comparison to high school football as far as just everything that goes along with it. It’s different when you’re a fourth- and fifth-year player and you’ve had four solid years in the weight room and you have a developed body and you’re built for that long season. Now, both of those guys are pretty exceptional for freshmen, they’ve rebounded very well this week.”

Both Harris and Mitchell are vital to what the Pirates have done offensively in 2020. Harris already has three 100-yard rushing games under his belt. With 100 yards on Friday, Harris would become the first ECU running back since Tay Cooper in 2013 to have four in a single season.

Mitchell has been active in the return game for ECU, averaging 21.8 yards per return on his four attempts in 2020. He is also the Pirates’ second-leading rusher with 148 yards on 38 attempts.

As a team, ECU is averaging 155.5 rushing yards per game through six contests, a number that ranks toward the middle of the pack in the FBS. Still, the Pirates’ 933 yards on the ground through the season’s initial six games are the fifth-most in program history and only 40 yards shy of the number posted in 2019, Houston’s first in Greenville.

This year’s number, much like the other offensive statistics ECU has amassed, have come against much improved competition. Through the first six games of 2019, ECU faced two FCS opponents and just two conference teams. In 2020, with COVID-19 throwing scheduling into a crisis, ECU opened against No. 13 ranked UCF and has faced a total of five conference foes and six FBS programs.

On Friday night, ECU runs into the No. 7 team in the country, a program that has held opposing offenses to 96.3 rushing yards per game this season and just 11.7 points per contest. Both of those numbers rank in the upper-15 in the FBS and present a challenge for an ECU team that just ruled out two of its better offensive linemen for the rest of the season.

Nevertheless, the Pirates played a 17th ranked Cincinnati team very well in 2019, ultimately losing 46-43 on a game-winning field goal. With the confidence from that game and a couple competitive losses this year, Houston’s squad knows they can compete against anyone in the country.

That is the culture Houston has established in his nearly two years in Greenville. After two really good weeks of preparation resulted in promising results on game day earlier this season, Houston said he felt like there was a concerted effort by the players to practice well this week ahead of Friday.

“Had a good week of practice, thought the kids really practiced very hard on Monday and Tuesday,” Houston said. “I thought it was a sharp Thursday practice today on Wednesday afternoon. So I felt like the guys have responded very well this week. Obviously we have a tremendous challenge Friday night. Facing a very good football team, one of the top teams in the country, but I’m excited for our group to get on the plane and go up there and look forward to kick-off at 7:30 Friday night.”

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